Can Kelvin Benjamin Be the Best Rookie Receiver in 2014?
In this year's NFL Draft, five teams spent first-round picks on wide receivers. And while Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans were the biggest names in the quintet, Kelvin Benjamin is the biggest bodied one, and might have the biggest immediate opportunity of the bunch.
I have to preface this entire article by saying that I would probably recommend at least 10 wide receivers over Benjamin for long-term (i.e. dynasty) fantasy leagues. Redraft leagues, though, are a different story.
After all, there are plenty of reasons why four other receivers went before Benjamin, and these reasons could demolish his NFL future if he can't figure them out. But for little cost this year, you could draft a potential red zone target on a team that got rid of 99.64% of its wide receiver targets from last year.
A Closer Look at Benjamin
In case you don't know or aren't much for college football, Benjamin is a 6'5", 240-pound prospect from Florida State who fell all the way to 28th in the draft to the Carolina Panthers.
Last season at Florida State, Benjamin hauled in 54 catches for 1,011 receiving yards and 15 receiving touchdowns. Those marks stacked up ninth, seventh, and first in the ACC, respectively. His 15 receiving touchdowns were also good for third in the entire NCAA.
With his size, all he really needs to do is run and catch decently well to maintain his physical advantage, but those two attributes are far from sure things.
He ran a 4.61-second 40-yard dash, just 36th among receivers this year at the NFL Combine. His 3-cone drill time of 7.33 seconds was also 36th. He didn't really stack up well at the combine overall, but his physical presence was enough for the Panthers to take him in the first round.
What can't be overlooked is that he's got bad hands, something that's pretty important for someone who needs to catch projectiles for a living. numberFire's Joe Redemann constructed a study on collegiate receivers with bad hands. The results aren't very promising for Benjamin, and Redemann concluded that roughly only four percent of players with comparable catch rates turn into elite receivers at the NFL level, which is why I'm not a long-term fan of his.
Fortunately for you, you don't necessarily need Benjamin to become a pass-catching wizard to eke out fantasy value from him.
Even still, Benjamin's route-running and breaks are underdeveloped, and his work ethic has been called into question. He has been working out with Cam Newton since the draft, though, so he may be a more finely-tuned receiver by the preseason than his question marks would indicate.
Rookie Receiver Recap
Of course, there would be no real reason to discuss Benjamin in detail if there was no precedent of rookie receivers finding both real-life and fantasy relevance.
But there sure is. Last year, Keenan Allen emerged as a legitimate NFL receiver, DeAndre Hopkins had a stint of fantasy relevance, and Cordarrelle Patterson displayed his ability when given the chance. With the recent memory of rookie receiver ability, it's no surprise that all five first-rounders are being selected in 12-team standard drafts, per Fantasy Football Calculator's current ADP.
Are drafters being overly optimistic about the impact rookie receivers can make? Maybe. Take a look at the fantasy points per game tallied by rookies in the five years between 2009 and 2013.
|Round Drafted||Total Players||> 8.0 FPPG||6.0-8.0 FPPG||< 6.0 FPPG|
|First Four Rounds||87||8||13||66|
To provide context, 8.0 fantasy points per game over a full, 16-game season would result in 128.0 fantasy points. That would have been low-end WR2 numbers in a 12-team league, as it would have been the 25th-highest tally among receivers last year, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Scoring at least 6.0 per game would result in 96 points, which would have tied for 45th at receiver - about the lowest you can go in a 12-teamer.
So, 9.2% of receivers drafted in the first four rounds of the NFL draft ended up providing top-24 fantasy receiver marks over the past five years, and 14.9% were able to find themselves in the top 45.
First-rounders, though, fared better, which isn't a surprise. Even still, only 22.2% were able to be used as a WR2 or better in fantasy. Roughly one out of five.
Draft Day Cost
If you had to pick one out of the five first-rounders to be a top-24 receiver, you'd probably pick Watkins, which is understandable, but other drafters feel the same way. Watkins is being drafted late in the seventh round. Brandin Cooks is the second rookie wideout being drafted on average, going in the late eighth round.
Benjamin, despite his question marks, is going off the board in the late 10th round, just a few picks after Evans. Odell Beckham is being taken as a late-round flier in Round 13.
None of these asking prices are absurd, but a seventh-round pick is still pretty premium territory, which is why Watkins provides less value on draft day than his first-round peers. His talent and his opportunity are factored into his ADP as the 33rd receiver off the board.
Benjamin is just the 47th receiver drafted on average.
Clear Blue Skies Ahead
What most immediately sets Benjamin apart from his first-round peers (excepting Watkins to an extent) is competition for targets. Carolina has parted way with 277 targets at the receiver position this off-season. Newton targeted receivers 278 times last year. Only Marvin McNutt received a target for the Panthers last year that's on the team's current roster.
Even with tight end Greg Olsen leading the team with 111 targets last season, there's a lot of opportunity for Benjamin on this offense, albeit a good-not-great passing offense. Newton has never ranked inside the top 10 in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) in a season, but has never ranked outside the top 16, either.
Newton has tossed at least 19 touchdowns in each of his three seasons, which isn't very many in all honesty. But in each of those seasons, he was throwing to Olsen, who caught 16 of Newton's 64 career touchdown passes. Olsen has never caught more than six touchdowns in a single season.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Olsen receive considerable red zone targets, but expecting double-digit touchdowns for the tight end is a bit optimistic considering that Olsen's career touchdown tallies chronologically read 2, 5, 8, 5, 5, 5, 6.
Even if Newton can only replicate his 24 touchdowns from last season, and if Olsen somehow finally hits 10 receiving touchdowns, there are 14 left to go around. And the Panthers don't exactly have too many threats at receiver for touchdowns.
Benjamin's primary competition for wide receiver targets come from two veteran receivers: Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. Both are at least 31 years old and have just one 1,000-plus yard receiving season and one seven-plus touchdown campaign in 18 combined seasons.
I'm not saying Benjamin will catch eight touchdowns, but I am saying I think it's silly to think that the trio of Olsen, Cotchery, and Avant will combine for 20-or-so touchdowns, leaving little room in the end zone for the team's 1st-round pick.
Making Sense of It All
If history is any indication, one of these five players will be a solid fantasy wide receiver (remember that 22.2% of first-round receivers post top-24 or so numbers). The safe money is on Watkins, which is why he's being drafted alongside receivers like Golden Tate and Eric Decker. But our fantasy football cheat sheet projects Watkins as just the 44th-best receiver this year.
So you can spend a seventh- or eighth-round selection on a very hit-or-miss type of player (based on history), or you can wait until nearly the 12th round and try Benjamin for, basically, free.
Even still, we're cautious to say the least about Benjamin's prospects this year. We're projecting 47.42 catches for 603.07 yards and 2.71 touchdowns, finishing with just 76.61 fantasy points, good for the 59th receiver spot.
But there's a chance that Benjamin emerges as a red zone threat because of Carolina's rushing ability and the dearth of receiving options. He may not catch every ball thrown his way, but at 6'5", 240 pounds, he has a good chance of hauling in a few jump balls for six points since Newton won't have many other places to throw.
With Watkins, you're practically paying for what you're going to get, realistically. With Benjamin, you might end up with a touchdown machine while some other owners start considering drafting Carolina's defense, which is why he could end up being the most surprisingly relevant rookie receiver in 2014.