With free agency approaching on March 9th, it's time to take a closer look at all of the Browns' unrestricted free agents, starting with WR Travis Benjamin.
WR Travis Benjamin
How and When He Joined the NFL Draft at No. 100 overall. Not including the supplemental draft, it was the only time the Browns had drafted a receiver until this past season, when they drafted Vince Mayle in the fourth round. Mayle didn't even make the final roster.: In 2012, former Browns general manager Tom Heckert was in his final year with the club. He selected Benjamin in the fourth round of the
Productivity Level Last Season: Benjamin didn't see much action as a receiver during the first three years of his career, serving primarily as a punt returner. Due to Josh Gordon being banned from the league and Dwayne Bowe doing whatever the hell he was doing last year, though, Benjamin emerged as the team's No. 1 receiver by default in 2015, and he took advantage of the opportunity in a contract year.
Benjamin had 68 catches for 966 yards and 5 touchdowns last year, all of which were career highs. He also had the most punt return yards of his career, channeling the dominant returner he was in 2013 prior to tearing his ACL. When he came back in 2014, his confidence as a returner was still shaken, but he was completely over that in 2015. Four of Benjamin's five touchdowns were of the long ball variety -- 54, 60, 50, and 42 yards. Most of his touchdowns came in the first three weeks of the season; after that, teams started playing him over-the-top more. Benjamin showed his maturity as a receiver by still racking up yards with short- to intermediate-catches, including the ability to fight for the ball with defenders and hang on to the ball after absorbing contact.
Why Keeping Him Could Make Sense: Benjamin is coming off of the best season of his career and can serve two very valuable niche roles: one of the league's better punt returners and a guy who can stretch the defense with his speed. I also can't believe he's never been used more as a reverse/end-around threat. He is also a home-grown talent, so it'd be nice to feel like you're rewarding one of your few draft picks who delivered.
What the Browns Should Do: The Browns' front office is going to take a look at how they project their receiving corp unfolding without Benjamin next year. Gordon should be back as the team's No. 1 receiver, assuming he stays clean. If the rumors are true that head coach Hue Jackson wants Mohamed Sanu in Cleveland, then I imagine it's as the team's No. 2 receiver. Andrew Hawkins is already penciled in as a reliable slot receiver, and Brian Hartline and whoever the team drafts can round out the group.
In a normal year, re-signing Benjamin wouldn't be much of an issue because he'd probably be the eighth-best receiver on the market and not on other teams' radars. However, this year's free agency receiving class is very weak, and it's about to get weaker as I project the Bears will franchise Alshon Jeffery and the Bengals will re-sign Marvin Jones. In some teams' eyes, I believe Benjamin will be viewed as the best remaining receiver on the market, and Benjamin will be looking to cash in.
Another thing the Browns will look at is the fact that Benjamin is coming off of the only "good" receiving season of his career. I know he's older, but TE Gary Barnidge came off by far the best season of his career, and the team extended him for a bargain rate of 3 years for $12.3 million.
Many people are drawing comparisons to WR Golden Tate when it comes to evaluating Benjamin. A couple of years ago, Tate received a 5-year, $31 million deal with the Lions, which included $16 million guaranteed. Tate had a lot more proven results as a receiver, though, and also had one year of great punt return work. Because the cap has grown for the past two years since Tate's deal and I feel Benjamin is worth a little less than Tate, I would actually use Tate's 2014 deal as the maximum of what the Browns should spend for Benjamin. Until March 9th, though, if I'm Cleveland, I try to pry a cheaper deal to see if his camp budges -- maybe something closer to 5-years for $27 million and $12 million guaranteed. If Benjamin evaluates the fact that he is one more ACL injury away from being ruined, then he might give in and take the financial security, given that he really only has one good season on his resume.
Now it's your turn -- vote in the poll below on whether or not the team should try to re-sign Travis Benjamin!