How rising wide receiver deals affect Kelvin Benjamin, Bills

Many of his 2014 draft classmates have signed big-money deals, but the Bills may take a wait-and-see approach with Kelvin Benjamin. Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane will hold his pre-draft news conference Monday afternoon and will be expected to address topics including Richie Incognito's retirement and the possibility of trading up in the first round.

But the five-year, $75 million deal wide receiver Jarvis Landry signed Friday with the Cleveland Browns could raise another question for Beane: what will be the Bills' approach with receiver Kelvin Benjamin's contract?

Landry's $15 million-per-year pact makes him the latest receiver in the impressive 2014 draft class to sign a new deal, joining Tampa Bay's Mike Evans ($16.5 million per season), Kansas City's Sammy Watkins ($16 million), Green Bay's Davante Adams ($14.5 million), Chicago's Allen Robinson ($14 million), Jacksonville's Donte Moncrief ($9.6 million) and Marqise Lee ($8.5 million) and Washington's Paul Richardson ($8 million).

Two of the biggest deals -- for the Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. and the Rams' Brandin Cooks -- are still to come.

So what about Benjamin? The No. 28 overall selection in 2014 is due to earn $8.5 million with the Bills this year, the final season of his rookie contract.

It seems unlikely the Bills will jump to give Benjamin a deal on par with his 2014 counterparts given his production last season -- both before and after a knee injury that caused him to miss almost three full games in late November and early December. Benjamin underwent surgery early this offseason and is expected to begin the offseason program with his teammates Monday, coach Sean McDermott said at the NFL combine in February.

Playing for the Carolina Panthers through Week 8 of last season, Benjamin averaged four catches (tied for 32nd among NFL wide receivers), 59 receiving yards (tied for 21st) and 0.25 receiving touchdowns per game (tied for 53rd).

Benjamin was dealing with left knee issues early last season, but when he played a full 16 games in 2016, he averaged 3.94 catches (tied for 44th among NFL wide receivers), 59 receiving yards (37th) and 0.44 touchdowns per game (tied for 19th). All of those marks were down from his career highs as a rookie in 2014, when he averaged 4.56 catches (tied for 29th), 63 receiving yards (23rd) and 0.56 touchdowns per game (tied for 15th). Benjamin missed 2015 with a torn ACL.

Addressing Benjamin will be a balancing act for Beane in the coming months. His strongest negotiating position will be to note his decline in production since his rookie season and his injury history involving both knees. Indeed, those are legitimate reasons for Beane to be cautious about offering Benjamin an extension similar to those received by others in the 2014 draft class.

However, any argument Beane could make against getting a Benjamin deal done immediately would also undermine -- to some extent -- his decision to trade for Benjamin at the deadline last October.

In an effort to address a glaring weak spot on the Bills' roster and make a push for the playoffs after a 5-2 start, Beane traded third- and seventh-round picks in 2018 to Carolina for Benjamin, whom the Panthers had not yet extended beyond 2018.

Beane was successful in getting Buffalo to the playoffs, snapping a 17-year postseason drought, but Benjamin had little impact. Early in his second game with the Bills, he tore the meniscus in his right knee, missed the next two games and played through the injury for the remaining five games of the regular season and playoffs. In seven games, he totaled 17 catches, 226 yards and one touchdown.

The injury has made it difficult to evaluate the trade.

"I'd be lying if I said [Benjamin] was himself [and] he was 100 percent," McDermott said in January. "He wasn’t. This will be a big offseason for Kelvin. Brandon and I both know, and I think people around the league know, when healthy what Kelvin’s capable of doing."

Added Beane at his combine news conference: "Hopefully this year he will stay injury free and everybody will see what his talents are."

Both of the comments suggest the Bills will take a wait-and-see approach with Benjamin instead of aggressively pursuing an extension this summer.

If Benjamin does not bounce back in 2018, it could help the Bills get him back at a lower price next offseason -- if they decide to re-sign him at all. However, such an outcome would raise questions about whether Beane should have traded for him in the first place, especially when the third-round pick could have been used to trade up for a quarterback or to restock a roster depleted by veteran losses.

However, if Benjamin returns to his rookie form this season, the Bills will either have to assign the franchise tag next offseason or sign him to a deal that could rival those given to Evans, Watkins or Landry. Beane's extensive efforts to dump salary since being hired last year will then pay off, as Buffalo could have $70 million or more in 2019 cap space and could afford a lucrative deal for Benjamin.

Theoretically, the Bills could receive a compensatory draft selection in 2020 if Benjamin signs elsewhere in 2019, recouping some of the draft capital they gave up in the draft last season. However, there would be two roadblocks. First, if Benjamin's production remains down in 2018, he might not sign a large enough deal in 2019 to earn a mid-round compensatory selection. Second, the Bills' bounty of cap space could result in signings that offset Benjamin's loss, even if he performs well in 2018 and signs a top-of-the-market deal elsewhere.

One obstacle to Benjamin taking a step forward this season could be quarterback. As it stands, the Bills have perhaps the NFL's worst group of signal callers in AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman, and if either starts this season, there could be a learning curve.

If the Bills draft a quarterback later this month, there could be a similar adjustment period for the rookie that could prevent Benjamin from realizing his potential.