The Panthers announced on Wednesday that Kelvin Benjamin, their No. 1 wide receiver and 2014 first-round pick, would miss the entire 2015 season after tearing his ACL during practice. The news came as a huge blow to the Panthers, who last year ranked 23rd in the NFL in passing efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. That was with Benjamin -- who caught 73 balls for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns -- on the field.
The question now: Where does Carolina go from here? Luckily for Cam Newton, Greg Olsen is still there. The tight end led the team in receptions last season (84) and was tied with Benjamin for the team lead in yards. He also caught six touchdowns. But is he good enough to make up for the loss of Benjamin? And if not, do the Panthers have other options?
Let's take a look.
What are the Panthers losing?
They're now without their best and most dynamic receiver, and, perhaps more importantly, Cam Newton's favorite target. Benjamin had 146 balls thrown his way last season, the sixth-highest number in the league. Olsen was second on the team in targets with 122. After him came 30-somethings Jerricho Cotchery (78) and Jason Avant (40), then undrafted rookie free agent Corey Brown (36).
In the red zone, Newton looked toward Benjamin even more frequently. His 20 red zone targets led the team and ranked as 16th in the NFL, per NFLsavant.com. Olsen was right there with 19 targets, but no one else on the roster had more than six. Benjamin was also able to use his massive 6'5, 245-pound body to create separation down in the end zone.
Kelvin Benjamin had NFL-high 6 rec 4th-quarter TDs in 2014. Benjamin 6 Antonio Brown 5 Dez Bryant 5 Jeremy Maclin 5— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) August 20, 2015
That Benjamin was able to catch two touchdowns against the Seahawks' outstanding secondary in the Divisional Round of last year's playoffs -- which Carolina lost, 31-17 -- is proof of just how prolific a red zone target he is.
So that's what Benjamin brought to the table last year, and, given his talent and first-round pedigree, it's fair to assume that, with his rookie year under his belt, he could have been even better this season. Football Outsiders' almanac projected Benjamin would catch 74 balls for 1,082 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Those are numbers that Carolina now has to replace.
What are the Panthers' options?
Unfortunately for them, there aren't many good ones. Part of the problem is the lack of receiving depth already on the roster, which is why this injury might actually be one that derails the Panthers' season.
"Kelvin is a No. 1 go-to guy on the offense," Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said, via Panthers.com. "Losing a guy like that on any team, it's going to be big.
"But we've got formidable wide receivers in our group. Funchess is coming into his own, and he's learning from veteran guys."
That would be Devin Funchess, the 6'4, 225-pound former Michigan wide receiver selected in the second round of this year's draft. Other than Benjamin, Funchess might already be the most talented healthy receiver on the team. He's certainly the player Carolina will look to first in its search to replace Benjamin.
The problem is that health issues plagued his college career and he's a rookie -- a raw one at that. His size is what got him drafted so high, not his hands. Funchess also pulled his hamstring during practice on Wednesday and is expected to be out for a few days and will not play in the team's preseason game Saturday in Miami.
"He and Kelvin are different types of players. Kelvin's a big, stout physical guy and Funchess uses his size to position himself," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said, via the Charlotte Observer. "He'll have to step it up to learn that style and technique of play."
As for the other receivers on the team, well, they don't inspire much confidence, no matter what head coach Ron Rivera has to say.
Rivera: We feel real good at WR and the guys we have— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) August 20, 2015
Those words were echoed by Ted Ginn Jr., who is back in Carolina after previously playing for the team in 2013. The speedster described the Panthers' receiving corps as "loaded," and a day after Benjamin's injury he caught a 60-yard touchdown during a practice against the Dolphins. His résumé, however, speaks for itself: In eight seasons in the league the 30-year-old Ginn has never caught more than 56 balls or recorded more than 790 yards, and those career-highs came back in 2008. Corey Brown is also quick and at least is younger (23), so theoretically there's some potential there. But he went undrafted out of Ohio State for a reason.
The Panthers could always go the free agent route -- veterans like Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd are available. But all of them have seen better days and are clearly on their last legs.
Receivers? We don't need no stinkin' receivers
And yet, all that being said, the Panthers are not doomed. For one, they play in the NFC South, which they won last year despite going just 7-8-1. And they've ridden a strong defense and ball control-style of play to success before. Last year Carolina attempted just 34.1 passes per game, 19th in the NFL. The year before, when the Panthers went 12-4, that number was 29.3, third-lowest in the league. In 2012, it was 30.6.
The point is Carolina knows how to win without throwing the ball. The Panthers have relied on Cam Newton's unique mix of size and skills before; he's bigger and faster and stronger than most of his peers and able to make plays in all sorts of ways, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
They've fielded a top-10 defense for three straight seasons, and still have one of the league's best linebacking corps and front sevens.
They take all sorts of chances on fourth down and have a head coach with a nickname that boasts about his gambling ways.
The Benjamin injury is certainly a big one for the Panthers, and recovering from it won't be easy. But Olsen is still around and so is a dual-threat quarterback and a formidable defense. A Benjamin-less Panthers team won't be a pretty one, but it might not be a bad one either.