Minutes prior to the trading deadline on Tuesday, general manager Brandon Beane pulled off a monumental trade by acquiring 6’5″ wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Beane knows Benjamin inside and out, having helped draft Kelvin while in Carolina.
After the trade was executed, there was an overwhelming amount of negativity regarding Benjamin’s skills, which is to be expected, because that is how most fans operate. So when I turned on the film, it didn’t really surprise me that some of the fans’ ‘hot takes’ were overstated.
Let’s start with some of the weaknesses, and I won’t spend much time covering them, because I am sure you have been bombarded with every little thing he struggles with — but know there is some truth to them.
I will preface this scouting report by saying that when I scout players I not only pay attention to their skills or traits, but I also pay very close attention to how they are being utilized. That helps you pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of a player. Good coaching maximizes a player’s strengths and hides his weaknesses, so with that in mind let’s check out what the film told me.
First of all, his speed for the wide receiver position is average. He is not the type of player that will consistently separate during the release or drive phase with his speed — that’s just not his game. Pair that speed with average change of direction by wide receivers’ standards, and you get a receiver, as you may have heard, who has trouble separating. I think that narrative is a little overblown, and generalized, when you consider his height and weight, but it is what it is. Sure, he has trouble separating, but mainly during the ‘quick set’ passing game. Routes such as slants, hitches, 3 step square ins, and outs. He just doesn’t have the agility or suddenness at his size to separate from quicker corners. Here’s a little scouting tip: pay attention to WRs and DBs on crossing routes; those routes will tell you all you need to know about quickness and speed. That is the measuring stick for those traits and an area that isn’t Benjamin’s forte, and teams know it, so they play off and take away the physical mismatch card.
Notice the inside leverage by the defensive back, the off coverage and angle he can take to the ball because of the lack of explosion and speed out of the break. That’s considered ‘no separation’, but Benjamin still double catches it and makes the reception.
Cornerback Prince Amukamara is able to easily stick with Benjamin in press coverage. He is not the athlete that Sammy Watkins is, but I don’t think that’s a surprise.
According to Pro Football Focus, his rating from 0-9 yards is a 64.6, 21.8 and 81.3. This includes both of his two drops and one of the two interceptions when thrown his way for the season. That’s why he has only gained 101 of his 475 yards in that quadrant. He just doesn’t separate with speed or quickness.
Another weakness you’ll hear is his route running, and again, there is truth to it. But I think it goes hand in hand with the lack of explosion and change of direction. That, or his receiving coach should be fired for letting him continuously short change route stems. He has never been a nuanced route runner, even when Mr. Route Runner himself, former player Ricky Proehl, was his receivers coach the prior few seasons.
Knowing that he struggles to separate with speed, it’s almost as if the Panthers almost built it into their offense. Anytime they called in- or out-breaking routes, it was typically a speed turn.
It’s pretty clear he hasn’t improved in that area, so I would put that on the lack of coaching or that the staff doesn’t place a high priority on route running due to the style of offense. It isn’t a timing-based offense; it’s an offense that for many years has been a vertical attack one, but they are now transitioning to the shorter game with an emphasis on YAC, something that Benjamin (again) doesn’t excel at.
Now to the fun stuff, the reasons that the Bills brought him to Buffalo. Obviously, his size is his biggest asset. He is tall and thick, and possesses elite arm length, with 34 7/8″ arms and 10 1/4″ hands. After watching every target from 2017, this was heavily built into the Panthers’ offense. The quick game is not his forte, but when they wanted to get it to him it was usually a speed in or out. Although he doesn’t separate with speed, this route forces the defensive back to work through the body of the receiver in order to make a play on the ball due to Kelvin’s size and thickness. He’s got basketball player size and, on this play, Gaines closes the gap, but is unable to make a play on the ball.
I don’t think Benjamin gets enough credit for how many times he turned inaccurate throws into catches for Newton. His ability to adjust to inaccurate throws is very good, and that length has a lot to do with it. Cam consistently threw passes that forced the big guy to adjust by jumping or diving to the ground while wide open. On this play, the Panthers align in a 3×1 formation and run a high/low concept on the corner. It’s a high throw that Benjamin has to adjust to.
Cam struggles with accuracy. In 2016, he was dead last in accuracy percentage, per PFF, with a 65.2 rating. In 2017, he has played much better, registering a 71.5 rating, which is good for 20th (Taylor is 14th with 73.8). Here’s another inaccurate pass when Benjamin was wide open on the dig route.
Wide receiver Zay Jones has struggled with tracking and overall concentration, especially with defenders nearby. Benjamin is able to track the ball really well in traffic, a skill that is undervalued by most. Receivers must be able to track the ball from the point it leaves the QB’s hand to the catch point. Take a look at this play against the Falcons. The ball is thrown over the top of two defenders. With a defender on his hip, he is still able to track the ball and snatch it with his strong hands in the end zone.
He is extremely comfortable making hands catches in traffic. Flashback to 3rd-and-11 against the Bills in week three. The Panthers are in a 3×1 set with Benjamin as the isolated receiver into the boundary. He runs an intermediate dig route and makes a very nice catch between three defenders to pick up the first down. This kind of play takes a certain level of fearlessnesses and, of course, concentration.
Buffalo loves to utilize trips formations, but since Clay’s injury they haven’t had the ability to attack as effectively on the backside of the formation. It allows Dennison to force defenses to choose between defending Clay or LeSean McCoy with the coverage rolled to the trips side. One adjustment by Dennison could be to use Benjamin as a flexed receiver. Carolina does here, and Benjamin widens the stem of the route, but then breaks back to the middle, catches it in traffic and the defender can’t make a play on the ball because of Benjamin’s size.
Using him as the isolated receiver in 3×1 formations is where he is at his best, and it’s kind of ironic when you think about it. Isolation routes are typically used for your most dangerous receiver, a role that Watkins was utilized in frequently. Kelvin has shown the ability to win in this formation on in-breaking routes like the prior play, or speed outs from a tight alignment.
He’s also shown this ability deep versus a top-ten corner. This is another beautiful display of ball tracking and hand eye coordination, as he is running full speed with a corner in his pocket and uses his long arms to haul in the touchdown pass. If you haven’t noticed, there is more than one way to ‘separate’. Benjamin can separate near the top of the route stem with his hands and arm length. His body and catch radius are traits that allow him to separate in ways that not many receivers can, as you will see with some of the red zone cutups later.
Notably, he does have big play ability. In 2017, he has been targeted seven times on passes over 20 yards, catching five for a total of 157 receiving yards and two touchdowns. The scheme change under Dennison, along with trading away Sammy Watkins, has really limited Taylor’s deep passing game attempts. When he has the weapons, he is one of the best deep ball passers in the NFL. Here is another 3×1 set with Benjamin isolated to the field, and he again shows off his ability to make a splash play while adjusting to a terrible pass from Newton.
Adding a target of Benjamin’s size and ability to play ‘above the rim’ could really unlock a dimension of Tyrod’s game we haven’t seen. Not bad ‘separation’ by the former ‘Nole on this play.
Finally, as you may have heard, he is a pretty good red zone target. He does a very good job of using his body to ‘box out’ defenders, has a very good understanding of when to time his jump, uses his strong hands to snatch the pass, but then keep the ball at arm’s length so defenders can’t swat the pass away. This is an area the Bills are struggling with. After being near the top in the red zone the last two seasons, the Bills, according to Football Outsiders, are currently ranked 20th in red zone DVOA (12th pass, 20th run) and 21st in goal-to-go situations.
Overall, I think the trade for Kelvin Benjamin was a slam dunk. It will be quite an adjustment for him to learn a new play book after spending his entire career in the same offense, so it will take time. But what he brings to the table is exactly what this offense needs.
He is a big receiver who can win in the intermediate and deep area with his size and ability to catch in traffic. Benjamin uses his length very well to catch the ball away from his body and is a natural hands catcher. He displays the ability to adjust to inaccurate passes away from his body, but can still catch it with his hands, regardless of velocity of the throw.
He can line up anywhere on the field, but does his best work as an isolated wide receiver in 3×1 formations. This set will create mismatches in the offense’s favor, as the defense has to rotate their coverage to the pass strength. Dennison will need to utilize various splits to maximize his ability to get open on in- and out-breaking routes, something he already does with Jordan Matthews and Zay Jones. Benjamin’s freakish catch radius will most definitely help down the field, but I think it may even help more in the short and intermediate areas, both of which Dennison utilizes when he runs his high/low concepts. Benjamin’s arm length will help erase some of Tyrod’s inaccuracies, but hopefully at the same time encourage him to throw it to areas he’s sometimes is hesitant to — specifically, on digs and posts to the middle of the field, as he is sometimes reluctant to throw to faster receivers running crossing routes, for fear of throwing interceptions.
The skillset that Benjamin brings is different than what the Bills have at the position, but he is not without flaws. If they ease him along and just ask him to be 1/11th like they always preach, then he will be a very good complementary piece — one that could help the offense augment some of their explosive plays, but at the same time become more efficient. All he has to do is remain productive when given the opportunity. They don’t need him to carry the team, and he isn’t the type of player to do so.