Is Kelvin Benjamin Headed for a Sophomore Slump?

Kelvin Benjamin was part of an elite rookie class, but can he succeed without the volume?

The 2014 rookie wide receiver class was one for the ages. Kelvin Benjamin was a part of that.

Benjamin was targeted early and often in his rookie season. His 145 targets tied for sixth among all wide receivers in the league. His nine receiving touchdowns tied him for 12th.

But rather than consider the receiving corps complete, the Panthers decided to draft Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess in the 41st overall pick. They actually traded up 16 spots -- a full half-round -- to snag the 6'4" receiver.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily jeopardize Benjamin's claim to the number-one receiver role, but might Funchess see enough targets to eat away at Benjamin's production in 2015?

Benjamin's Inefficiencies

When looking at Benjamin's year-end totals, things appear fairly solid. Again, his nine touchdowns tied for 12th. His 1,008 yards ranked 20th among wide receivers. His 73 catches? 23rd.

In all, Benjamin gave the Carolina Panthers the best single-season receiving performance since Steve Smith's 2011 season, according to our Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP is our signature metric, and it quantifies a player's on-field production while including variables such as down-and-distance. NEP ultimately indicates how many points a player adds to his team's expected point total, based on historical league data.

Benjamin's Reception NEP 97.14 ranked 15th among the 80 receivers who saw at least 60 targets in 2014, further indicating his essentially top-20 standing.

A lot of that, though, had to do with his targets. Again, Benjamin was thrown at 145 times, tied for sixth among receivers. His efficiency didn't live up to his cumulative numbers.

Benjamin's Reception NEP per target 0.67 ranked just 39th among the 80 receivers, and his catch rate (the percentage of targets that led to receptions) of 50.34 percent ranked a lowly 73rd. 87.67 percent of his receptions did lead to increases in NEP for the Panthers, but that ranked 34th in the subset.

If you want to talk fantasy football, then things were basically the same. Benjamin's 1.56 PPR points per target ranked 53rd among the 80-receiver group. James Jones also posted 1.56 PPR points per target. Pierre Garcon posted 1.54, and Michael Crabtree posted 1.50.

Of course, he was the defense's primary focus and was playing with an inefficient Cam Newton (whose Passing NEP per drop back of 0.04 tied with Brian Hoyer, Colin Kapernick, and Kyle Orton in 2014), but unless things change, Benjamin will be reliant on volume to succeed.

Will it be there in 2015?

Battle in the Red Zone?

During Funchess' final season with Michigan, he was targeted 100 times, which ranked 60th in college football. That's not too bad, right? Well, Funchess saw 32.5 percent of the targets on the team last year, and that ranked 14th in the country. In 2013, Funchess saw a 24.9 percent share of targets, good for 58th.

The good news for Benjamin is that Funchess never really realized his potential penchant for the end zone and scored just 15 times in his three seasons with the team. However, in 2012, when Funchess played tight end, he caught 15 passes. Five of them were touchdowns. In 2014, Funchess hauled in only four touchdowns -- but the Wolverines threw for just 10 on the entire season, ranking 118th in the nation.

With a 6'4", 230-pound frame, Funches compares to touchdown-scorers such as Brandon Marshall, according to Touchdowns are something Benjamin relied upon in 2014.

Red zone production, though, isn't exactly what Benjamin offered the Panthers. Though he saw 28.3 percent of the team's red zone targets (tied for eighth in the league), he didn't cash in on those 15 targets. Benjamin caught just four of them, and that 26.7 percent conversion rate ranked 49th among the 50 receivers who saw at least 10 targets. (Only Vincent Jackson was worse at 21.4 percent.)

This can be read two (rather distinct) ways. The first is that Benjamin missed out on both real-life and fantasy points by not cashing in on red zone attempts (he scored just three touchdowns there). The second is that Benjamin's ceiling was capped as a result of his red zone woes and that Funchess, if he can utilize his frame to score touchdowns inside the 20, might limit that upside even more.

A Verdict

Benjamin had a mix of opportunity (targets, a lack of competition, red zone looks) and drawbacks (poor quarterbacking, a lack of another receiving threat) in his rookie season.

Right now, Benjamin is going off the board 33rd overall in best ball formats as the 15th receiver overall. Benjamin finished as the 16th-best PPR receiver despite the volume.

Is it possible that Funchess' arrival will take focus from Benjamin? Yes. Will Newton be as bad as he was last year? Probably not. Will Benjamin live up to that draft price? Probably, but he'll have to replicate his 2014 season to do so, and there are enough reasons to think that might be tricky to back off of him until there's a price drop.