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Kelvin Benjamin Is The NFL’s Clutchest Receiver

When Cam Newton needed one last completion to seal the Carolina Panthers’ Week 5 win over the Detroit Lions, it’s no surprise that he looked Kelvin Benjamin’s way. The 26-year-old receiver is football’s answer to Mariano Rivera: He shows up to close out games.

Benjamin is not an All-Pro, or even a likely Pro Bowl candidate; this season, he’s on pace for just 870 receiving yards. The 2014 first-round pick hasn’t even produced on par with many of his draft classmates. Partially because of an ACL injury that cost him his second season, Benjamin, who was the fifth receiver taken in 2014, ranks just ninth in that group in career receiving yards.

Benjamin’s per-game production also fails to impress when compared with all wideouts since 2014. According to ESPN’s TruMedia, he ranks 39th in per-game receptions, 34th in yardage and 20th in touchdowns.

But in the fourth quarter, he’s as productive as any of his peers — and no team in the NFL depends on any receiver to close out games as much as the Panthers depend on Benjamin.

Among wide receivers who played at least 25 games from 2014 through 2017, Benjamin’s average of 23.3 fourth-quarter receiving yards ranks fourth — behind three world-beaters in Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins — and his 0.67 touchdowns per fourth quarter is tied for 10th. In the chart above, Benjamin’s per-game fourth-quarter receiving production appears to be solidly among the best in the league. But the bubble size tells an even more compelling story.

Most wide receivers produce more in the fourth quarter, as NFL teams throw more often especially when they are losing. But only a handful of one-dimensional wideouts like Cordarrelle Patterson and Taylor Gabriel — big-play specialists used more often in aggressive passing situations — see a bigger proportional increase in their stats from the first three quarters to the fourth than Benjamin. No full-time No. 1 receiver1 steps up when it counts like him — and Newton knows it.

Benjamin becomes elite when the fourth quarter begins

Top 10 receivers in average yards gained per route run in the fourth quarter, 2014-17

Kelvin Benjamin CAR 3.2 30.6% 16.3
Antonio Brown PIT 2.9 29.1 14.2
Odell Beckham NYG 2.9 27.3 15.9
Jordy Nelson GB 2.6 23.6 15.2
Julio Jones ATL 2.6 28.9 15.3
DeAndre Hopkins HOU 2.5 28.4 14.8
A.J. Green CIN 2.2 23.8 17.6
Julian Edelman NE 2.1 24.1 13.0
Jeremy Maclin BAL 2.1 23.5 12.7
Emmanuel Sanders DEN 2.1 22.4 15.9

Source: ESPN Trumedia

According to TruMedia, Benjamin’s been thrown to on 30.6 percent of the fourth-quarter routes he’s run. That’s tops in the NFL over the course of his career. Factor in his league-leading touchdowns-per-route average (0.034) and eighth-best yards-per-catch average (16.3), and Benjamin produces more offense every time he goes out for a late-game pass than anyone else on the planet.

Against the Philadelphia Eagles tonight, the Panthers may need him to be the deciding factor, just like he was in Detroit.

With less than three minutes to play in Sunday’s game and Carolina nursing a 3-point lead, Benjamin found himself lined up against top Lions corner Darius Slay on a crucial 3rd-and-9. If the Panthers converted, they’d be able to run out the clock. If not, Detroit would likely get the ball back with just under two minutes left. Benjamin needed to get 9 yards; he got 17 — and the 4-1 Panthers picked up the kind of tough conference win they’ll need to stay in NFC title contention.

“He’s been a big-time target for us,” Newton told reporters after the game. “That’s the reason … you call big-time players big-time players, is for those type of moments. I went to him, and he made a play.”

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  1. Defined for this article’s purposes as leading his team in average routes run during the first three quarters over the course of the sample period.

Ty Schalter is a husband, father and terrible bass player who uses words and numbers to analyze football. His work has been featured at VICE, SiriusXM and elsewhere.