Fantasy Football: Can Kelvin Benjamin Succeed Despite a Bad Offense?

Kelvin Benjamin is the Buffalo Bills' lead receiver in 2018. Can he lead your fantasy team as well?

Film history is littered with the great stories of underdogs who -- despite overwhelming odds -- succeeded in their endeavors and became legends. These narratives remind us that the “impossible” is always at least a little bit possible. Think of the Spartan warriors of 300, the multi-sport canine sensation known as Air Bud, the heartwarming tales of Rudy, Radio, and Brian’s Song.

In this year, though, we NFL fans have a chance to see a real-life underdog story play out before our very eyes.

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin -- dogged in the past for showing up to training camp out of shape and having poor catching skills -- returns to bring a rebuilding offense forward, almost entirely by himself. Surrounded by a cast of supporting characters of minimal impact, can Benjamin overcome the odds to become a fantasy football value in 2018, or will he succumb to the weight of the poor situation?

The Replacements

Things look pretty bleak for the Buffalo receiving corps in 2018, but isn’t that how every great feel-good story starts?

The table below shows the next five wide receivers behind Benjamin on the Bills’ depth chart (per Rotoworld), alongside their catch rate and per-game rates in targets, yards, and touchdowns.

Career Stats Games Tgt/Game Yd/Game TD/Game Catch %
Zay Jones 15 4.93 21.07 0.13 36.5%
Andre Holmes 79 2.95 20.03 0.19 49.4%
Jeremy Kerley 98 4.66 31.72 0.13 58.6%
Malachi Dupre 0 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.0%
Rod Streater 52 4.13 33.75 0.19 59.1%

Yep, that’s right: the Bills’ projected fifth receiver, Malachi Dupre, has never caught a pass, let alone been targeted, let alone played in a single game in the NFL.

And he’s not the only dire case in this group. In a fraught rookie campaign in 2017, Zay Jones posted a positively Greg Little-ian 27 catches on 74 targets -- one of the lowest ever catch rates at that volume of looks. Andre Holmes, Jeremy Kerley, and Rod Streater could all be fine role players in the right offense, but possible second-stringers they are not.

But we came here to talk about our protagonist today, Kelvin Benjamin, and there is some upside for him despite this mess. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer shining among the Island of Misfit Toys, the lack of other big-time receiving options could allow Benjamin to be a reasonable primary target for the Buffalo passing attack.

The table below shows Benjamin’s catch rate and per-game production for comparison’s sake.

Player Games Tgt/Game Yd/Game TD/Game Catch %
Kelvin Benjamin 46 7.41 57.41 0.41 54.0%

While Benjamin surely hasn’t had the softest hands either (54.0 percent catch rate), he has seen nearly 7.5 targets per game in his career, and he's absorbed much more yardage and scoring production than his teammates. The past is never an exact indicator of the future, but coaches often like to use guys who have “done it before,” and Benjamin is the one wideout on the roster with a real receiving profile to his name.

If any wide receiver on this team puts up a big season, Benjamin is the most likely one to do it, as the only one to have ever posted even top-20 fantasy receiver numbers -- in his 2014 rookie year, when he had 1,008 yards and 9 touchdowns on 73 catches.

However, what fueled that season was copious volume, to the tune of 145 targets. Benjamin’s 50.3 percent catch rate that year certainly didn’t help him, and (despite mildly increased effectiveness in recent years) his target rate has gone way down. From 2014 to 2017, Benjamin’s percent of offensive snaps on the field has plummeted from 83.7 percent to 66.3 percent (snap data per Pro Football Focus), his snaps per game have dropped from 66.9 to 47.3, and even the rate of times targeted when on the field has dropped from 13.6 percent to 11.8 percent.

One possible reason: his average separation has been minuscule. Per’s Next Gen Stats, separation is the distance from the receiver to the nearest defender at the time the ball reaches them. Benjamin’s average separation has remained below 2.0 yards for the last two years, and he sits at the bottom of the rankings among qualified receivers and tight ends.

Despite being the big dog on the field for Buffalo, with poor hands, low separation skills, and dwindling target rates (which the former two probably have led to), Benjamin presents a worrisome case for fantasy players in 2018.

Bad News Bills

Benjamin’s own skills are troubling, but we saw that he was once fantasy successful with simply a high volume of targets. Can his team situation support a bounce-back year for Upstate New York’s own Gipper?

In his seven games with the team last year (including the playoffs), Benjamin saw 29 targets. In those contests, Bills’ quarterbacks threw 217 passes, meaning Benjamin saw just a 13.4 percent share of the team’s targets. Our projection models have allotted about 595 passing attempts to Buffalo quarterbacks in 2018, which would actually be a 25 percent increase from last season’s 476. At a 13.4 percent target share, Benjamin could be expected to bring in around 80 targets. Our projections for him are a little kinder, however, affording him about 90 targets. Either way, that’s not a sizable amount of opportunities for a guy who -- history says -- will catch only about half of them.

Can he make a fantasy mark with this little volume?

The average fantasy score for a WR24 -- the average breakpoint between a WR2 and WR3 for 12-team standard leagues -- over the last five years has been 132.6 points. Using Pro Football Reference’s Play Index, I searched for wide receiver seasons with 90 targets or fewer and 130 points or more (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt in multiple ways here) in the last 10 years. Surprisingly, there were a few such seasons; unsurprisingly, there were just nine of them. The table below shows each of them, along with their targets and fantasy points.

Player Year Team Tgt FPTS
Laurent Robinson 2011 DAL 80 151.8
Tavon Austin 2015 STL 87 140.7
Tyreek Hill 2016 KAN 83 138.0
Marvin Jones 2013 CIN 80 137.7
Riley Cooper 2013 PHI 84 137.3
JuJu Smith-Schuster 2017 PIT 79 133.7
Kenny Britt 2010 TEN 73 132.5
Robert Meachem 2009 NOR 64 132.4
T.Y. Hilton 2012 IND 90 131.0

It’s also unsurprising that each of the above players had a catch rate above 55.0 percent and at least 5 receiving touchdowns, and only two had yards-per-reception rates below Benjamin’s 13.6 that he displayed with Buffalo last year.

In order to be an excellent fantasy receiver with minimal target volume, you either need to be hyper-efficient with your catch rate, have a ton of touchdowns, or earn gobs of yards on big plays -- and, more realistically, all three. Considering, too, that his quarterbacks are a former fifth-round pick-turned-game manager and a wildly inaccurate rookie, Benjamin’s fantasy value has little room for error.

Likely, it just isn’t in the cards for Kelvin Benjamin to be a big-time fantasy asset in 2018 despite the lack of talent around him. The Bills have a long, hard road to rebuilding ahead of them, and Benjamin will simply be along for that ride this year.