Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said the team traded No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin so they could get younger, faster players on the field.
Rivera said Wednesday that starting receivers Benjamin and Devin Funchess had “similar skill sets,” and the Panthers wanted players who are vertical threats in the game because “we haven’t stretched the field this year.”
Benjamin and Funchess are both considered tall possession receivers, but aren’t incredibly fast.
Rivera wouldn’t say who would start alongside Funchess on Sunday against the Falcons, but he’s expecting rookie Curtis Samuel and Russell Shepard and Kaelin Clay will see more playing time. Carolina also re-signed free agent wide receiver Brenton Bersin on Wednesday.
“When you have some vertical speed it gets (defenses) to back off a little bit,” Rivera said. “We saw a lot of single safety with the other safety in the box. And we had to do something to help alleviate the pressure on the offense to run the ball.”
The Panthers traded the 26-year-old Benjamin, a former first-round draft pick in 2014, to Buffalo on Tuesday in exchange for a third- and seventh-round draft pick in 2018. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Benjamin set rookie records for receptions, yards receiving and touchdowns and developed a close relationship with quarterback Cam Newton.
Newton said Wednesday that he didn’t find out about the trade until after it was announced.
“Obviously there is an emotional connection there, but that can’t be a distraction,” Newton said.
When asked if he was upset by the move, Newton said “it’s a business. It is what it is.”
It may be business, but the Panthers may be better off without Benjamin.
Newton turned in his best season in 2015 after Benjamin tore his ACL in training camp and missed the entire season. He threw for 3.509 yards and a career-high 35 touchdowns — and ran for 10 scores, too — while leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl and earning league MVP honors.
With Benjamin out of the lineup, Newton was forced to spread the ball around and did so effectively throughout the season despite having no big-name receivers other than tight end Greg Olsen.
This year Newton’s completion percentage is at an all-time high, but he’s struggled finding anything open down the field and has more interceptions (11) than touchdown passes (10) midway through the season.
Carolina is 21st in the league in total offense and 23rd in scoring. They were second in offense and first in scoring two years ago while going 17-2.
“As a unit, we’re going to be better from this because we all have faith in this whole process,” Newton said.
Benjamin has not spoken about the trade.
The Bills did not have media availability on Wednesday because they play Thursday night against the New York Jets.
Rivera said Benjamin is a terrific football player and was appreciative of what he had done for the Panthers organization.
“What this does for us is it gives us an opportunity to put some young guys on the field with some speed and give us an opportunity to move forward,” Rivera said. “And it gives Kelvin an opportunity to start somewhere else as well.”
Shepard, who joined the Panthers after four seasons in Tampa Bay, said he was surprised by the trade — and he wasn’t the only one.
“It surprised everybody in this building,” Shepard said. “It surprised some of the people on the coaching staff. It just shows you this is a business. Some decisions come from left field.”
Benjamin was leading the Panthers in yards receiving with 475 and third in receptions with 32.
Shepard said he’s ready to start if needed.
He was pressed into that role last season in Tampa Bay when Bucs receivers Vincent Jackson and Cecil Shorts tore ACLs.
“I have been in this situation quite a few times in my career,” Shepard said.
Samuel is a second-round pick from Ohio State who the Panthers have big plans for moving forward and could challenge for that starting job immediately.
Newton was melancholy throughout his news conference, but stressed it is time for the Panthers (5-3) to move on and focus on the rest of the season.
“At the end of the day, life goes on,” Newton said. “I don’t think they are going to have a parade when I leave here. There is still going to be football on Sundays. … Everything moves forward.”