BEREA—The Browns No. 1 receiver might’ve been here all along.
Despite losing Josh Gordon to an indefinite suspension by the NFL, the Browns knew they had to make some decisions in regards to their receiving corps. They signed free agents Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline and drafted Vince Mayle in the fourth-round.
Mayle was released in the final roster moves, Hartline has caught nine passes, Bowe has been inactive in four of the six games and has yet to catch a pass.
Enter Travis Benjamin.
Known as a prolific punt returner, Benjamin has numerous Browns records for punt returns, but had an off-season in regards to that category in 2014, coming off a torn ACL suffered in 2013. He had a career-low average of just an average of 8.5 yards per return after averaging over 13 yards per return in his career. He also lost his confidence and mishandled several punts.
Benjamin was a fourth-round pick (100th overall) of the Browns in the 2012 NFL Draft.
However, in 2015, Benjamin has regained his prowess in punt returns with 17 returns for an average of 14.7 per return, including a 78-yard touchdown against the Titans.
Special teams coordinator is happy with Benjamin’s return to being a prominent returner, currently ranked fourth in the league.
“He’s very explosive.”
Benjamin said he’s not frustrated that teams are starting to punt away from him.
“Oh, not at all,” he said. “I never get myself frustrated. Either the Rams are going to do it or another team later on says, ‘Hey, forget him. We’re just going to punt it to him and try to let him win the game,’ but hopefully going to Sunday, they punt me the ball.”
In 2015, Benjamin has emerged as the Browns go to wide receiver. Through just six games, Benjamin has career highs with 31 receptions for 528 yards (17.0 avg.), including four touchdowns. Benjamin is currently eighth in the NFL in yardage and 12th in the AFC in receptions. He also has four touchdowns. Prior to this season, Benjamin’s most receptions were 18 for 314 yards (17.4 avg.) in 2014 and 18 catches for 298 yards (16.6 avg.) in 2012.
Mike Pettine said the coaching staff has gained more and more confidence in Benjamin as a receiver and not just a deep ball receiver.
“We saw flashes of it a year ago, when he lead us in touchdown catches and made some huge plays for us,” Pettine said. “He’s a guy you wouldn’t think you could give him the entire route tree—a guy that’s 165 pounds soaking wet— when he’s running, breaking routes, you’re holding your breath. He’s a tough target for defenses, just because of his ability to change directions and his quickness to get behind defenses in traffic.”
Benjamin said he’s worked extremely hard to be a great receiver.
“Each and every year I get better because I want to be the best,” Benjamin said. “One off-season, I worked on improving my catching. The next year, I worked on my route running. With the mindset and the work ethic that I have,I believe I’m going to keep improving.”
Pettine said it’s evident in the skills Benjamin has showed that he can be an every down receiver.
“What’s jumped out to all of us is his ball skills,” Pettine said. “His catch radius for a guy his size is larger than you might expect. He does a good job tracking the ball. Some guys have a hard time tracking the long ball and he does not. Given his size, he’s been more than a pleasant surprise for us.”
Benjamin has been a deep ball threat with touchdowns coming from long range. He caught a 54-yard touchdown in the season opener against the Jets and then had a 60-yard score in the second game for a touchdown. He’s had catches of 47- and 25-yards, as well.
Benjamin has found a way to get open, primarily using his speed against bigger, more physical defensive backs. They’ve also made it more difficult for him to get behind the secondary in their defensive schemes.
“I wouldn’t say it’s hard, but they’re kind of playing it a little bit – safeties back deep, 25, 30 yards much deeper so we just have to draw it up, and hopefully, it comes along.”
Benjamin has been impressive in his ability to go up and get the ball in traffic with defensive backs. He’s confident in his ability.
“I’m always going to get it,” he said. “As a receiver’s standpoint, I always tell myself if the ball comes to eye level, it’s bad for me, I always try to go up and get it each and every time.”
Listed at 5-10, 175, Benjamin isn’t built like the typical number one receiver.
The timing couldn’t have better for Benjamin as he is in the final year of his rookie contract. He said he wants to stay with the Browns despite having the opportunity to enter free agency.
“I’m not looking for (free agency),” Benjamin said. “Me and the Browns have a great relationship. I love them, they love me and I love the community so if we get a deal done that’ll be great for me.
“I love it here, my wife loves it here and we’re just happy to be here.”
Many times, players put off contract talks during the season, but Benjamin said he wouldn’t mind getting the contract resolved before the season is over.
“It’s not too late now, its only week seven so we’re kind of in the middle of things,” he said. “Hopefully in a couple week something gets brought up.”
Benjamin said he’s not letting the contract become a distraction.
“I’m really not paying attention to it right now,” Benjamin said. “My mind and focus is just keep going to every game and just put on my best performance. At the end of the day or end of the year, the dice may roll where they roll.”
Robertson, Gipson Closer: LB Craig Robertson (ankle) and DB Tashaun Gipson are getting closer to playing this week. Robertson was doing individual work at practice on Thursday. Pettine said that Robertson had a better chance of playing this week than Gipson, but wouldn’t rule either player out.
“We should get Craig for some (team) work,” Pettine said. “I wouldn’t rule out either of them.”
Gipson was on the stationary bike during the open portion of practice.
Haden Likely Out: Meanwhile, DB Joe Haden has still not been cleared from the NFL’s concussion protocol and likely won’t play Sunday after missing Wednesday and Thursday.
“The protocol is strict and conservative and for good reason,” Pettine said.
Love for Schwartz: Pettine spoke highly of OL Mitchell Schwartz’s play after a report said that Schwartz was the top right tackle in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.
“Good for Mitch,” Pettine said. “We’re very pleased with Mitch. He’s relentless in his preparation and it carries over to the field.”
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo also praised OL Joe Thomas and Schwartz. He was impressed that Schwartz held Pro Bowl LB Von Miller to one tackle.
Schwartz is in his final year of contract with the Browns.
Tough Test: Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said facing rookie RB Todd Gurley will be a huge task to stop.
“(Gurley’s) a dynamic, electrifying back,” O’Neil said. “We need to be consistent for all four quarters (in stopping the run).”
With the injuries to starters on defense, O’Neil admitted chemistry has played a role in the defense’s inconsistency, but wouldn’t offer it as an excuse.
“It has a role, but we’re not going to make excuses,” he said. “I thought we played pretty well last week and I think it’s something we can build on.”