Travis Benjamin isn’t considered a blue-chip wide receiver, but the Browns hope his elite speed will add a new dimension to their offense.
“He is extremely fast, and when you put speed on the field, it changes things,” coach Pat Shurmur said after the Browns drafted Benjamin in the fourth round (100th overall) last week. “We felt like he was going to add that element to our receiving corps.”
The Browns led the league in dropped passes last season and have not been able to get consistent production out of their receivers in recent years. Greg Little led the team last season with 61 receptions for 709 yards, but 41 receivers throughout the NFL finished with more catches.
Still, Browns General Manager Tom Heckert waited until the fourth round this year to address the glaring need. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Benjamin, the only receiver the Browns picked this year, should have an opportunity to earn significant playing time as a rookie.
“He’s different than the guys we have, not just [in terms of] speed,” Browns President Mike Holmgren said. “He’s smaller and quicker. He’s a different receiver. We have bigger guys, not slow guys, but they’re bigger.”
George McDonald served as the Browns’ wide receivers coach in 2009-10 before accepting the same position at the University of Miami, where he worked with Benjamin last season. When the Browns hold their rookie minicamp Friday through Sunday, McDonald believes they’ll gain a greater appreciation for Benjamin’s versatility.
“When you look at him and see his size, you think he’s just a slot receiver,” McDonald said in a phone interview. “But with his speed and quickness, he can do a lot of things on the perimeter also. I think he has the unique ability to be flexible enough to have a skill set that allows him to play both spots.”
Although the Browns have standout return man Josh Cribbs, McDonald said they could maximize Benjamin’s value by using him on special teams, too. Benjamin, who had 41 catches for 609 yards and three touchdowns last season as a senior, also was the Hurricanes’ primary return specialist.
“He has legitimate track speed where he can hit those jets,” McDonald said. “He’s not as big as Josh or as physical as Josh, but I think those two back there rotating or back there at the same time, it presents problems for the punters or the kickers deciding who they want to kick it to.”
Benjamin, though, must work to become a complete player.
“[He needs to] get in the weight room just to develop that strength to take some of the hits that he’ll take there,” McDonald said. “I think the biggest [adjustment] that most college receivers have to deal with when they come to the NFL is just to continue to work on their route-running skills and creating separation at the top of their breaks, because everything happens a little bit faster there.”
And like Little, Benjamin will bring some baggage to the league.
According to the NCAA, Benjamin received more than $150 in extra benefits, including meals and entertainment, from former Miami booster and convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro. Benjamin was one of dozens of players named by Shapiro in recorded interviews with federal agents, Yahoo! Sports reported last August. Shapiro said he provided Benjamin with extra benefits beginning Benjamin’s freshman season, according to the report. The NCAA suspended Benjamin for the 2011 season opener and ordered him to repay the benefits.
“The thing that happened here with him and those guys, it was an unfortunate situation that happened when they were young kids and coming into college,” McDonald said. “… I don’t think anything that happened in terms of that is a judgment on his character. When he was with us last year, we never had any issues with him. Travis is a stand-up guy. I would recommend him 100 percent in terms of his character.”
In 2011, the Browns drafted Little in the second round (59th overall), even though he missed the entire 2010 season at the University of North Carolina because the NCAA ruled him permanently ineligible for receiving about $4,952 in impermissible benefits. After selecting Little, the Browns insisted they did their homework and felt comfortable with him, in part because they had the insight of tight ends coach Steve Hagen, who coached at North Carolina in 2007-08.
Shurmur suggested Browns quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple, the Hurricanes’ offensive coordinator from 2009-10, provided similar background information about Benjamin.
“We got some intimate knowledge of him,” Shurmur said. “Mark Whipple was with him in Miami. He talked about how this guy has got a great future. … He felt like this was a tremendous kid. Now we got to know him, and he is a hard guy not to like.”
The Browns, of course, will like Benjamin even more if he can evolve into the type of playmaking receiver they desperately need.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.