Coming out of the University of Miami, Travis Benjamin was known for one thing—pure speed. The turbocharged wide receiver and return specialist clocked a 4.36-second 40-Yard Dash at the NFL Combine, and that alone was enough to intrigue pro scouts, despite the fact that the rest of his skill set was not terribly impressive.
Standing 5-foot-10 and weighing 172 pounds, Benjamin was doubted by many analysts, who believed his twig-like frame wouldn't stand up to the punishment of the NFL. In college, his lack of strength led him to consistently get jammed at the line of scrimmage, and he also had trouble battling for the ball in traffic. The pre-draft scouting report on NFL.com summed up pro teams' concerns:
"Benjamin is extremely undersized and bases his entire game around his speed and quickness. He has a hard time getting off the line of scrimmage if not given a free release ... he lacks size to recover if jammed ... he has also struggled throughout his career to create any production in traffic. His preference is to be outside on the perimeter, away from contact."
Benjamin's identity was fixed as a solid return man who could occasionally be inserted on offense to take a shot downfield. A useful player, certainly, but not one you build an offense around. Benjamin lasted into the third day of the 2012 Draft before being taken with the 100th overall pick by the Cleveland Browns. During his rookie season, he had some success returning kicks and was occasionally inserted on offense, playing on 28.8 percent of the team's offensive snaps and catching 18 passes for 298 yards. The experts' predictions looked dead on. To paraphrase Dennis Green, Benjamin was who we thought he was.
Then, 2015 happened.
Benjamin had a breakout year as the Browns' No. 1 wide receiver, playing on 76.9 percent of the team's offensive snaps and snagging 68 receptions for 966 yards and five touchdowns. His eruption into becoming one of the game's bright young stars shocked many, but to Benjamin himself, it was nothing more than the next step in his never-ending quest to improve.
Raised in the Muck
Born and raised in Belle Glade, Florida, Benjamin viewed football as less of a sport and more an escape from a place wrought by poverty and crime. "Muck City," as Belle Glade is known to the locals, is a humid town of 17,467 that's been stuck in depression for decades. Initially an agricultural hub, the town was hurt by the mechanization of crop-growing and harvesting, which eliminated countless jobs.
Like every boy raised in the area, Benjamin grew up chasing the rabbits that darted around Belle Glade's sugarcane fields. The priority wasn't to build speed—any rabbits captured were either eaten or sold—but the tradition became synonymous with a region that grows lightning-fast football players. Urban Meyer once called Belle Glade "the fastest place in the entire country," and football dominates the conversation year round. The local high schools frequently compete for state championships, and they produce a steady supply of D-I talent. Benjamin grew up idolizing local players who made it big, such as Santonio Holmes, Fred Taylor and Anquan Boldin.
"Growing up, [you know] football is probably the only way out. You have guys like Santonio Holmes, Anquan Boldin. Seeing them being successful playing football, you know there's nothing else to do," Benjamin says. "It's tradition there. We would go out in the road and play 7-on-7, or go to the park and play. So it was always football growing up, each and every day."
Benjamin attended Belle Glade Central High School, where he ran track and played football. He was skinny and unrefined, but he had blistering raw speed. His stats weren't eye-popping—40 catches for 655 yards and eight touchdowns his senior year—but his potential attracted college scouts. Benjamin decided to stay close to home and commit to the University of Miami.
The Rookie Whirlwind
After a solid career at the U, Benjamin landed in Cleveland, where he experienced many of the struggles most rookies face while adjusting to the NFL—higher pressure, a thicker playbook and better competition.
"You're trying to learn the system, you're trying to learn the pace, you're trying to read coverages, you're trying to understand what the quarterback is going to do," Benjamin says. Just keeping up was a battle—forget worrying about perfect technique.
Lucky for Benjamin, he had a great veteran mentor—Josh Cribbs. At the time, Cribbs was a two-time All-Pro who'd spent his entire career with the Browns. Like Benjamin, he was both a return man and a wide receiver. Benjamin often picked Cribbs' brain and studied how he approached the game. "I knew it was going to be a big challenge for me, so I just soaked up all the knowledge I could from him," Benjamin says.
Cribbs' departure from the Browns opened the door for Benjamin to assume his duties as the team's main returner. He was also eager to earn more reps at receiver, so he spent much of his first NFL off-season working on his technique. He even got together with Anquan Boldin, one of the league's premier route-runners, to practice running sharp, precise patterns.
Benjamin started the 2013 season strong, averaging 11.68 yards per punt return and continuing to earn reps on offense. Coaches noted his improved route-running, and his confidence began to grow as the game started slowing down for him.
Then, disaster struck. In a Week 8 loss to the Chiefs, Benjamin tore his ACL trying to spin out of a tackle. The abrupt ending to a promising season shocked Benjamin, who had never before suffered a serious injury. "That was my first injury ever to keep me out of the game for so long," he says. Fans speculated whether Benjamin's slender frame made such injuries unavoidable, and worried that ACL surgery could rob him of his explosiveness.
Benjamin filtered out the noise and attacked his rehab. "I knew the journey wasn't over. I had just started beginning to have fun and beginning to do the things I knew I could do on the field," he says.
That off-season, instead of heading back to Florida, he stayed in Cleveland, where he could devote all his time and energy to getting healthy. "I actually stayed in Cleveland the whole time. I knew going home was going to distract me to the point where I wouldn't be able to rehab the way I wanted to. So I stayed in Cleveland that entire off-season," Benjamin says.
Benjamin knew the rehab process would be slow and tedious at times, but he saw it as a chance to rebuild his lower body from scratch. "I was never worried about losing my speed. Some guys think a torn ACL can make you slower, but others think it actually makes you faster—'Oh, he's coming off an ACL so he's going to be faster because he built that strength and that flexibility back in that leg,'" Benjamin says.
After a successful rehab, Benjamin entered 2014 a more mature player. He had come a long way in the mental aspect of the game, but the ACL surgery was still fresh in his mind. Despite not totally trusting his knee, he was able to set then-career highs in receiving yards (314) and receiving touchdowns (3).
The Big Breakout
After a solid but not spectacular year coming off ACL surgery, Benjamin wanted to do big things in 2015. Josh Gordon's year-long suspension had created a void at receiver, and the Browns brought in veteran free agents Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline to boost the position. Benjamin knew he would have to fight to earn every snap.
He spent last off-season adding five pounds of lean muscle to his frame and using yoga to increase his strength and flexibility. "I actually started doing yoga for the first time this off-season to help keep my body right and stay flexible throughout the whole season," Benjamin says. He also focused on attacking the ball when it was in the air instead of waiting for it to come to him.
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As a result, Benjamin drew rave reviews in training camp and earned a spot in the starting lineup. He had a sensational September, racking up 249 yards and four touchdowns in three games. As he emerged as the Browns' No. 1 wideout, he continued to refine his skills in practice and take care of his body.
"[Early in my career], I was a massage-once-a-week guy, no cold tub or hot tub. But as the seasons have gone on, I've stayed on top of the massages, getting them two or three times a week. A major factor for me now is coming in every morning and getting in the cold tub and the hot tub, just to get my muscles going," Benjamin says.
By the end of the season, Benjamin was unquestionably Cleveland's top wide receiver. His 68 receptions for 966 yards and five touchdowns surpassed every other wideout on the roster, and he registered only three drops.
"It's all about learning. Your rookie year, you don't use technique," Benjamin says. "Now I know the spots I want to be in by the time the ball comes. I know what type of coverage they're in."
Now a free agent, Benjamin knows the scouting report on him has changed dramatically. His trademark speed is still there, but it's been joined by a higher football IQ, improved route-running and a willingness to battle for 50-50 balls. If the past is any indication, we'll see an even better Benjamin in 2016.
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