Is Kelvin Benjamin's Production Sustainable?
Here is what we know so far about Kelvin Benjamin: he's inefficient, catching only about 50 percent of his targets, he's on a run-first offense with a variety of weapons, and he's done nothing but produce fantasy points when on the field for the Carolina Panthers.
By now, most are familiar with the red flags surrounding the third-year receiver, with many predicting his likely regression as a fantasy asset in 2016. But after a Week 1 contest where he totaled 6 receptions for 91 yards and a touchdown against the NFL's best defense, many are left wondering if we underestimated the former Florida State receiver.
So based on what we learned in Week 1, can Benjamin develop into a dominant fantasy receiver?
The Red Flags
The most prominent red flag surrounding Benjamin after his rookie success was his large target volume (sixth-most in the NFL at 145 targets) that still led to only a 16th-place PPR finish at the wide receiver position. His nine touchdowns failed to compensate for his low catch percentage, and while he was a valuable fantasy asset due to his production, the assumption was that his inefficiency would lead to a decline in value if he ever lost targets to other players. And how could he sustain that type of volume in an offense that now featured the ascending Devin Funchess and the great Ted Ginn Jr., two players added after the conclusion of Benjamin's rookie season?
Another red flag was the nature of the offense, which finished with the most rushing attempts in the NFL in 2015 and has been in the top eight in that statistic the past three season. In a run-heavy offense, the margin for success for Benjamin in the passing game is much smaller. If another receiver could just eat into his target share by five percent, the decline could be precipitous given his inefficient game and the lack of available production in a run heavy offense.
Even further, Benjamin struggled with 11 drops as rookie, and his drop rate of 13.1 percent was third-highest in the league in 2014 according to Pro Football Focus.
Oh, and Benjamin was also coming off a torn ACL, was given a snap restriction by his head coach, and was called out for being just a tad out of shape this preseason.
So how the heck did Benjamin overcome every single obstacle to produce once again this season? And should we expect that to be sustained moving forward?
In retrospect, it's not hard to say that perhaps the fantasy community overvalued the potential impact of Funchess and Ginn. The former couldn't get on the field as a rookie despite an almost identical supporting cast to what Benjamin had in 2014 when he surpassed 1,000 yards. Whether it's an issue of skill or chemistry with Cam Newton, Funchess just hasn't developed into more than a small role player to this point, and converted only one of his four targets on opening night.
Ginn's inefficiency and propensity towards dropping passes was already well documented, and he looks to be taking a backseat role in this offense as opposed to his larger role in the Panthers depleted receiving corps last season. He certainly remains a deep threat that defenses must account for, he saw just one target against the Broncos and wasn't much of a factor on offense.
While there is no metric to measure trust (other than perhaps target share), it certainly appears that when Newton needs a receiver to make a play, he will throw to Benjamin. And I guess you can't really blame him, since you can't teach 6'5'', 240 pounds with an unreal catch radius and the ability to make the spectacular happen. Sure, there will be drops and sloppy routes along the way, and Benjamin may never reach the efficiency needed to emerge as a top tier receiver in the NFL (most elite receivers finish with a catch rate between 60-70 percent), but you cannot deny that the volume he is seeing will lead to fantasy production.
Yeah, it was just one game. But against perhaps the best secondary in the league, on a snap count, and in his first real game action since tearing his ACL last season, Benjamin looked like a dominant weapon for one of the most effective offenses in the league. Five of his six receptions came while the Panthers possessed the lead, and it certainly wasn't "game flow" that allowed his production.
Every metric and logical argument screamed that Benjamin was a "buyer beware" type of player prior to Week 1, and perhaps that plays out over the course of the season. From an efficiency standpoint as a player, nothing has changed from his rookie year. Yet here we are once again, marveling at his size and leaping ability, especially in the red zone.
Double-digit touchdowns are not only possible for Benjamin, but could easily happen based on his early usage in this offense. As a player, perhaps Benjamin has much to learn and warts he will never overcome (such as drops and bouts of laziness). But as long as Cam Newton and Ron Rivera don't seem to care, we shouldn't either.
It's time to stop staring intently at what he can't do, and time to start recognizing what he can do.