The Carolina Panthers’ last-second trade of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to the Buffalo Bills on Tuesday raised eyebrows around the league.
Why would a team in playoff contention ship out its most valuable wide receiver and big-play threat, a former first-round pick, who has a special rapport with his starting quarterback, in the midst of another productive season?
Carolina interim general manager Marty Hurney attempted to provide answers Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning.
“This was more about getting more speed on the field. We’ve got some young players who we think have some real ability,” Hurney told Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer. “Kelvin was a very good player and was productive for us. It was more getting a mix of skill sets on the field and more speed.”
Hurney added on 102.5 FM The Fan in Charlotte on Wednesday that Carolina had “too many WRs with similar skill sets.” The GM suggested that ridding the team of Benjamin will allow “the run game to flourish” and the Panthers to “clear out the box.”
Hurney is referring to the the twin towers on the outside, Benjamin (6-foot-5) and wideout Devin Funchess (6-4). The two receivers played similar roles in Charlotte the last two seasons, but in 2016, Benjamin was easily the more targeted option. This season, the roles were reversed. With starting tight end Greg Olsen sidelined by injury, Funchess garnered a greater percentage of targets and snaps.
Benjamin was Carolina’s third-most targeted receiver (51) behind rookie dual-threat back Christian McCaffrey and Funchess, but led the Panthers in receiving yards (475).
Hurney’s insistence that the Benjamin trade was an attempt to get more speed on the field and improve the running game is in line with the goals Carolina set in the offseason. Panthers coach Ron Rivera made it a point of emphasis in July to get the ball out of Cam Newton’s hands faster, so as to accomplish a two-pronged goal: Protect the quarterback from unneccesary contact and utilize the young rookie clbad of McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel.
So far this season, the experiment has yet to bear fruit. Newton is on pace for 30 more rushing attempts and eight more sacks taken than in 2016. While McCaffrey has developed into Cam’s favorite target, the rookie has struggled to break arm tackles and run inside. Samuel (three carries, seven receptions) barely shows up on the stat sheet. Worst of all, the Panthers running game, a point of pride in past campaigns, is anemic; Carolina is seventh in attempts (231), but is 29th in yards per attempt (3.4).
As Hurney explains it, exorcising Benjamin, the more expendable pbad-catching giant, is the first step to remedying their issues on offense. Newton and the Panthers offense have eight games to prove him right.