The Buffalo Bills committed to a playoff push on Tuesday, sending a third- and seventh-round picks to the Carolina Panthers for a midseason addition: wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. With 32 catches for 475 yards, Benjamin almost has as much production as all of Buffalo’s wide receivers combined at the halfway point in the season. What does he bring to the Bills offense? For one thing, his massive catch radius. I watched Benjamin’s targets this year to get a refresher on the player who first burst onto the scene in a 2013 season where he caught the game-winning touchdown in Florida State’s national championship bid.
Route running: the bad
The starting point that analysts use to talk about Benjamin, once we get past the obvious “he’s big” part of the conversation, is that he’s not a good route runner, that he doesn’t separate, et cetera. That’s not entirely true, and I’ll discuss some examples of where he wins in the next section. Having watched Benjamin play this year, I think it’s more accurate to say that he’s inconsistent. Benjamin doesn’t run some routes with very good technique. He’ll round out cuts or drive off the line with a slower burst on shorter patterns. He doesn’t always put effort toward deceiving defenders.
Benjamin has a huge catch radius and a great ability at boxing out the opponent, but he makes things more difficult for himself when he runs a sloppy route. On third down, the Panthers are near the goal line, and they want to get to the two-yard line to establish a fresh set of downs. Tampa blitzes all of their linebackers, leaving Benjamin one-on-one against a safety. He doesn’t run a very defined route, though, and the safety instantly picks up on which pattern to stop before the ball is in the air. That pass ended up knocked away.
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Here’s a close-up view of his initial stem on a similar in-breaking route. Watch how, within two steps, he’s already turned his hips and shoulders to indicate that he’s working to the left. A good route would begin with a straight stem before cutting more sharply to the angle at which he wants to continue. A better route would have his whole body pointed downfield, arms pumping, with “vertical” eyes, to get the defender thinking he’s going deep, or it could incorporate a jab step in the opposite direction to point the defender in the wrong direction.
Most of his worst routes came on short patterns, which makes sense. At 6’5” 245 pounds, with a massive wingspan, Benjamin’s body is not designed to make quick cuts or accelerate in a hurry. But these plays aren’t all dependent on physicality. It’s an inconsistent attention to detail on his route running technique. Sometimes it feels like he’s not even sure how many steps to take on a pattern.
Route running: the good
Now, does this mean Benjamin can’t run good routes? Definitely not. In fact, when Benjamin is running to space in zone coverage, he actually does a great job of finding the seams in a defense. If he makes space more than eight yards downfield, and he turns into a landmark that any quarterback could find for delivering the football.
Watch this play, where Benjamin executes multiple phases of the receiving process well. He’s being bracketed at the snap, with a cornerback in press coverage who will cover the short zone, and another defensive back aligned outside the numbers who wants to force Benjamin to the middle and keep him from going deep.
Benjamin slides off the jam easily enough, then he does a great job executing his stutter post. He turns his head and body to the outside and has the corner thinking out route. Then he crosses him up and is wide open, adjusting beautifully to the pass to complete the big gain.
Here’s another example. Benjamin is running a shake route. The goal is to start vertically, sell a post route (angles toward the deep middle of the field), then break toward the outside for a corner route after five steps. And he does a fantastic job!
The elements you want to see are all present. Legs pumping, Benjamin leans forward with “vertical” eyes looking downfield. He makes a strong cut inside, and the cornerback flips his hips to start working the middle of the field. With one last lean to the inside Benjamin cuts across and starts working outside with plenty of room. He finishes with another fantastic diving grab.
What Benjamin brings to an offense
The very first thing that stands out about Benjamin is his tremendous catch radius. He does a fantastic job of adjusting his body to off-target throws and hauling them in. For someone like Tyrod Taylor, who has his own consistency issues with ball placement (either fantastic or weak, depending on his biorhythm), this will instantly help the offensive production.
I want to clarify that Benjamin’s ability to reach for difficult throws is not the same thing as catching “50-50” passes. A 50-50 pass is a pass placed into a contested situation, where the receiver doesn’t have much of any separation and the defender has a shot at the throw. That’s where, ideally, you see the receiver use great body positioning to keep the defender away and create room for a catch. Mike Evans is exceptionally talented at it.
Benjamin is good at converting those 50-50 balls into receptions, but not at the level you might’ve expected given his size. His hands aren’t stellar, and occasionally he’ll bobble or drop a pass when a defender’s in the vicinity.
I think Benjamin can be a valuable target in the intermediate levels of the field where Taylor liked to work this season. In a similar way to how Charles Clay, Nick O’Leary, and Andre Holmes have found space up the seams or between Cover-2 defenders, Benjamin is at his best when he has room to find a hole in the defense. His size makes him an asset for Taylor, who sometimes has trouble locating receivers downfield once the play begins.
He’s also helpful as a blocker on the edge, which is key with the running identity the Bills want to establish.
The biggest question is how Benjamin’s playing style will mesh with Taylor’s own tendencies. Will Taylor take more chances on a receiver who’s “open when he’s covered” or will he continue looking for easy windows to hit?
Either way, Benjamin’s talent is an instant upgrade for Buffalo’s receiving corps, turning a liability into an asset for the playoff push.