The Carolina Panthers lost their four top receivers from last season — Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon — so it was no secret coming into the 2014 NFL Draft that the Panthers would look towards adding a wide receiver in a class that was full of them. When the time came at pick No. 28, Panthers GM Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera did not hesitate to draft Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State University. Boy, did that pick payoff today against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Benjamin was praised for his size and ridiculous catching radius, but concerns about having one year of successful college production, combined with his lack of top-end speed and route-running ability made many people think that Benjamin was a reach, despite being the fifth overall wide receiver taken in the draft. Benjamin may lack speed, and, like all young receivers in the league, his route-running can certainly improve, but if today was any indication, Benjamin will be a legitimate No. 1 receiver for the Panthers.
I get that one game is a small sample size, but Benjamin was able to make some very impressive catches in tight coverage. The first came in the first quarter when Benjamin was able to make a tough grab on third down, which kept the Panthers’ drive alive. He later made another highly skilled catch over the middle where he had to leap in the air and bring down a pass with defenders all over him.
Benjamin really stood out in the final quarter of the game. With the Panthers leading the Buccaneers 10-0, backup QB Derek Anderson gave Benjamin a chance to make a play in the end zone in one-on-one coverage. The result was Benjamin leaping in the air and catching the deep ball behind CB Mike Jenkins for a touchdown, despite defensive pass interference. By the time the game was over, Benjamin had reeled in six receptions for 92 yards (15.3 AVG) and a very sweet touchdown.
There’s no doubt that Benjamin will have to battle against many contested passes. He isn’t going to blow past anyone, and he isn’t going to ever be the best route-runner in the league. He is, however, going to be a major threat in the end zone and on third down situations.
The Panthers’ defense was never a question heading into the regular season. They had the NFL’s No. 2 defense last year, and there is no reason to think the defense won’t be just as dominant. If anything, they can be even better.
For most of the night, the Buccaneers’ offense struggled with QB Josh McCown under center. McCown made a couple bad decisions, but that was largely due to the speed of the Panthers’ front seven.
Tampa Bay was finally able to find some offensive success in the final quarter of the game, but it was team captain, and 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, Luke Kuechly, who put an end to the Buccaneers’ hopes of taking the lead. The defense isn’t going anywhere — they’re going to make it tough for offenses to score all season long.
Despite missing starting QB Cam Newton, the Panthers made it clear that they aren’t going to go quietly in the NFC South. They won the division last year, and you better believe that they can do it again. The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons may pack a powerful offense, but we learned last year that a great defense can smack a high-powered offense in the face. The Panthers plan on doing that again this year, and they are also going to break hearts with their new weapon on offense.