The Falcons are well aware that the Panthers traded wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to the Bills, yet they’re more interested in Carolina offensive players left behind -- chiefly Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey.
Carolina’s quarterback and rookie running back may impact the Panthers’ passing game more Sunday than Benjamin’s replacements, speedy wideouts Russell Shepard and perhaps rookie Curtis Samuel, even though they’re both completely different kinds of players than the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin.
Newton slumped last season while battling a bum shoulder on year after being tabbed NFL MVP in 2015, but the seventh-year veteran from Westlake High remains uniquely difficult to defend.
He’s not running as much as two years ago, yet he’s second on his team with 255 rushing yards, first in average (4.3) and touchdowns (three), and nifty enough on his feet to be a royal pain in passing situations.
“It’s not just that speed outside, it’s (Newton’s) ability to extend plays,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “That’s a factor, too. ... Some of his plays on third down are designed for him to run it, which is pretty unusual from a quarterback standpoint.”
With a size-speed combination surpassing all other NFL quarterbacks, the 6-5, 245-pound Newton poses multiple threats.
Benjamin was a threat, too, paired up with Carolina’s other big receiver, Devin Funchess (6-5, 235).
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said after the trade the goal was to get quicker on offense, and that Carolina’s 20th-ranked running game (97.6 yards per game) is facing too much traffic in the box.
“I think what we had was we had two guys with similar skill sets in (Benjamin) and Funch, and we have a group of young guys that we needed to get on the football field to create some speed,” Rivera told Carolina reporters. “And these young guys will get their opportunities.”
Ricardo Allen said the Falcons aren’t planning on schematic changes by the Panthers, just for their personnel switches.
At 6-1, 195, Shepard can really run, and the same goes for Samuel (5-11, 194).
That may not change much if any of the Falcons’ defensive game plan.
“Nah. They believe in their philosophy, and they put people in the same positions as other people, so you’ve got to try and figure out who’s going to switch and take the roles that everybody else took,” said the Falcons free safety.
“We’ll do what we’ll typically do. At the end of the day, we don’t let people convert our coverages or anything. We’ve got good enough corners here that we felt they can match up and play against anybody.”
While Falcons cornerbacks Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford and Brian Poole battle with Funchess, Shepard and perhaps Samuel, Allen will get a few cracks at McCaffrey and he won’t be alone.
The Panthers’ first-round draft choice from Stanford leads Carolina in receptions with 49, and has carried the ball the same number of times as the third-leading rusher (with a modest 2.4-yard average).
“He’s a guy that can do it all,” Allen said. “He can line up in any personnel (group) and at any position. He’s good enough to be a slot receiver in this league ... very smooth, can catch the ball in traffic, makes plays, understands down and distance.”
McCaffrey is catching some balls that might normally be targeted for perennial Pro Bowl tight end Ed Olsen as he recovers from a broken foot, although tight end Ed Dickson leads Carolina with a 15.9-yard average. Benjamin was averaging 14.8 on 32 receptions with two scores.
With McCaffrey, and possibly even Samuel (himself a dual-position player at Ohio State), the Falcons will be mixing and matching a lot of different defenders, like linebackers Deion Jones and strong safety Keanu Neal with Allen into coverage schemes.
“Your roster better showcase where you have some safeties and some linebackers that can cover guys that have the physical ability to go out and catch like a receiver does,” Quinn said.
“That’s why we do love the matchups that we do with Deion and Devonta (Freeman) and Tevin (Coleman in practice) to get work over and over ... This happens to be a running back who has receiver-like ability ... (it will be) a number of guys, not just Deion.”
The Falcons may have as much tape of McCaffrey as on Shepard, but they’ve seen the former undrafted free agent from LSU.
Carolina signed him as a free agent after catching 41 passes in four seasons with the Bucs. He has 11 receptions for 133 yards and a score.
The Panthers have struggled to find a way to work in Samuel, yet Rivera suggested that the Benjamin trade may create more space for the second-round draft choice.
“We go through, like most receiver, what routes to they try to feature a player with best?” Quinn said. “The speed part for sure shows up to us. He was somebody that we looked at even in the draft ...
“He’s got the speed to do speed plays obviously, shots down the field, deep crossers, screens ...”
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