By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Wide receiver Travis Benjamin believes he’s the fastest player on the Browns’ roster.
But where does his speed rank among all NFL players?
“Top five,” Benjamin, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.26 seconds the summer before his junior season at the University of Miami, said without hesitation.
The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Benjamin certainly looked like one of the league’s quickest athletes as he turned the corner and left the St. Louis Rams in his dust en route to a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown Thursday night in the preseason opener at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns won 27-19, and with Benjamin’s touchdown early in the second quarter, the starters outscored the Rams 17-0 before taking the rest of the game off.
Linebacker James-Michael Johnson made the first block to spring the return, and cornerback Trevin Wade delivered the last one to ensure Benjamin would reach the end zone untouched. He’ll also look to blaze by the Detroit Lions when the Browns host them Thursday night in the second exhibition game.
“There were some great blocks out there, and once I knew JMJ had sealed the edge off for me, I knew it was going to be a touchdown,” said Benjamin, a fourth-round pick in last year’s draft. … “I think if I get the edge on you, it’s me all the way.”
Benjamin is filling Josh Cribbs’ big shoes as the primary punt returner for the Browns. Cribbs gave Benjamin him some love on Twitter after his big play against the Rams.
“Congrats son!!!” Cribbs, who signed with the Oakland Raiders in the offseson, wrote on Twitter. “I heard about the return. Keep it going all season.”
Benjamin said Cribbs, a three-time Pro Bowler and special-teams force who played for the Browns the past eight seasons, took him under his wing last year.
“Josh is a great person to me,” said Benjamin, who had a 93-yard punt return for a touchdown as a rookie. “He was a great mentor while he was here in Cleveland. By watching him and learning the things he did, it’s coming along into my game. … He’d tell me what to watch for [like] how to read the punter’s foot. So he always gave me great advice.”
Benjamin is not only aiming to contribute as a dynamic returner, but also as a receiver. He got started on that path by catching a pass for 12 yards against Rams. Last season, he played 14 games and tallied 18 catches for 298 yards and two touchdowns. In June, quarterback Brandon Weeden estimated that Benjamin had more catches during spring practices than any other receiver on the team.
“He has gotten a lot better,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “He’s using his speed better in his routes. As opposed to last year, where he was just a guy that ran deep, this year up to this point, he has shown ability to run the shorter routes as well and get in and out of breaks really well.”
Benjamin polished his route running this offseason with San Francisco 49ers veteran receiver Anquan Boldin. They were among the NFL players who worked out under the guidance of trainer Tony Villani in Boca Raton, Fla.
For the record, Browns cornerback Buster Skrine ran the 40-yard dash in 4.22 seconds before his junior season at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and still contends he’s a bit faster than Benjamin. Skrine, though, also gives Benjamin credit for evolving into a more complete receiver.
“His routes have gotten a lot better,” Skrine said. “Everybody knew he was a deep threat the first year he came in, but this year he’s an intermediate threat, too. He spent a lot of time in the offseason running routes, and he’s doing a good job of it.
“He’s super dangerous ’cause he’ll catch the ball and run away from you if you’re not in the right spot. As ya’ll saw on Thursday, he did that on a punt return. He’s been doing it on intermediate routes, too, in practice.”
The Browns need Benjamin to step up in his second professional season, especially because the NFL has suspended their No. 1 wide receiver, Josh Gordon, for the first two games of the regular season for violating its substance-abuse policy. Gordon blamed prescription cough medicine that contained codeine, a substance banned by the league, for triggering a failed drug test.
“We will use [Benjamin] as a receiver whether Josh is there or not during the course of the season,” Chudzinski said. “He’s a guy with a unique skill set with the speed that he has. He’s definitely somebody we want to take advantage of and find a role for. He will be more important in those first couple games.”
Benjamin is on track join Greg Little and Davone Bess as the team’s top-three receivers during Gordon’s absence. He is determined to make the most of the opportunity, beginning with the Sept. 8 regular-season opener against the Miami Dolphins.
“I’m going to go into Game 1 versus the Dolphins looking to come out with a great game, just to fill in for Josh,” Benjamin said. … “I feel like with my speed and my talent, either in special teams or whenever I get on the field, I can make a difference.”
Some believe Benjamin’s slight build could lead to issues with ball security and durability, though he isn’t buying into the skepticism.
“Size doesn’t matter,” Benjamin said. … “I made it to the NFL. … I’ve been criticized about my size all my life, but I’m still here.”
And if Benjamin continues to grow as a receiver and use his speed to crush opponents, he’ll have a bright future at the sport’s highest level.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.