CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kelvin Benjamin was compared to former Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson coming out of high school because of his size. He admired the six-time Pro Bowl selection and embraced the comparisons.
Some called him “Baby Megatron.”
Comparisons to Johnson were natural again when the Carolina Panthers selected Benjamin in the first round of the 2014 draft. He is 6-foot-5 and 243 pounds. Johnson played at 6-5, 239 before retiring after the 2015 season.
So, were the comparisons fair?
Statistically, there’s not much difference between what Benjamin and Johnson did in their first 36 games as the Panthers prepare for Sunday’s game at Detroit.
Benjamin has 149 catches on 282 targets for 2,163 yards and 16 touchdowns. Johnson had 148 catches on 284 targets for 2,412 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Neither made the Pro Bowl at this point, either. Johnson didn’t kick off a string of six straight invites until his fourth season, when he caught 77 passes for 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Benjamin, who missed his second season with a torn ACL, is only four games into his third season of playing.
The biggest difference between the two is speed. Johnson ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds before being drafted by the Lions with the second overall pick in 2007. Benjamin was clocked at 4.61 seconds as the No. 28 pick in ’14.
Because of that, Johnson arguably was more intimidating. Smaller defensive backs had to respect him as a deep threat as well as a physical possession receiver.
The numbers show that. Johnson had 40 catches of 20 or more yards through his first 36 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Benjamin has only 27.
But Mark Carrier, who played wide receiver in the NFL from 1987 to 1998 before stepping into the role of director of player development for the Panthers, doesn’t believe comparing Benjamin to Johnson is unfair.
“He’ll never run a 4.3 40,” he said of Benjamin. “The thing about 'Megatron' was the intimidation factor. You watched him play and he was a beast. You look at KB standing next to a little corner and they’ve got to understand this is a big guy that can catch the ball and can separate.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera still believes Benjamin can play to Johnson’s level.
“I do,” he said. “Right now, our quarterback [Cam Newton] is improving daily, weekly, as was shown by this past Sunday. As he continues to get stronger and stronger in our system, it’s going to show with the success we could have potentially with our receivers, our tight ends, our backs.”
Benjamin is coming off his best game of the season. He received a team-high 84.8 grade from Pro Football Focus after catching all four of his targets for 104 yards in Sunday’s 33-30 victory at New England.
Perhaps his best play came on a 39-yard reception to start the fourth quarter. Benjamin ran a route up the seam and was expecting the pass to come over his outside shoulder. He adjusted midstride and caught it over his inside shoulder.
Benjamin also had a 43-yard catch when he broke the route outside after he and Russell Shepard were caught running side by side up the middle.
From an intimidation factor, offensive coordinator Mike Shula sees some of Johnson in Benjamin.
“First of all, he’s physical and he’s got good strength against one-on-one coverage and against press coverage,” Shula said. “That showed up in a couple of plays [Sunday]. He’s also very instinctive in finding zones and knowing where Cam wants him to be.
“It might not be the way you draw it up or the way it was in practice, but he kind of gets it and Cam and him are on the same page. That helped us on a play.”
Benjamin is improving. His 80.4 (32nd among wide receivers) overall grade from PFF last season was up from 74.4 (56th overall) in his rookie season, in which he caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns.
That, by the way, was well ahead of Johnson’s rookie season, in which he caught 48 passes for 756 yards and four touchdowns. It also should be noted that Johnson had more firepower around him with 2004 first-round pick Roy Williams, Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey each catching 61 or more passes in 2007.
The Panthers were rebuilding their receiving corps in 2014 after releasing Steve Smith and drafting Benjamin.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell wasn’t ready to inaugurate Benjamin as the next Johnson then, and he’s not ready to do it now. But he does acknowledge that Benjamin creates some of the same problems for defenses as Johnson because of his size and physicality.
“Because, No. 1, I think it’s obvious to say they are not easily moved,” Caldwell said. “From a physical standpoint, it’s an unbelievable mismatch between them and guys that are in the secondary. More often than not, you got 210-pounders, at most maybe 215-pounders, against a guy that’s got some bulk and power and speed.”
Caldwell noted how former NFL and college offensive coordinator Cam Cameron used to “always say he’d look for big on little.”
“He said big would win every time,” Caldwell continued. “But it does create some problems that [Benjamin], without question, is one of those kind of guys. He’s big. He’s fast. He’s tough. And he’s got hands.”
Benjamin just doesn’t have Johnson-like speed, so he might never be the next Megatron. But Benjamin is putting himself in position for a Megatron-like contract if he continues to produce.
In 2012, Johnson got an eight-year, $132 million deal, making him the highest-paid receiver in the NFL.
OK, Benjamin won’t get that, but perhaps he’ll get a baby Megatron deal from the Panthers or another team with his rookie deal set to expire after the 2018 season.
“Knowing KB personally, he has goals to become the best player he can be,” Carrier said. “Whether you compare him to somebody else doesn’t really matter. We all get compared to somebody.
“But as far as ability and potential -- and potential is the key word -- the sky’s the limit.”