Monday September 19th, 2016

Kelvin Benjamin understands that his train has to slow down at some point.

Through the first two games of the regular season, Benjamin has 199 receiving yards, including a 108-yard performance Sunday against San Francisco. But in this NFL, teams aren’t going to let you catch 90 or 100 yards week in and week out, no matter if you’re a 6' 5", 240-pound guy playing wide receiver. Benjamin, who missed his sophomore campaign due to an ACL tear last year, has never put together three straight games of 50 or more receiving yards, so he’s preparing for a letdown against the Vikings in Week 3.

“It’s only the second game. We’ve got a long season,” Benjamin said after Carolina’s 46–27 home win against the 49ers. “I don’t want to count my eggs before they hatch. I just want to keep doing the things I have to do off the cameras and I’ll show up every game.”

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For Benjamin, this realization shows the kind of maturity that he’s struggled to find since college. Maybe it was that year of reflection in 2015 when he spent time in the rehab room while his teammates plowed forward en route to their 15–1 season. At the very least, he’s understanding the ebbs and flows that he was naïve to in the past.

But don’t discount him too much. His 199 receiving yards on 13 catches is good for eighth-most in the league going into Monday night’s game, and he’s tied for the league lead with three receiving touchdowns.

“It’s cool,” said Benjamin humbly, even though it’s been 19 months since he had a 100-yard game and even longer since he caught a touchdown in front of his home crowd. “I already know it’s gonna be good games and bad games. It’s one of the things that I learned in the NFL. You’ve got to move on.”

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If everyone’s being honest, it’s known that Benjamin has had a tendency to get lazy. He showed up to Florida State’s campus reportedly 20 pounds overweight and had to be redshirted in 2011. A man of many colloquialisms, Jimbo Fisher once said Benjamin “didn’t know [that] he didn’t know.” It wasn’t that Benjamin didn’t want to put in the work needed to become an elite wide receiver, but that he had no idea what it took.

Benjamin has always had issues with drops. It happened in college, and his first season with the Panthers he racked up 10 drops. Often, he’d get lazy on routes—especially slants—and tip his route early allowing the defender to slide inside Benjamin’s big body and make a play on the ball.

That’s where Ricky Proehl’s tough love comes in.

Carolina’s wide receivers coach didn’t play 17 years in the league without perfecting the nuances of the position. He isn’t a friend of Steve Smith because he’s passive. So he’s always riding Benjamin in practice.

“He’s got to understand that he’s got to be a pro. There are a lot of these young guys that are looking at him,” Proehl said. “But I know when the lights come on he steps his game up. He’s all about game day. But part of being a pro is bringing it in practice because that’s where you get better.”

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That’s why Proehl thought too much was made of Ron Rivera saying the team would target 30–35 snaps for Benjamin in the season opener. He saw the breathless, panting giant taking his helping of breaks during training camp in the South Carolina heat, but he also knew Benjamin would show up for the games.

Benjamin played in 52 snaps in Denver, caught six passes for 91 yards and a score. On Sunday at home against San Francisco, he again played in 52 snaps in a humid three-hour, 43-minute contest.

There were two catches from the 49ers game that Cam Newton excitedly pointed out afterward. There was a circus grab that no one—even Proehl—can teach. And then there was the kind of third-down catch that reinforces Dave Gettleman’s belief that Benjamin was the second-best receiver in the 2014 draft behind Odell Beckham Jr.

Newton threw a line drive to Benjamin at the San Francisco 17-yard line that was blanketed by Jimmie Ward.  Ward got his left hand on the ball, and its nose hit Benjamin’s facemask and went flying to Benjamin’s left. Using his 83-inch wingspan and 10 1/4-inch hands, Benjamin grabbed it with his left hand, curled it inward and continued falling backward to the 11-yard line for a gain of 25 yards.

“Special. Makes my life extremely easy,” Newton said, when asked about Benjamin. “Helps me a lot. Extremely special.”

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Benjamin’s favorite catch of the day came when the Panthers found themselves up by just seven points midway through the fourth quarter and facing third-and-long from their own 29-yard line. Lined up inside, Benjamin took off down the seam and caught the 25-yard pass against cornerback Chris Davis, who also gave up Benjamin’s game-winner in the national title game three years ago and must be absolutely sick of him by now.

Benjamin hit the turf and his helmet loosened, so he flicked it off his head and let his dreads swing as he celebrated.

“It was already there so I just helped it,” Benjamin said. “You’re pumped man, you don’t really think. You just catch a ball.”

But that’s not the play that made Proehl most proud of his third-year receiver. He’s worked so hard with Benjamin on getting the correct depth on routes, taking proper angles and perfecting details at the top of his routes. They’ve argued over it on the practice field numerous times and watched it together later in the day in the film room.

Benjamin has a tendency to rush on his route and not get the right depth before making his break, so all week Proehl harped on staying straight and vertical on a goal-line slant. If Benjamin got inside Ward too much, the throwing lane for Newton would be too small. But Ward would widen with Benjamin if he stayed straight, and then Benjamin could break across his face and open his body for the ball.

That’s what happened in the third quarter. Newton took a hit and threw the nine-yard slant to Benjamin, who caught it against Ward and absorbed another hit as he fell into the end zone.

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Defensive coordinators were already game-planning for Benjamin, but there will likely be a greater emphasis to stop one of the league’s leading receivers in the coming weeks. That should open up the passing game for guys like Ted Ginn Jr., Philly Brown and Devin Funchess. And for Benjamin that will mean patience born out of maturity.

If Benjamin didn’t know that he didn’t know before, now he should.

“They’re going to start doing some things to take him away, and that’s where those other guys have to step up. That’s what gives us balance. It’s part of the maturation process and it’s them understanding that it works in cycles,” Proehl said. “That’s where, for Kelvin, it’s just do your job. Do your job, and that’s how you win ball games.”

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