To say free agency was not kind to the Carolina Panthers receiving corps would be an understatement.
Now, as the Panthers prepare to defend their NFC South title, there's going to be a ton of pressure on the team's first-round pick in 2014 to grow up in a hurry.
As in, like right now.
After watching nearly the entire receiving group depart the team in free agency (including longtime leader Steve Smith), and without making an impact move of their own to address it, wide receiver was without question a primary focus for the Panthers in the draft.
It came as little surprise then when the team selected Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin at No. 28, and so far at least, things are going to plan.
That is, if you ask Carolina receivers coach Ricky Proehl:
As David Newton of ESPN reports, Benjamin was the star of the team's recent rookie camp. After a particularly impressive leaping catch over two defenders, Proehl waxed poetic about the youngster's NFL potential:
That's what he brings. He can make great catches like that because of his size. A normal person is not going to make that catch. With his reach, he's probably 11 feet, 12 feet in the air making that catch. Other guys may not have an opportunity to touch the ball, let alone catch it.
You look at him, if he can grow and develop into the receiver I think he can be, he's going to a huge asset for Cam [Newton].
Proehl wasn't alone in his esteem for Benjamin either. General manager Dave Gettleman also came away impressed, according to Ross Tucker of Sirius XM NFL Radio (h/t Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk):
When I watched him, I thought I was watching a young Plaxico [Burress]. He’s a better athlete than people realize, he plays faster than a lot people think and he made some ‘OMG’ catches in the rookie minicamp. He’s talented, he has good focus, he learns well and it’s important to him. It’s really important to him.
Of course, one would expect a team to be talking up its first-round pick, but in this case, the Panthers really need this to be more than coachspeak.
For starters, the rest of the Carolina depth chart at receiver isn't exactly a cast of world-beaters.
|Carolina Panthers Receivers|
|Player||NFL Seasons||Most Yds.||Most TDs||1K Years|
|J. Cotchery||10||1130 (2007)||10 (2013)||1|
|J. Avant||8||679 (2011)||3 (2009)||0|
|T. Underwood||5||440 (2013)||4 (2013)||0|
Yes, Jerricho Cotchery caught 10 touchdown passes in 2013 for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he is a 31-year-old slot receiver whose best football is behind him.
He's also the only receiver with a 1,000-yard receiving season on his resume, and that was in 2007.
Outside tight end Greg Olsen, the cupboard was pretty bare prior to Benjamin's arrival. The Panthers don't just need Benjamin to be a receiver.
They need him to be the receiver.
To Benjamin's credit, the physical tools certainly appear to be there. The 6'5" size and long arms. As Rob Rang of CBS Sports put it before the draft, the "gliding speed and short-area quickness to create some separation and be a terror in jump-ball situations, especially in the red zone."
However, Rang also cautioned that Benjamin was "still developing as a route-runner, adding to questions about his ability to play a large role immediately in the NFL."
That's the last thing the Panthers can afford.
Unfortunately, recent history isn't really on the Panthers' side either.
|Top Rookie Receivers 2009-2013|
Of the past five top rookie receivers, only two topped 1,000 receiving yards. Only one caught double-digit touchdown passes.
If there's a silver lining to those numbers, perhaps it lies with last year's top first-year receiver.
Keenan Allen fell all the way to the third round last year before being selected by the San Diego Chargers, partly due to concerns about his speed.
Allen went on to have a phenomenal rookie year, emerging as Philip Rivers' go-to guy and helping to key a surprise run to the playoffs by the Bolts.
The Panthers would no doubt like just such a performance from Benjamin in 2014.
In fact, in an NFC South that's shaping up to be a dogfight this year, that's what they're going to need.
Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor