CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The decision by the Carolina Panthers to trade star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to the Buffalo Bills for a pair of 2018 draft picks will make sense after the initial shock wears off.
Consider, Benjamin was heading toward the last year of his rookie deal after the Panthers picked up his fifth-year option. Carolina would have to pay him $8,459,000 in 2018 or sign him to a long-term deal that would cost that or more per year.
The organization obviously wasn’t ready to commit that kind of money when you consider they unloaded the 28th pick of the 2014 draft for third- and seventh-round picks in 2018.
Also consider Benjamin and Devin Funchess are similar in size and what they do in the offense. Benjamin is 6-foot-5 and 243 pounds and primarily plays the “X” receiver spot. Funchess is 6-4 and 225 pounds. While he can play all three receiver spots, he has been best as the “X” receiver where he played mostly in college.
When both are on the field in a two-receiver set the Panthers don’t have a true deep threat to open up the field underneath.
Without Benjamin they will be more diversified in their sets in terms of blending different types of receivers opposite Funchess, who will take over Benjamin’s spot.
Running back/receiver Christian McCaffrey also will blend in as he has done all season, leading Carolina in receptions with 49.
Remember, the past two seasons speedster Ted Ginn Jr. lined up opposite Benjamin. Ginn had a career-high 10 touchdown catches in 2015 when quarterback Cam Newton had a career-high 35 touchdown passes.
The Panthers lost Ginn in free agency to New Orleans, where he is flourishing with quarterback Drew Brees.
Newton had eight touchdown passes to four interceptions on throws of 20-plus yards in 2016 and 10 of that distance to only two interceptions in 2015 with Ginn.
Ginn caught eight of Newton’s 18 touchdowns of that distance during that span. Before Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay, Newton was 4-for-6 targeting Benjamin on throws of 20-plus yards but 3-of-14 with no touchdowns and two interceptions to everybody else.
With Funchess in Benjamin’s role the Panthers have created a situation closer to what they had the past two seasons.
Something needed to be done.
While Newton’s completion percentage is at a career-best 63.1 percent, he has thrown more interceptions (11) than touchdowns. Defenses haven’t had to worry about the deep threat because there hasn’t been one.
The risk is Funchess won’t deliver. Benjamin has 16 touchdown catches from Newton since 2014, the most by any Carolina wide receiver even though Benjamin missed the 2015 season with a knee injury.
Tight end Greg Olsen was second on that list with 14 touchdowns during that span. He was tied with Ginn.
So by trading Benjamin the Panthers have given themselves more flexibility on receiver sets and saved immediate money in 2018 — and more long-term.
They have shown confidence in Funchess, who with 33 catches already has a career-high in eight games and 10 more than he had all of last season playing with Benjamin.
Coach Ron Rivera has said repeatedly over the past month the team has to find more ways to get Funchess involved.
Now they will.