Travis Benjamin brings blazing speed to the Browns

Cleveland’s passing game needs a good swift kick in the pants.

With Travis Benjamin, at least, the Browns can line up for a race and not get laughed out of the starter’s blocks.

Whether or not the 4.26 40 associated with Benjamin is legit is almost beside the point. No one doubts his wheels.

“He runs,” his 2011 Miami Hurricanes teammate Lamar Miller said, “at warp speed.”

We may be talking fastest-in-the-NFL jets here. Or close.

The most rapid official time ever recorded at the NFL Combine was running back Chris Johnson’s 4.24. Johnson is going on 27 now, perhaps slowing down from NFL beatings.

Mike Wallace, the receiver infamously left on the 2009 draft board by Eric Mangini, did a 4.28.

Neither Benjamin nor Browns head coach Pat Shurmur minds alluding to Benjamin’s supposed best, that 4.26, although Shurmur said the Browns’ pre-draft scouting books pegged him “down there around 4.3.”

Whatever the listing, Shurmur said, “He can go. He can really go.”

He flies despite wind drag from locks flowing out of his helmet — he says he hasn’t had a haircut since seventh grade.

But can he catch?

Can he survive in the world of fast vs. vicious?

In addition to being very swift, Benjamin is very small. He was a twig of 152 pounds coming out of Glade Central High School in Florida. At the recent NFL Combine, his size was recorded at 5-foot-9 7/8, 172 pounds. His wisp of a body is a big reason he fell to the No. 100 overall spot in the NFL draft.

“My weight is 175,” he said recently. “That has nothing to do with it, because I have been playing at the University of Miami, and week in and week out, we played top competition in the ACC, SEC and all around.

“I am used to getting hit.”

Benjamin’s speed, body type and draft position compare to Jacoby Ford, a No. 107 overall pick by Oakland in 2010.

Pegged as the second-fastest man in the NFL by a 2011 Yahoo Sports article, Ford was starting to break through as a second-year Raider. He raced 101 yards against the Browns on a kickoff return in mid-October. A few weeks later, he had a five-catch, 105-yard game against Denver. A week later at San Diego, he got hurt at the end of a 41-yard catch and missed the rest of the season.

Any receiver Browns general manager Tom Heckert was going to get in waiting until the 100th pick was going to have one flaw or another. Heckert decided to go with the one arguably with more speed than any other player in this draft.

The Browns are insisting that Benjamin is not a track man in shoulder pads.

“He impressed us with his toughness,” Shurmur said.

The much-bigger Justin Blackmon bench pressed 225 pounds 14 times at the Combine. Benjamin matched that number.

Blackmon destroyed Benjamin in terms of production, though. In 2010 and 2011, Blackmon caught 232 passes for 3,304 yards; Benjamin caught 84 balls for 1,352 yards.

While the Browns understand Benjamin is not Blackmon, they are breathing a sigh of relief that they did not take on the baggage that follows Blackmon into the season in the wake of a recent DUI arrest.

Team scouts see untapped potential from a wideout whose college quarterback, Jacory Harris (eligible for the 2012 draft but not picked), was inconsistent.
“We factored that in when we evaluated him as a receiver,” Shurmur said. “He did some things that were very impressive to us.

“He can really run, and when he gets down the field, he can really track the ball.”

On the other hand, there were times when Benjamin’s shortcomings hindered Harris. Ohio State fans got a dazzling glimpse of Benjamin’s speed in a 2010 game in which Benjamin brought back a punt 79 yards for a touchdown.

By the end of the game, though, then-Miami coach Randy Shannon said a key factor in a 45-27 loss was two interceptions caused by throws Benjamin could have broken up.

Shannon was replaced after the 2010 season by Al Golden, who brought in a new receivers coach, George McDonald. McDonald was Eric Mangini’s receivers coach in Cleveland in 2009 and 2010.

The Hurricanes struggled to a 6-6 record in 2011, never building on the promise of an early 24-6 rout of Ohio State. Benjamin’s stats were on the light side, 41 catches for 609 yards and three touchdowns.

“He hasn’t really been exposed to the kind of coaching he’s going to get in this league,” Shurmur said. “We felt like this was a tremendous kid. We got to know him, and he is a hard guy not to like.

“When you put speed on the field, it changes things, just like when you put in a running back that can really go.

“We felt like he was going to add that element to our receiving corps.”

No arguments from Benjamin on that score.

“I can run past any defender on the field,” he said.

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