A guy I liked to watch as a college football fan was former Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. It appears from just a little cursory browsing around the internets that scouts' views on him have been mixed, so I wanted to take a closer look to evaluate him for myself.
For the purposes of Benjamin's breakdown I watched him play against Boston College, Clemson, North Carolina State, Florida and Duke. Those represented the fourth, sixth, seventh, 12th and 13th games of his final season, respectively. The videos are available at DraftBreakdown.com.
I believe my uncle, a longtime high school basketball coach in Mississippi, was the first person I ever heard utter the phrase "you can't coach height." What he meant was that no matter how well he prepared his players, they would likely still have a hard time against a team that was taller.
There is a lot of truth in that statement.
Similarly, in football we are seeing a lot of taller wide receivers come into the league with the feeling that no matter how well a defensive back plays him, that wide receiver can still go up and over him to make a catch. The gold standard for the big/tall/fast wide receiver is, of course, Lions wide receiver Calvin "Megatron" Johnson. Johnson is 6'5, almost 240 pounds with very good speed and very good hands. That is a nightmare combination for most NFL cornerbacks.
Well, what about a guy who is also 6'5, 240 pounds with good top-end speed and pretty good hands?
That's what you get with Kelvin Benjamin.
Where he differs the most from Megatron is Benjamin, with a 4.61 40 time, is slower than Johnson. What you see watching the games is that Benjamin is slow at the beginning of the route, but once he got a head of steam, he ran by cornerbacks on a regular basis.
That got me thinking. I went back to look up Benjamin's 10-yard split for his 40 time. Sure enough, it was a slow 1.66. For perspective, Sammy Watkins' 10-yard split was 1.53; Mike Evans' split was 1.60. Jarvis Landry had a slightly better 1.65 split, but ended up with a slower 4.77 time for his 40. The fact that Benjamin was still able to run a 4.61 also confirmed to me that once he gets rolling, he eats up ground like Rick Ross on some lemon pepper wings.
That's part of why his 40 time doesn't bother me. The other reason is because Benjamin was so physical against cornerbacks pressing him at the line of scrimmage, I don't think getting separation on shorter routes will be a problem for him either.
Physically, Kelvin Benjamin likely has many NFL offensive coordinators drooling over the things they could do with him in their offense. So why isn't he rated higher by other evaluators?
In those five games I broke down, I had Benjamin with seven legitimate drops. That means the ball was in both of his hands and he should've had it, no matter how tough the catch. That's the standard when it comes to NFL wide receivers, so there is no reason to take it easy on these prospects.
Seven drops is four more than either Evans or Watkins had in five games. That's a lot. I don't like to give guys passes for stuff that they are supposed to do, and believe it or not, catching the ball when you get two hands on it is in the job description for a wide receiver.
What I will say, however, is that all but one (he dove to try to catch one and it went through his hands against Florida) of those drops came when Benjamin tried to run before he had secured the ball. He is always looking to get the most yardage possible out of every catch, which I love, but he has to learn to make the catch first every. single. time.
Having said all that, I still feel comfortable saying this: Kelvin Benjamin has pretty good hands.
We've seen some tall, fast wide receivers who can jump out of the gym come into the league in recent years, players who couldn't catch a cold naked at the North Pole. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Stephen Hill are two prominent examples of this phenomenon. Benjamin is not that.
When he concentrates on making the catch first, he actually catches the ball well in traffic, on the run and across the middle. I'm talking tough, sometimes amazing catches where he goes up over the defender or defenders and plucks it out of the air.
While seven drops is not a good number, they were still the exception rather than the rule. Three of those drops came in the Florida game alone and guess what, he had three touchdown catches to go along with them.
I'll take that ratio all day long.
Still, the impression out there is going to be that he drops a lot of passes so he has bad hands. It's hard to argue against that if your audience hasn't also rewatched the game focusing only on him. The truth is there is no way of knowing if Benjamin will get better at concentrating on making every catch as a professional football player.
Hell, Megatron himself still has bouts of the dropsies at times.
The question comes down to whether you think he can still be highly productive even if he continues to have concentration issues from time to time.
My evaluation is that, yes, he would still be a serious weapon in just about any offense even if he has the occasional drop or two. There's precedent. Does the name Terrell Owens ring a bell? Different kind of player in a lot of ways, but T.O. was notorious for dropping easy passes a time or two a game.
I would say he still managed to have a pretty decent career.
I'm not sure how much front offices care about how well a wide receiver prospect blocks, but for me, I love to see guys who will stick their nose in there and hit somebody to help out their teammate. It's easy to see a guy give his all on a pass that he knows is coming to him, but what he does when the play isn't all about him says a lot too.
Benjamin wasn't perfect; he missed a few blocks here and there. However, he mostly blocked at a high level. Every once in a while he flat knocked the hell out of people.
I swoon a little bit when I see a play like the crackback block Benjamin made on an NC State linebacker to help spring his running back for a touchdown. The fact that he stood over the guy after the play also got me hyped. He set out to dominate on that play, and he let his prey know after the fact that he was successful!
So many wide receivers these days are soft. They won't hit anybody and hate being hit. Benjamin can be a throwback wide receiver who intimidates defensive backs with his ability to go up and catch the ball and with his physicality in the run game when he wants to.
Little cornerbacks don't like that much from my experience.
What to watch for
I was wrong
Obviously having already stated that I was a fan of Benjamin before breaking him down, this wasn't my first time seeing him in action. Indeed, I watched Benjamin play many times over the past two college football seasons. However, I try to erase any preconceived notions before doing these breakdowns, so I won't "see what I want to see" instead of what is actually on the tape. With Benjamin, the weird thing is that it was the negatives I thought he had that I ended up being most wrong about.
I did not think Benjamin was much of a route runner, but he actually looked pretty damn good running routes on a second (and third, and fourth) viewing. There were a couple of times where he slipped coming out of his breaks, but other than that, he was usually smooth in and out of his cuts and executed them quickly. I can tell you he seemed to be particularly adept at running skinny posts, a very productive route for him over the course of those five games. He also ran just about every kind of route there is at least once in the course of those five games.
Benjamin also made some hay out of the slot, which is something I didn't see Evans do. I am not saying Evans can't do it, but in the games I watched Evans never lined up in the slot. I know Benjamin has done it and did it pretty well.
I also thought, like I'm sure many casual fans did, a number of Benjamin's catches came on jump balls, particularly touchdown catches. It's true that Benjamin jumped when he made quite a few of his catches, but only three in those five games were "true" jump balls, by my count. What I mean is they were passes that Benjamin had to jump up and catch at their highest point. Most of the time when Benjamin jumped he ended up catching the ball at about his chest level. Nothing wrong with that, but Benjamin's vertical leap was a pretty pedestrian 32 inches. I certainly never saw him jump high enough to make me think that number isn't accurate.
At the same time 6'5 is 6'5, and Benjamin's arms are just short of 35 inches long. The crazy thing is that even though he was catching the ball at chest level, it was still usually over the cornerback's outstretched hands. That's why I think if he is thrown jump balls in the NFL, he is still going to be able to make the catch at a higher point in the air than 99.9 percent of the defensive backs he will face.
Blessing in disguise
I have a feeling that the teams in the top half of the first round of the draft will be too scared to take a chance on a "slow" wide receiver with "suspect" hands. That may end up being the best thing in the world to happen to Benjamin.
In general, teams picking in the top half of the first round weren't very good the prior season. Those picking in the second half, on the other hand, generally did have a better season. There are a handful of teams that are almost always picking in the second half of the first round the last decade, teams like the Steelers, Patriots, Saints.
And what do you know, they're all picking in the second half of the first round again this year.
Ironically enough, all three of those teams also have a need at wide receiver. Each of those teams also has a franchise quarterback. In addition to those three, you have ascending teams like the Panthers and the 49ers who are also picking in the second half of the first round this year with a need at wide receiver. They also have young quarterbacks who can grow with Benjamin.
Think back to when Alshon Jeffery, who had some of the same red flags, fell all the way to the second round to the Bears in 2012. I can definitely see Benjamin having the same kind of impact for one of those teams.
Really, who wants to game plan against Frank Gore in the backfield, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin in the middle of the field, and Michael Crabtree and Kelvin Benjamin out wide?!
Looks like a steal
I think Benjamin will have to get adjusted to beating press coverage in the NFL and working against more talented guys on a regular basis. I don't think it will take him a long time. He will have to watch it when he is slinging guys around, but it will be his physicality getting off the line that helps him get the separation he can't get initially with his speed. Once he gets that part down, he should move into the starting lineup if he isn't already.
Now that lack of initial speed probably does means that Benjamin will never be great for a smoke screen (turns around and catches the ball at the snap while offensive linemen and other wide receivers block in front of him) or a reverse/end-around guy, but who cares when he will be able to get open downfield on chunk plays from day one?
He will instantly improve his team's red-zone production with his ability to beat one-on-one coverage with his size and height and his ability to block in the run game.
That alone would make me consider drafting him. However, I'm just a lowly blogger.
One month from now Kelvin Benjamin will hear his name called at the NFL Draft, maybe at the end of the first round, maybe even later. Ten years from now we will all look back and agree that he should have gone higher. I am expecting big things from Benjamin at the next level.
After all, you can't coach 6'5.