Travis Benjamin may be more than just a glamorous and glitzy speedster for a town that loves the grit and grind of a bulldozer. The fourth-round pick from pastel Miami was among the standouts in the Cleveland Browns’ first preseason game.
But perhaps his two best accomplishments were not what many observers had expected from the 5'10" wideout. After all, he is expected to make plays like the 36-yard reception from Brandon Weeden or the 33-yard-kickoff return at the end of the first quarter.
Instead, on Benjamin’s first “unexpected” play, he caught a 12-yard pass from Colt McCoy on a comeback route with 0:22 left in the first quarter. On 2nd-and-7 from Detroit’s 32, McCoy heaved the ball to his right, slightly overthrowing it. Benjamin leaped high in traffic and snared it for the first down. It showed he’s not limited to the perimeter game or serving as a stretch-the-defense decoy to distract defensive backs from covering the Browns’ talented cadre of tight ends and running backs on underneath routes.
His desire to get his hands dirty became even clearer at 14:52 in the second quarter, when Benjamin made his second unexpected play. The ball was on Cleveland’s 34, on 1st-and-20 after a holding call on lineman Oniel Cousins. McCoy dumped off a pass to the right to Brandon Jackson. Benjamin broke from his mid-range route to come toward the line of scrimmage to block fourth-year linebacker Ashlee Palmer despite him having a 60-pound advantage on Benjamin. It allowed Jackson to pick up the penalty yardage and then some.
Oh, and by the way, he also displayed on two plays that glitzy speed that turned heads at the NFL combine last winter. Scouts hoped to see what Benjamin could do with a strong-armed NFL quarterback. By contrast, Benjamin caught passes in college from Jacory Harris, whom many considered weak-armed and unable to throw the deep ball accurately. Although undersized, Benjamin was considered as one of those speedy wideouts who could catch overthrown passes “with his feet.”
Such evidence came on the third play of Brandon Weeden’s introduction to pro football. In a three-WR set, Benjamin was the left flanker and TE Jordan Cameron in the left slot. Benjamin outran rookie CB Dwight “Bill” Bentley and caught the ball over his left shoulder. He had to adjust slightly to the safely placed ball, which took him out of bounds at the 23. The 36-yard completion put the Browns in field goal range.
After the 2012 draft, some predicted that the Weeden-Benjamin combination could give the Browns a stronger vertical game. The reason is fundamental: combine a quarterback who has a 98-mph fastball with a receiver who can devour 40 yards of turf in 4.32 seconds. Even the weaker-armed Harris was able to deliver to Benjamin 131 passes for 2,146 yards for a 16.4 yard average in their four years together at Miami.
Assuming they continue to learn the nuances of the pro game and both men stay healthy, the Weeden-Benjamin combination should be at least as productive. A slight improvement over Benjamin’s Miami numbers would mean an average of three catches per game and possibly 17 yards per catch, or more than 45 catches and 800 receiving yards over a 16-game season.
Plus, at Miami, Benjamin added 1,602 yards on punt and kickoff returns, scoring two TDs on returns. In the Lions game, he showed he didn’t leave that part of his repertoire behind in college.
With 1:00 left in the first quarter, he took the Lions’ kickoff from several yards deep and on the left side of the end zone. With three blockers lined up in a curtain in front of him, he cut hard to the right. Benjamin scurried across the stenciled "10" on the right side of the field where rookie CB Jonte Green seemed to have an angle on him. Benjamin kicked it into another gear, blew past Green’s outstretched arms and got another 19 yards out of the deal.
In the special teams’ battle for field position, the undersized Benjamin can be a big weapon. But he’s more than a situational speedster. He can also outrun defensive backs, catch the ball in traffic and block nasty linebackers. He may well be a blue-collar wideout who is willing to get some dirt under his fingernails when needed. It’s nice when Cleveland can take some talents from South Beach.