<
>

Bengals could have hands full with 'beast' Kelvin Benjamin

CINCINNATI -- When James Wilder Jr. first arrived at Florida State the summer before his freshman season, he tried to forewarn anyone who would listen.

"I was trying to tell everybody he was different," Wilder said, shaking his head.

"He" being Kelvin Benjamin, Wilder's former college teammate who arrived to campus with the body of a defensive end and the speed of a shifty slot receiver. At 6-foot-5 and more than 240 pounds, it was hard to categorize which position Benjamin ought to be playing just by eyeballing the way he stood and ran. But as soon as practices began, Wilder knew there was no mistaking what position he played.

Benjamin, he said, was most definitely a receiver.

"His routes were precise," said Wilder, the Cincinnati Bengals' practice-squad running back, days before Sunday's game against Benjamin's Carolina Panthers. "I mean, his wing span was just long as heck. And he's got that competitive edge, too. Everybody's got a competitive edge, but with that size and speed he has. And he's got that want-to. That's kind of what separates him from others, in my mind.

"I'm not being biased or nothing, but it is what it is -- he's a beast."

Defenses across the league are beginning to learn about just how beastly the rookie Benjamin is.

Benjamin has emerged after five weeks as one of the brightest young receivers in the league, and he has developed a penchant for pulling off the highlight-reel catch. When the Bengals match up with him Sunday afternoon, they could have their hands full.

"You get a bigger range target [with him]," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "You're not fitting the ball into small spots; you're fitting the ball into big spots. He's emerged maybe a little quicker than I imagined, and it's been impressive."

Benjamin has drawn more targets from quarterback Cam Newton than any Panthers receiver. He has 47 overall. He also has the most receiving yards of any player on the team, and trails tight end Greg Olsen for the catches lead by three.

He compares favorably with the rest of the league, too. Benjamin ranks 13th in the NFL in receiving yards with 367. Among rookies, he leads in yards and yards per reception.

How has having Benjamin helped the Panthers?

"People can't sit there in an eight-man box and play the run against us, or play against our quarterback's ability to run," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "They've got to play some seven-man box. They've got to roll some coverages to him. That's what is beginning to happen. People know that they have to start accounting for him on the football field. That plays well for our offense as a whole."

With Benjamin's combination of size and speed, opposing defenses have a challenge determining how to defend him. Do you risk a speed disadvantage by matching him up with a linebacker or safety? Or do you stick with a cornerback who has speed, but lacks the height to adequately defend a tall receiver whose leaping ability is one of his better attributes?

Typically, it has been cornerbacks, and lately, multiple ones, who have made Benjamin their focus.

Keep an eye out Sunday for which Bengals defensive backs draw assignments on Benjamin.