Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State (Bill Frakes/SI)
The Carolina Panthers lost their top three receivers in free agency, and it was clear that they'd have to restock in the draft. Florida State's Benjamin doesn't really replicate Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell or Ted Ginn -- he brings a palette all his own. The question is, how long will it take for the rough spots to get smoothed out?
Boom-and-bust players have their place in football, and few players better fit the description than Benjamin. When he’s on, as he was with 12 seconds left in the most recent BCS championship game, he has the potential to grab the game-winning catch -- which is exactly what he did to propel the Seminoles to their national title. When he’s not, Benjamin can be a frustrating player to watch. He was far more on than off in his junior campaign of 2013, catching 54 passes for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns. That last statistic outlines his primary asset as a player — Benjamin ranked ninth in the ACC in catches and seventh in receiving yards, but he ran away with the touchdown title, with three more than runner-up Sammy Watkins.
“Whenever there was a catch on the line or a touchdown on the line, [the play] was coming back to me, and it was a slant route,” Benjamin said at the combine of that fateful play. “I knew he [the defender] was thinking fade and so I tried to sell him on that fade route. Three steps out, I got inside of him and just did what I do best, which is attack it at the highest point.”
That's the good side. The bad side, or the side that still needs refinement, it just as clear.
Strengths: Benjamin has prototypical dimensions (6-5, 240) for the position, and he understands how to use them — he will simply overwhelm defenders at times with his size, leaping ability and strength. And for his size, Benjamin has impressive straight-line speed. He’ll blast off the line quickly, he accelerates smoothly, and he has an extra gear downfield. Snatches the ball quickly and moves upfield just that way for extra yards after the catch, and he’s a load to deal with when he gets a full head of steam. Dominant red zone and end zone target who makes it nearly impossible to cover him in those situations, because all he has to do is get vertical and fight for the catch — and he does those things very well.
Outstanding blocker at all levels when he gives top effort. Can be a special player on simple slants and drags because he combines movement and strength when he does cut to an angle correctly. Played with quarterbacks who struggled to see the field and find him open at times; which could lead some NFL teams to (rightly) consider that he’ll have far more opportunities at the next level.
Weaknesses: For all his physical attributes, Benjamin is far from a finished product. He should be stronger with his hands in traffic than he is; even when he wins physical battles, he can be beaten after the catch with aggression, and he drops too many passes in general. Needs a lot of work on the overall route tree — ran a lot of straight go routes and simple angle concepts. Not always an aware player in space. He’s a bit logy when asked to cut quickly in short areas; this is where his big body (big butt, specifically) works against him. Agility is a question. Doesn’t always dig his foot in and make clean cuts, and as a result, he isn’t always where he needs to be when the ball is thrown with anticipation. Struggles with jukes and foot fakes because he’s still learning body control.
Will probably struggle with option routes for a while, because the ability to time his physical movements to the directions in his head is a process under development. Needs to learn to create separation. The little things — catching the ball with his hands instead of his body; waiting to turn upfield until he’s got the ball securely — are not quite there yet.
This low in the first round, Benjamin is a relatively good pick, and if he's able to put it all together, he's an amazing fit for Carolina's offense. It’s possible that Benjamin will be limited to touchdown duty early on in his NFL career — while he’s obviously physically dominant, he will get it handed to him for a while by bigger, better cornerbacks and more complex coverages. He could also be used as a tight end-style target in the slot, or lined up in the seam. Benjamin has clear assets as a player; his liabilities will have to be managed as he learns the ins and outs of the receiving game at the professional level.
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