Saying the Panthers took a huge step back in 2016 is an understatement. To go from 15-1 and in the Super Bowl to 6-10 and picking 8th in the draft is a feat in and of itself, albeit not a positive one. There were many reasons for the drop-off; primarily injuries to the offensive line that lead to Cam Newton being hit more than a bong at a frat party. The secondary was also a liability for much of the season, although our rookie corners (two of them anyway) played fairly well down the stretch. James Bradberry in particular appears to have the makings of a Pro Bowler and was PFF's highest-graded rookie corner in the league last year, just ahead of Jalen Ramsey. With all that said, however, there was another reason for the drop-off: we didn't have any consistent playmakers on offense other than Greg Olsen. Now, I will grant you that it's tough to judge the play of the WR's and RB's when the QB is being tossed around like a rag doll within 3 seconds of dropping back to pass.
However, the Panthers clearly lacked dynamic offensive playmakers around Cam Newton and, in all honesty, that has been the case for many years. That Cam managed to win MVP in 2015 with a WR corp. consisting of butterfingers Ted Ginn, old man Jericho Cotchery, mediocre Philly Brown, and a rookie Devin Funchess is as impressive a feat as any QB has pulled off in the last decade in the NFL. The thought process going into last season was that, with Kelvin Benjamin returning from injury, the offense would be even better. That didn't happen. In fact, it was hard to watch at times. Sure, Benjamin started the season well against Denver and San Francisco, but as the season progressed his effort appeared to wane. Now, I'm not blaming 6-10 on one player and if I did, it wouldn't be Kelvin Benjamin, but this past weekend has lead me to conclude that the Panthers would be far better off trading Benjamin before the 2017 season than keeping him.
Not only did the Panthers use their first two draft picks on big-time dynamic playmakers in Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, but Ron Rivera also revealed during the post-draft press conference that Benjamin had shown up to voluntary workouts overweight, again. He has struggled with keeping his weight down before, both at Florida State and in the NFL. Last season he showed up to training camp overweight, but he had also not played in a full year after suffering a torn ACL, so it was somewhat understandable. However, given his seeming lack of effort at times last season, showing up overweight again this year is not a good look and isn't a good sign for the team or the player. The Panthers had previously stated that they planned to pick up Benjamin's 5th year option, but they have yet to do so, leading to speculation regarding his future with the team. Now, it's possible - likely, in fact - that this delay is merely a motivational tactic or a shot across the bow to let the player know he needs to get in shape and stay that way. However, there is also the possibility that the Panthers are considering moving on from their 2014 1st round pick. Here are the reasons why I feel they should:
1. CAM NEWTON IS A BETTER QB WITHOUT HIM
I know it seems hard to believe, but if you break down Cam Newton's play since Kelvin Benjamin was drafted, his numbers - and winning percentage - are FAR better without Benjamin than they are with him. In 2014 - Benjamin's rookie year - Newton completed 58.5% of his passes for 3,127 yards, 18 TD's and 12 INT's. Last year, with Benjamin returning from his season-ending ACL tear in 2015, Cam completed a career low 53% of his passes for 3,509 yards, 19 TD's and 14 INT's. Compare those numbers to the 2015 season - where Benjamin was on I.R. and Cam won MVP - and it's not close. That year, Cam completed 60% of his passes for 3,837 yards, 35 TD's, and 10 INT's. That's a higher completion percentage, more yards, almost twice as many TD's, and fewer INT's, all without Kelvin Benjamin. Now, am I blaming all this on Benjamin? No. But what I am saying is that Cam Newton has shown that he is clearly capable - if not more likely - of performing at an MVP level without his supposed #1 WR on the field.
2. HE DOESN'T FIT OUR NEW 'EVOLVED' OFFENSE
Much has been made of the so-called 'evolved' offense the Panthers plan to move to in 2017. Up until last weekend, there really wasn't a clear idea of exactly what Ron Rivera meant when he used the term earlier this year. However, with the additions of Christian McCaffrey at RB and Curtis Samuel at WR, along with recent comments by O.C. Mike Shula, it's clear the Panthers are moving toward a faster, quicker, more Patriots-esque offense that will allow Cam Newton to get the ball out quicker to avoid taking as many hits. Last season we didn't have the players to run that kind of offense; Benjamin and Devin Funchess are bigger possession receivers and Ted Ginn has elite straight-line speed, but has never been a quick twitch slot guy. Jonathan Stewart is a power runner who offers little as a receiver out of the backfield. Up until now, our offense has been one that relied on downfield routes - and good pass protection to allow them time to develop - in an effort to create big plays in the passing game. In 2015 it worked brilliantly, at least until we ran into the Denver Broncos pass rush in the Super Bowl. Now, with the offense evolving, all of a sudden Kelvin Benjamin seems like a square peg in a round hole. This, on top of his weight issues and apparent lack of effort at times last year, should make him a prime trade candidate.
3. HE STILL HAS TRADE VALUE
This is key, as another year of weight management issues, possible injuries, and/or a decline in production in our new offensive scheme could really reduce Benjamin's trade value. As it stands, he still appears to be a promising young WR with elite size and good statistical production. While he may not be an ideal fit for our new scheme, he almost certainly is for another team. The Browns, for example, who just drafted a young QB in Deshone Kizer and have a ton of draft picks in their back pocket for next year. Would it not be worth it for them to ship a 2nd or 3rd round pick to Carolina to secure Kelvin Benjamin? Or how about the Bills, who have a young wideout with issues of his own in Sammy Watkins, who would fit the Panthers new scheme much better than Benjamin. Perhaps a straight-up swap could provide both players with a change of scenery and a fresh start? There's been talk recently that the Bills are interested in hiring Panthers assistant G.M. Brandon Beane as their new G.M. and if that does happen, it'd be easy to imagine a swap of this sort happening. Or what about the L.A. Rams, who badly need weapons for Jared Goff. Another option could be the Chicago Bears, who just drafted Mitchell Trubisky, but also saw Alshon Jeffrey leave in free agency. Adding Benjamin would give them a similar big-bodied receiver to pair with their new QB of the future.
4. HE LIKELY ISN'T IN THE TEAM'S LONG-TERM PLANS ANYWAY
This is the biggest reason I feel a trade should be on the table. At one time Benjamin was viewed as being a core part of this team moving forward. However, circumstances have changed and between his weight/motivational issues and the change in our offensive philosophy, I very seriously doubt the Panthers view him as a player they intend to invest significant money and cap space into in the long run. So, as long as that's the case, why not trade him? It's already been shown that Cam Newton is just as good or better without Benjamin and with the recent additions via the draft, the changing nature of our offense, and the time sensitive nature of Benjamin's potential trade value, it seems rather obvious to me that this is something the Panthers should seriously consider between now and the start of training camp.