Are the Panthers in Trouble Without Kelvin Benjamin?
As soon as Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the season, the passing game of the Carolina Panthers figured to be a problem.
It wasn’t that Benjamin was an irreplaceable piece of the offense but more so the Panthers just didn’t have anyone to replace him. Even before the injury Carolina wasn’t sporting a wide range of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, relying on fourth-receivers and return specialists to contribute as pass catchers.
The Panthers didn’t lose as much talent as, say, the Cowboys with Dez Bryant out due to a broken foot, but the talent in Carolina behind the top receiver is also well below that of whatever bar may be set by players like Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley.
We’re now a week into the Philly Brown Experience and we have a glimpse of what this offense might look like for the rest of the season. Of course it’s only been one week, and many things are going to change over the next 16, but what that one week gave us was a real life game plan that featured what the Panthers tried to do without Benjamin in the lineup.
The results weren’t necessarily pretty, but the Panthers did come out with a win. It’s possible they have their opponent to thank just as much their play last Sunday. Making up for the loss of Benjamin might feel like less of a worry after a win, but it’s going to be a focus for this team for the rest of the season.
Filling the Void
The biggest void left in the Panthers offense by the loss of Benjamin was the sheer volume he occupied last season. Benjamin was tied with Alshon Jeffery as the sixth most targeted receiver in the league last season at 145 targets. Using our Net Expected Points metric (NEP), which factors in on-field variables such as down-and-distance in order to compare a team or player’s production to historical expectation levels, we can see Benjamin wasn’t exactly efficient when the ball was thrown his way.
Benjamin’s Reception NEP per target of 0.67 was tied for 59th among receivers with at least 30 targets last season, and only Andre Johnson was targeted more with a worse Reception NEP per target.
There was also the issue of turning Benjamin’s targets into receptions. Only two players -- Vincent Jackson and Cecil Shorts -- had more than 100 targets and a worse catch rate than Benjamin’s 50.34 percent. As far as stats go, that’s not a great one to be a leader in, though not all the fault should be put on Benjamin. But was that does do is make the production slightly more manageable to replace -- in theory it’s much easier to figure a way to make up 73 receptions than 145 targets.
How It Worked
It appeared for most of the first game against Jacksonville that Carolina wanted to take the approach of replacing the efficiency over volume, but the theory was a little better than the execution. The offense as a whole finished 25th in NEP for Week 1 and the passing offense was 22nd, coming out with negative NEP. It's not great, but also not completely far off from where the Panthers ranked last season, 18th overall and 16th for the pass.
Cam Newton and the Panthers compensated for not having any true playmakers at receiver by not trying too hard to create big plays. Newton kept most of his passes in the short to intermediate range, and that showed up in his final line.
Newton threw 31 passes and only tallied 175 yards, for 5.6 yards per attempt, only better than six other quarterbacks. Only three of his passes would be considered “deep” and one should have been a touchdown to a wide open Ted Ginn Jr. in the first quarter, but Ginn dropped the pass that hit him in the hands. The only completion of the three attempts came after Newton maneuvered his way out of what appeared to be a sure sack and hit Jerricho Cotchery for a 24-yard gain.
Add those plays to a touchdown-that-wasn’t to tight end Greg Olsen because of a needless offensive pass interference penalty and there were some opportunities that arrived but weren’t executed. The ability to create opportunities could be seen as a positive, but just as easily, the failed execution could be viewed as a concern.
Olsen himself could be another concern, seeing only 3 targets after being the fourth most targeted tight end in the league last season with 123. Because of that history, though, it’s likely Olsen will be more of a factor in the game plan going forward instead of an ancillary piece.
Throughout the season, the development of Devin Funchess is going to be something closely watched. The Michigan product was drafted in the second round and expected to be the second receiver, opposite of Benjamin. When Benjamin went down, the media quickly dubbed Funchess his replacement, but even quicker, Ron Rivera and the Panthers shut that idea down.
They stated Funchess wasn’t yet ready to contribute as a starter and that assessment proved true by how much Carolina put each receiver out on the field in Week 1.
Funchess was the clear fourth option in the pecking order, seeing only 26 offensive snaps, behind Brown, Ginn and Cotchery. On those 26 snaps, Funchess was only targeted twice and caught one of them for 9 yards. The other target was a dropped pass that hit him in the chest, not exactly helping his case in the being ready to contribute department. He could see an increased role as the season continues, but for now there appears to be a lengthy developmental process.
Obviously it’s still early, and we shouldn’t put too much stock into a one singular game plan, especially one against the Jaguars.
The Panthers play the Texans in Week 2, who should pose more of a defensive threat after finishing as the second best defense in the league last season. It's not time to panic just yet in Carolina, but it's certainly something that should be monitored in the coming weeks.