Cleveland Browns wide receiver and punt returner Travis Benjamin has made it publicly clear that a return to the team in 2016 is what he’s after. He said as much in October when he didn’t rule out the possibility of a contract extension coming this year: “I'm not looking for [free agency]. 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.” He reiterated his interest in returning to the team on Monday, saying, “If the Browns offer me a contract right now that's legitimate, I'll sign right now. I would never leave the Browns." But the question is: What would such a contract look like, whether he gets it now or at some point prior to the start of the 2016 league year?
This is a tricky question to answer because, while Benjamin is having a career year, his previous three seasons in Cleveland have been a mixed bag at best. Currently, Benjamin has caught 48 passes on 81 targets for 736 yards and four scores. He has 10 catches of 20 or more yards and has accounted for 26 of the Browns’ first downs. He’s also returned 22 punts for 273 yards. Extrapolating these numbers out to a 16-game season, Benjamin is on pace for 1,178 receiving yards and 434 punt return yards, bringing his projected total of yards as both a receiver and a returner to 1,612. He’s currently doing this while earning a $660,000 salary this year and costing a total of $779,250 against the Browns’ cap.
But this career-high in production is a recent development. In the previous three years in Cleveland, he caught just 41 passes on 96 targets for 717 yards and five scores, while returning 40 punts for 533 yards and two scores and returning 18 kickoffs for 468 yards. Some of this low production can be attributed to Benjamin’s 2013 season-ending knee injury, an injury that he wasn’t 100 percent healed from both physically and mentally in 2014. It does complicate things, though, because it’s hard to determine what the future will hold for him. If the 2015 version of Benjamin is the one the Browns can expect to see in the years ahead, then Benjamin deserves to be paid according to his production. But there needs to be some level of protection the Browns can build into the contract should another injury strike and Benjamin’s quality of play suffers yet again.
The first step to determining Benjamin’s financial worth is to look at players with comparable stat lines over the last two seasons and what they have been recently paid. For 2013, these players are Vincent Jackson, Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Eric Decker; for 2014, they are Randall Cobb, DeAndre Hopkins, DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, Steve Smith and Boldin, again. Hopkins and Jeffery, though, get removed from the discussion because the pair are still on their rookie contracts. Any upcoming deal for Benjamin should fall between Boldin on the low end and Vincent Jackson on the high. Boldin is currently in the final year of a two-year, $12 million contract he signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 2013. It includes $5.5 million in guaranteed money. Vincent Jackson’s deal, signed in 2013 and restructured later that year, runs through the 2016 season and is worth a total of $55.555 million, with $26 million guaranteed. But Boldin’s cash was paid to an older receiver to be a second or third passing option in the Niners’ offense, while Jackson’s deal was that of a No. 1 wideout. This is why Cobb’s deal seems to be the correct blueprint for any negotiations between the Browns and Benjamin going forward.
Cobb’s career stat line does not perfectly match up with Benjamin’s. For one, he’s been with the Green Bay Packers since 2011, one year longer than Benjamin has been with the Browns. For another, he’s been part of a stable and high-powered offense, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. For those reasons, he has 272 receptions for 3,578 yards and 30 touchdowns to date, to go along with his 74 punt returns for 722 yards and two scores and 74 kickoff returns for 1,915 yards and one touchdown. But much like Benjamin, Cobb is not a No. 1 wideout. His career yards-per-game average as a receiver is 58.7 and currently stands at 58.8 for 2015. Where comparing Benjamin to someone like Vincent Jackson is like apples-to-oranges, Benjamin versus Cobb is more like comparing two different varieties of apples. Benjamin being the Browns’ current receiving leader shows that he’s capable of a big workload, but in terms of a No. 1 wideout, he doesn’t quite fit that mold.
For Cobb’s services, the Packers signed him to a four-year, $40 million in the 2015 offseason. The deal includes $13 million in total guaranteed money—or 32.5 percent of the entire contract value—and has a total 2015 salary cap hit of $5.35 million. That number climbs to $9.15 million in 2016, and $12.75 million in 2017 and 2018, a sign of a deal ripe for either two things: Restructuring, or, because of the ever-decreasing amount of his payday being guaranteed, being released as early as 2017. This is a well-hedged bet by the Packers, given that Cobb has a doubled risk built into the fact that he both serves as a returner and a receiver. And that’s doubtlessly something the Browns will keep in mind when considering what to pay Benjamin.
Because there is inherent uncertainty in giving new contracts or extensions to any current Browns players, considering the ever-present possibility of changes in the coaching staff, front office and even quarterback that could affect Benjamin’s standing on the roster, don’t expect Benjamin to get an exact replica of Cobb’s deal. Four years is a good length for any offer given Benjamin, but expect something closer to $36 million in total value. With 32.5 percent of that guaranteed, as in Cobb’s deal, that leaves Benjamin with $11.7 million in total guaranteed cash from such a contract, or $2.925 million in average guarantees per year. This kind of contract factors in Benjamin’s usefulness as both a receiver and punt returner, rewards him for a strong 2015 showing and sets realistic expectations for his production versus his payday moving forward.
Benjamin has already proven what he is capable of doing on the field when completely healthy and in possession of the trust and confidence of his coaching staff. For these reasons, he’s one of the most worthy of the Browns’ 2016 class of free agents to receive a new contract from the team. And though the Browns have more than enough money to spend next year, they still must weigh Benjamin’s value appropriately. Looking at him as a slightly smaller-scale version of Cobb makes the most sense among the comparable receivers to get new contracts recently, doubly so because Cobb also serves as a returner. Four years, $36 million and $11.7 fully guaranteed seems like a good jumping off point for Benjamin’s camp and the Browns once contract talks get into full swing.