Bills' Kelvin Benjamin a forgotten man in WR spending spree

Kelvin Benjamin had a 1,000-yard season as a rookie with the Panthers in 2014, but hasn't had one since. Mark Konezny/USA TODAY Sports

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Life is good for wide receivers drafted in 2014.

Players from one of the most accomplished draft classes at the position in NFL history are entering their fifth seasons in the league, and the top performers have already been guaranteed more than $250 million in new contracts.

Only two of the five receivers drafted in the first round in 2014 -- Odell Beckham Jr. (No. 12 overall) and Kelvin Benjamin (No. 28 overall) -- haven't signed their second professional deals. Several second-rounders, such as Jarvis Landry, Davante Adams and Allen Robinson -- also have cashed in.

New York Giants owner John Mara said last week that the team plans to start negotiating with Beckham "sooner rather than later" and the team wants him to "be a Giant for a long time."

There seems to be less momentum toward an extension between the Bills and Benjamin, whose injury history and declining production have essentially rendered him the forgotten man among the biggest names in his distinguished draft class.

Three of the five richest contracts among NFL wide receivers have been signed within the past five months by members of the 2014 draft class. Mike Evans and Landry earned their paydays this spring, and Brandin Cooks signed a five-year deal with the Los Angeles Rams last month that averages $16.2 million per season.

Benjamin has noticed.

"You see them," he said last week. "At the same time, you kind of just work. Because at the same time, I'm here. It's up to the Buffalo Bills if they want to keep me. I ain't trying to pull anybody's arms or anything about it. I'm just staying grounded, just keep working and hopefully in the future, something will come from it."

Asked if there had been any contract talks between the two sides, Benjamin said, "From my side, no. I don't think, no. I just try to ball out this season and if I ball out this season, it's definitely gonna be there."

Benjamin is still playing on his rookie contract, which the Bills inherited when they dealt third-round and seventh-round picks to the Carolina Panthers to acquire Benjamin at the trade deadline last October. That deal will pay Benjamin a fully guaranteed $8.5 million this season before he is scheduled for unrestricted free agency next March.

Injuries have played a role in Buffalo's hesitance with Benjamin. He missed the entire 2015 season with a torn left ACL and played through issues with that knee early last season with the Panthers. Early in his second game with the Bills after being traded, Benjamin suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee that required surgery after the season.

Benjamin has been practicing without limitations this training camp and said last week that he has experienced "no pain, no aching" in either of his knees.

"I'm just trying to go out and work on my craft," he said. "Get back to just working on my craft and just get back to dominating."

In 14 games with the Bills and Panthers last season, Benjamin caught 48 passes for 692 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers were down from 2016, when he caught 63 passes for 941 yards and seven touchdowns in 16 games, as well as his rookie season in 2014, when Benjamin set career highs with 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns.

The elixir for reversing the downward statistical trend of Benjamin's professional career? Targets.

"I feel like if I get the targets, I can go out there with the best of them," he said. "Anybody. I just need the opportunity."

The opportunity exists in Buffalo for Benjamin to be the No. 1 receiver among a group of otherwise mostly unproven pass-catchers. At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Benjamin literally and figuratively stands above his competition at the position.

Through the first week of training camp, Benjamin has worked with the top offensive unit opposite a rotating cast of wide receivers. Veterans Andre Holmes and Jeremy Kerley are frequently paired with Benjamin, but several others -- most often 2017 Green Bay Packers seventh-round pick Malachi Dupre -- have also seen reps with the top offense.

Eventually, the Bills are expected to get 2017 second-round pick Zay Jones back from the non-football injury list as he recovers from an offseason knee injury. Jones, who was arrested and charged with felony damage to property in March but later had the charges dropped, caught 27 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie.

The path is paved for Benjamin to be the Bills' top receiver, but after a week of camp, there is little clarity about who will be throwing to him.

Buffalo continues to divide first-team reps almost equally among AJ McCarron, who signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Bills this offseason, and Nathan Peterman, the team's fifth-round pick in 2017. At times, rookie first-round pick Josh Allen has led the first-team offense for a period of practice. Otherwise, Allen has led the third team while McCarron and Peterman have split second-team reps.

The carousel of quarterbacks has provided a challenge for Benjamin, who was thrown passes by three different quarterbacks -- Peterman, Tyrod Taylor and Joe Webb -- in the six games he played for the Bills last season.

During an 11-on-11 drill in the red zone during Tuesday's practice, a ball thrown by the cannon-armed Allen bounced off Benjamin's chest in the end zone.

On a different play with Peterman under center, Benjamin appeared to bobble a catch in the back of the end zone before it fell into the hands of safety Jordan Poyer. Peterman, appearing somewhat frustrated, immediately walked up to Benjamin and began gesturing about the route he had wanted him to run.

"It's obviously hard having a different quarterback, different timing, different speeds of the ball," Benjamin said last week. "But I'm just trying to go out and have fun with it at the same time."

In May, general manager Brandon Beane told WGR 550 that he would wait until he saw how Benjamin performed with the team's trio of quarterbacks and how he fit into new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's system before considering a new deal.

How long the Bills will wait before potentially engaging in talks with Benjamin is unclear. But what is clear is that Benjamin's peers in the 2014 draft class have reshaped the market at their position. For the time being, Benjamin is being left behind.