Carolina’s Receiving Corps: How Did Cam Get By Without Kelvin Benjamin?
by 4 February 2016, 11:00 AM
Kelvin Benjamin was a rising star in the NFL until his injury. How did the Panthers go 15-1 without him?
On Aug. 19, 2015, the Carolina Panthers’ season appeared to be over before it even begian. Rookie standout wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, whose 1,008 yards in 2014 was third among rookies behind only Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans, went down with a torn ACL in his left leg. Sure, the Panthers had one of the league’s best tight ends in Greg Olsen, but how could they compete in the NFL without a solid No. 1 wide receiver?
The answer, as it often is when it comes to NFL offenses, is balance. Not just balance between running the ball and passing the ball, but balance inside of the passing game itself. Greg Olsen has been consistent throughout the season, with only one game (a Week 17 blowout of Tampa Bay) where he did not average at least 10 yards per reception. Outside of Olsen, however, the burden of receiving has had significant shifts all season.
The Panthers had five pass catchers this season who had at least 400 yards receiving, and every single one of them averaged at least 12.4 yards per reception. These top five receivers also combined for 50 receptions of 20+ yards this season. The spreading around of the ball by quarterback Cam Newton has meant that veteran acquisition Ted Ginn Jr. and rookie Devin Funchess were able to combine for 1,212 yards and 15 touchdowns, more than replacing Kelvin Benjamin’s production from the previous year.
This balance has been demonstrated very clearly in the playoffs, where nine different Panthers have caught balls thrown by Cam Newton. In the NFC Championship Game blowout of the Arizona Cardinals, second year receiver Philly
Phanatic Brown led the team with 113 receiving yards and added a touchdown for good measure. That was the first game this season where Brown has had more than 60 yards, let alone 100. The ability of the Panthers’ receiving corps to have different guys step up in any given game has been a major key this whole season.
The incredible distribution of yards among Carolina’s top five receivers is demonstrated in the chart below, with the chart from 2014 to demonstrate how reliant Carolina was on just two receivers in 2014. The team was able to spread the ball around a lot more in 2015:
In fact, Cam Newton had some words to say about his receiving corps at Super Bowl media day: ”Those guys have been playing lights out since day one, to say the least, from Ted Ginn (Jr.), who was a bust for so many people. I heard Jerricho Cotchery was washed up 10 years ago, Philly Brown had no hands, Devin Funchess was too high of a pick for the Carolina Panthers, Brenton Bersin, who knows who he is, and just things of that sort. But for us, we didn’t let anyone else dictate to us that we knew what we were capable of. It’s a very close-knit group and guys selling out for each other.”
Moving on from the receivers, balance between the pass and the run is incredibly important for any team (unless you’re Tom Brady), but especially so when you lack a true No. 1 receiver. Losing DeAngelo Williams in free agency meant that Jonathan Stewart was going to have to show up, and he did. He faced an additional workload this season, carrying the ball 67 more times in 2015 than in 2014. His main job was to make life easier for Cam Newton, and he did so in a big way.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Stewart’s runs (96.69%) came on first or second down, to try to make things easier for Cam on third down. Stewart averaged almost five yards per carry on second down, including an impressive 7.3 yards per carry on second & 11+. Stewart did his job in the running game, and the ability of the Panthers to lean on him on first and second down made life a lot easier for the NFL MVP Cam Newton.
Cam is the final piece of the puzzle. How did Cam survive without Kelvin Benjamin? Because he’s Cam. He had more passing and rushing yards than he had in any season since 2012. His 35 passing touchdowns were a personal best by 11, and his 10 rushing touchdowns meant Cam accounted for 45 total touchdowns this season. Forty-five total touchdowns is six more than Tom Brady, 12 more than Russell Wilson, and 13 more than Aaron Rodgers. Cam deserves all the credit in the world for the Panthers’ 15-1 season, but it is important to remember he has not gotten this far by himself. His offense has been outstanding all season, and he will need every ounce he can get out of them when they roll into Santa Clara to take on the Denver Broncos.
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