It would be safe to say that Panthers’ rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin exceeded expectations his first year in Carolina. The team’s first-round pick finished the year leading the team in touchdowns (9), tied for the lead in receiving yards with Greg Olsen (1008) and second in receptions (73). The 2014 rookie wide receiver class could go down as one of the best in league history and Benjamin is one of the premiere players in this group.
One of the major reasons Benjamin was successful is because he relied on his physical abilities. At 6’5” and 240 pounds he is a matchup nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. He could usually overpower them and did an excellent job of putting himself in position to win those 50/50 balls. As good as the rookie season was for Benjamin, he has the potential to be better. These three things should be on Benjamin’s offseason to-do list to work on to help him in his second year in the NFL.
Improve Route Running
This is something that Benjamin was working on for a majority of the season. In October, Jonathan Jones of The Charlotte Observer wrote that “when the scout team is practicing against the defense, Benjamin goes on another practice field to work with [Cam] Newton on his comeback routes.”
The comeback route seemed to be the toughest route for Benjamin, mainly because of his size. The success, or failure, of that route for wide receiver is based on dropping their hips and planting their foot to get back around for the pass. Benjamin’s size doesn’t always allow him to move quickly coming back for the ball.
One route that he really improved over the season was his slant route. The size of Benjamin gives Newton a huge target over the middle, which would help any quarterback trying to throw in that part of the field. Jones did mention in his article that Benjamin has been learning some tricks to get open as the season has gone on. He wrote early in the year, Benjamin would tend to run straight at the defender than make his cut.
Going back and looking at games earlier in the season compared to the second half there was a clear difference in how Benjamin ran his routes. This was an incomplete pass in Week 1 against the Bucs where Benjamin ran straight out at the defender than tried to cut to the middle of the field.
Defenses were starting to pick up on this and it forced Benjamin to adjust his route. So instead of engaging the cornerback, he would cut in front of the defender and gave himself more room to make the catch, shown in the picture below. The blue line would have been the route Benjamin would run early in the season. The yellow line is the route he ran on that play that gained 15 yards.
Cut Down on Dropped Passes
Another area that Benjamin will need to work on to take that next step in his career is dropped passes. The rookie wide receiver finished the year tied for second in the league in dropped passes with 11, according to Pro Football Focus.
An improvement in route running will certainly help in dropped passes because he will have more room to secure the pass and not always have a defender draped on his back. However, all the dropped passes wasn’t because of defenders but rather concentration.
One play that sticks out the most for Benjamin in this category came in Week 8 against the Seattle Seahawks. The Panthers were looking for their first touchdown of the day and called a route for Benjamin that would have him cut to the sideline and circle back along the back of the end zone.
The play worked perfectly and Newton put a pass up that only Benjamin could catch. However as the picture shows, the ball went through Benjamin’s hand. The Panthers had to settle for a field goal on that drive and this play was a deciding factor in the outcome of the game.
One thing a majority of rookie players learn in their first season is just how grueling an NFL season can be on their body. Coming out of college, players can’t really prepare for this and just have to go through it to get better.
Kelvin Benjamin is no different and will need to find a way to improve his conditioning so he can perform at a high level for a full NFL season. Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review wrote that Benjamin said after the Panthers loss to the Seahawks in the playoffs:
“I have to do a better job staying healthy throughout the season. I think I slowed down. So I think I’m going to do a better job, just taking care of my body and staying focused.”
Kelvin Benjamin had an excellent rookie season and has the potential to be one of the premier wide receivers in the game today. However if he wants to take that next step (Pro Bowl, Offensive Player of the Year, etc.) he should focus on these three things this offseason.