The trade deadline was fast approaching, but most Panthers fans weren’t even paying attention. The thought of Carolina making any kind of move seemed far-fetched— besides the offensive line, the Panthers seemed pretty set at all positions, and last-minute deals aren’t necessarily the Panthers M.O. Then, the unthinkable happened. A last second trade sent #1 Wide Receiver Kelvin Benjamin packing to Buffalo, leaving the Panthers stripped of talent at wide receiver. It was the definition of a shocker, with the Panthers receiving 3rd and 7th round picks in the 2018 draft for their leading receiver. It’s a confusing move, to say the least, but the thinking behind it makes things a little more clear.
Interim GM Marty Hurney and Head Coach Ron Rivera have both said that the deal was done to get more speed on the field for the Panthers offense. Benjamin and teammate Devin Funchess were formerly the Panthers top two options, and neither of them are exactly burners at the position. Stashed behind them are second round pick and speedy rookie Curtis Samuel and special teams ace and possession receiver Russell Shepard. Former track star Damiere Byrd sits on IR with a designation to return as soon as week 13. Expelling Benjamin from the roster allows the players deeper down the depth chart to get more playing time, and as a result adding speed to the position.
While it’s true that the Panthers drastically need to add speed at the position, the move is a questionable one. The Carolina offense has been lethargic this year, and it’s debatable whether trading the team’s leading receiver in terms of yards will help alleviate this issue. Hurney and Rivera have obviously pinpointed the Panthers’ lack of big plays as the largest problem with the offense. Carolina simply can’t seem to take the top off of defenses, missing on deep throws and struggling to gain separation deep. Opposing teams lack of respect for the Panthers’ speed has allowed them to stack the box against the run game, overpowering a weak offensive line and limiting the Panthers’ running backs to just 2.8 YPC so far this year, a horrendous number. Now, Funchess will be opposite either Curtis Samuel or Russell Shepard (Carolina has also recently signed “fan favorite” Brenton Bersin to the active roster, but he will be in a more limited role), players who are more dangerous deep threats than Benjamin could ever be. The hope is that these players can step into larger roles and improve the offense.
However, trading Benjamin has also created a number of issues. He was a popular player in the locker room, and the move isn’t sitting well with members of the team, who quickly took to social media to express their disappointment in the move shortly after learning about it. Hurney may have been weary of Benjamin’s character, as he reportedly walked out of practice two weeks ago because of frustration. The Panthers’ front office may believe that Benjamin wouldn’t have taken well to reduced playing time that would have come with trying to get more speed on the field, and opted to get rid of him rather than deal with the fallout of a discontent player. But, in trading Benjamin, the front office has damaged their own reputation inside the locker room. It’s also rumored that Carolina would not have resigned Benjamin, an unrestricted free agent at years end, and wanted to get something in return for him. They did get some good value in the trade, as the third round has the potential to produce reliable starters.
Either way, Carolina will now move on without Benjamin. The Panthers fared pretty well the last time they lost Benjamin, going all the way to the Super Bowl after he tore his ACL in 2015,. Ted Ginn Jr. caught ten touchdowns in the regular season that year, and served as perhaps the league’s best deep threat. Now, Devin Funchess, in the midst of his best season yet, will have to step up to an even bigger role. A lot of pressure is being placed on Russell Shepard and Curtis Samuel to perform, and Christian McCaffery will probably take a large number of reps at receiver as well.
This was a bold move for interim GM Marty Hurney, and if it works out, he will probably sign a long term contract with Carolina to be the GM for years to come.
If it doesn’t, he’ll be booted out of Charlotte for good.