Travis Benjamin poised for 'a big, big year' in 2nd season after ACL

PITTSFORD, N.Y. --- The Browns may have pulled a Rabbit out of a hat this season.

Receiver Travis Benjamin, a.k.a. The Rabbit, has quietly produced one of the best camps of all the wideouts this season, and is a virtual lock to the make the team after some folks had written him off.

In fact, coach Mike Pettine said Monday that the Browns are 'pretty set' with Benjamin as the lead punt returner, which pretty much secures a spot at the crowded receiver position.

And if Pettine asks for quarterback Josh McCown's input, he'll definitely get two thumbs up.

"Trav, he's a pro,'' McCown said after the first of two joint practices against the Bills here. "He just comes out and works hard, doesn't say a whole lot. He's got a great skillset as far as his speed. What Trav is doing really well right now is – you get a guy with speed like that a lot of time, but when the lights come on, either they play timid or they don't play at the high speed – Trav explodes off the ball every time we snap it, and because of that, he's using his speed to his advantage.

"It's causing space for him to get open, and that's why he's able to get balls. He's really doing a good job., Everybody's working really hard, but he's really helped us set a tone for how we're going to come off the football and work, and it's been cool to watch.''

Benjamin, entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, helped endear himself to McCown by waving his hand in the back of the end zone and catching a 2-yard touchdown pass against the Redskins.

McCown scrambled left away from trouble and then motored back to the right, finding Benjamin all alone with nothing but time on hands. Soon, the ball was in them and the two were celebrating.

"He was just hanging out back there waving his hands and he looked lonely, so I threw him the football,'' McCown said after the game.

It's become a familiar refrain and a frequent scribble in the notebook this preseason: McCown to Benjamin deep down the left sidelines. Or on a short slant. Or anywhere the quarterback can find him using his 4.36 speed to get open.

"He adjusts to it now,'' said Benjamin. "He knows that whenever I'm on the field and he sees the advantage, he's going to me no matter what. We have that great connection with each other."

The always affable Benjamin playfully scoffs at the notion that Taylor Gabriel, who boasts a 4.29 in the 40, is faster.

"I'm the fastest player on the team,'' said Benjamin, who was known as the Belle Glade Blur at his Florida high school.

He can say that again now that he's fully recovered from the torn ACL suffered Oct. 27, 2013 in a game against the Chiefs. Last season, he tried to play like his former self, but he just wasn't the rabbit-catching speedster he was back in high school. He was tentative on punt returns, and limited to 18 receptions for 314 yards and a team-high three TDs.

"I am more confident, more ready too fill in a position that needs to be filled,'' he said. "This offseason, I didn't have to go through rehab. I just worked on receiving, catching punts, catching balls and just running full speed all summer, just getting ready to come play."

The new and improved Benjamin has not been lost on Pettine, who's looking for ways to stretch defenses this season in his new role as offense guru.

"He surprised all of us last year,'' said Pettine. "I think he was looked at as 'Hey, he's a returner, he's on the bubble because he's coming off a knee. How effective is he going to be?' He never got going as a returner, but he certainly showed his capability as a wideout. It was a surprise. It was a very pleasant one.

"What's encouraging this year is if you talk to him and ask him, 'Hey, how do you feel compared to a year ago?' it's night and day, and that's usually true with that type of injury that it takes to that next year to really feel back to being your old self."

In the first practice against the Bills on Monday, Benjamin caught a few nice balls in one-on-one-drills and then shed a grabby cornerback to haul in a 40-yard TD pass from McCown in 7-on-7s.

"It's a big, big year for me,'' said Benjamin, the Browns' fourth-round pick in 2012 out of Miami. "Going into my final year of my contract with the Browns, I'm  just willing to go out here and put everything on the line for the Browns as much as I can."

With receivers such as Dwayne Bowe and Terrelle Pryor sidelined most of camp with pulled hamstrings, Benjamins has been streaking down the field, providing a sneak preview of what defenses can expect.

"I am ready to turn it up on all phases,'' he said. "Whenever they give me the chance to go into the game and make a play I am gonna make sure I have put my best foot forward to give the Cleveland Browns the best chance they got to win the game."

What's more, he promises you won't see him muffing punts and looking like a deer in the headlights with the ball on its way.

"(I want to be the No. 1 punt returner) very bad,'' he said. "1 out of 10 I would say (I'll be an) 11. I want to be back and help the Browns and get back to the point where I was the best in the game."

He's already got teammate Donte Whitner convinced. When Whitner was asked on Twitter who the most improved player on the team, he answered Benjamin.

As for whether or not he'll be here beyond this year, Benjamin's not operating on fast forward.

"I'm playing for now,'' he said. "I don't look far into the future. I'm just playing for the Browns right now, and hopefully, if things work out, I'll be here for another couple more years, God given, but other than that, I'm playing for the Browns right now."

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