It Was All About The Benjamin

Kelvin Benjamin and Devonta Freeman dined with Steelers brass Monday night. But it was all about Benjamin for this writer:

I received an e-mail late Sunday night from Bill Huber, the hard-working publisher of Scout.com's Packer Report site. It had to do with James Starks.

Huber had the rundown for me on Starks because the runner was headed to Pittsburgh for a free agent visit.

Huber wrote positively about Starks, and noted the crowded backfield in Green Bay, but wrote: "They still want him back. It's going to be up to Starks whether he wants to live with eight carries a game."

Sure enough, the Packers signed him back and Starks cancelled his visit to the RB-depleted Steelers.

This didn't sit well with Ed Bouchette, the top beat man in Pittsburgh.

"Are the Steelers' top brass fiddling while they let potential players get away?" Bouchette wrote. "GM Kevin Colbert, coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were at spring training with the Pirates yesterday. Tomlin gave them a speech."

Yes, Tomlin and his big-wig Steelers troupe went to Florida during this free-agency period, but it wasn't just to enthuse about baseball. They were out looking for something more important than a 31-year-old slot receiver or a back-up running back.

Just as the Steelers were able to sign a journeyman free safety last week while scouting Darqueze Dennard, a potential lock-down cornerback for the next decade, Tomlin was dining in Florida with a wide receiver/tight end/h-back/joker of a new-age slot receiver whom Tomlin probably believes can round out his talented group of young wide receivers.

His name is Kelvin Benjamin, and this 6-foot-5, 240-pound freak of nature has intrigued me since he opened this past season in Pittsburgh.

Benjamin caught only 5 passes for 73 yards and really wasn't much of a factor in Florida State's 41-13 win over Pitt that night. But his size, and body control for a man that size, made me want to look deeper.

He was a redshirt sophomore out of Belle Glade, Florida, who would turn 23 years old before the next draft. But he had caught only 30 passes the previous year against players younger than him. Something wasn't adding up.

So, after Benjamin erupted later in the season against the allegedly pro-ready Florida secondary in a 212-yard, 3-touchdown performance, I ventured over to Steelers rookie Vince Williams' locker to ask Vince what he knew about Benjamin, his former college teammate.

"He's really matured since he went to Florida State," said Williams, a cerebral boss of a middle linebacker.

I asked him to explain.

"You know how kids can be," Williams said. "He was just a kid when he got there."

Yeah, but Benjamin was a 20-year-old "kid" when he entered FSU. That's a bit old, isn't it? Why? What was the problem? Was he stupid? Was he a bad guy? Had he been in jail? Or was he an on-the-field problem? Was he one of those receivers who's always in the huddle crying about being open? Was he always demanding the ball? After all, his quarterback seemed to prefer Rashad Greene, a receiver of far less stature. Why?

I had so many questions, and I saved them for the combine.

So consider me as Tomlin, a guy on a mission to learn more about a 6-5 slot receiver with 35-inch arms and first-base mitts for hands. And consider the rest of the media asking the usual questions about why it's important to catch national-title-game-clinching TDs to be Todd Haley.

I, like Tomlin probably did, let the media/Haley fire off their dull football questions at the combine interview session until everyone else was asleep and the witness/Benjamin was put in an unsuspecting position.

His answer to a question about "What will you bring to an NFL team?" sent me into action.

"... they'll get a guy that's never going to give up," Benjamin finished up. "And if I need to work on something, my route running, my catching, that's what I'm going to do."

Kelvin, people who know you say you've matured a lot the last few years. What do they mean by that?

"Just growing up and being a man," he said. "I've learned to do the things you have to do to be a man. Before I was basically just being a kid, doing kid things. Not putting in the work you need to put in to be a great receiver."

What turned that around?

"Just seeing the season we had (in 2012), knowing that we could have gone to a national championship, knowing that we left a lot out there. I just wanted to turn it around for the team, for the organization."

What can you tell me about that catch to win the national title?

"It was a slant route. I knew he (the DB) was thinking fade and so I tried to sell him on that fade route. Three steps out I got inside of him and just did what I do best, which is attack it at the highest point."

Did you jump before Jameis threw that pass?

"Yeah. Sometimes I jump early. It throws the DB off. They go, 'Oh man.'"

Do you ever ask Jameis why he doesn't throw you the ball more often?

"Oh, no, man, I'm a big team player. Our big thing this year at Florida State was (for all the receivers) to get 1,000 yards."

Were you held back in school?

"Yes, I was held back in first grade and third grade."

You're out of The Muck, aren't you?

"Yes, sir."

That's what they call your hometown, don't they?

"Muck City, yes, because of the rich soil."

Did you chase rabbits out of the sugar cane fields as a kid?

"Yeah, everybody chased rabbits back in the day, when you were small. I mean, they were good to eat. (Looks around at quizzical faces.) No, they're really good if you've never had them before. But that also helps you with speed and agility and stuff like that."

That's what Santonio Holmes used to say, but he always had that surly look on his face as if he knew you, white media guy, thought less of him and his poor background.

Benjamin just beamed with joy as he talked about chasing rabbits as a kid. And, hey, it "helps you with speed and agility and stuff like that."

The big guy has that, regardless of what his 3-cone and shuttle times might tell you in relation to the receivers who checked in at a more mortal 210 pounds. That used to be considered big for a wide receiver.

But this guy, he's a freak, and that's why he was my favorite player to watch last season. In my heart, he's the guy I want to pencil in at Pick No. 15 in mock drafts, but every time I let my head get involved I pencil in the other big guy, Mike Evans, who's just as tall and long-limbed, but is three years younger and more intellectually polished.

But Kelvin Benjamin isn't dumb. Far from it. Nor is he mean, vindictive or a potential team cancer. I believe that because he came off as a happy-go-lucky kid who's only crime is that of inexperience and growing up dirt poor. And he doesn't come close to looking like a guy who's coming into the league just to chase the money. I got that impression from the polished Evans.

Benjamin told reporters after his pro day Tuesday that he just wants to learn from the veterans. And that may have been the last thing Tomlin needed to hear.

I know it was for me.


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