Browns' Travis Benjamin off to speedy start to season
BEREA, Ohio (AP) Travis Benjamin answered the question quickly, without hesitation - just like almost everything else he does.
The Browns wide receiver and punt returner, coming off a three-touchdown performance in last Sunday's 28-14 win over Tennessee, has always been the fastest player on the field. It was true when he was a kid growing up in Florida, during his four years at the University of Miami, and it appears to be the case as a pro.
Is he the NFL's fastest player?
''I would say so,'' Benjamin said without batting an eye. ''You've never seen a player just put speed on tape each and every time.''
While Benjamin's claim might be debatable, there's no denying he's off to a lightning-quick start this season.
Benjamin, now fully recovered from a knee injury that cost him most of 2013, has four touchdowns - all longer than 50 yards - in two games and he's given the Browns a down-the-field deep threat to keeps defenses on edge.
The 5-foot-10 Benjamin, whose long hair blows behind him like a wind sock when he's at full throttle, is the first player to score four TDs of at least 50 yards in the first two weeks since Browns Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown in 1963.
Against the Titans, Benjamin had TD catches of 50 and 60 yards from quarterback Johnny Manziel and he gave Cleveland a 21-0 lead in the first half with an electrifying, 78-yard TD punt return. Benjamin caught the ball on the right side, spotted an opening up the middle, darted to the left sideline, hurdled over flattened punter Brett Kern and scored untouched.
Benjamin couldn't be caught.
''That's why they call him The Rabbit,'' said Browns rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton.
As a kid, Benjamin used to chase and catch rabbits running from the burning sugar cane fields in Belle Glade, Florida. Once his teammates learned about his past, he was given a nickname that couldn't be more fitting.
Browns coach Mike Pettine has been around plenty of fast players, but can't recall any with Benjamin's sonic speed on Sundays.
''Just game speed, I don't know if I have ever seen anybody, game speed, that fast,'' he said.
Benjamin has finally outrun the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered while returning a kick against Kansas City two years ago. He wasn't himself last season, lacking the burst to pull away from defenders. But he trained hard in the offseason and is now seeing the rewards of his work.
Benjamin caught just 18 passes last season, when the Browns still had Pro Bowlers Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron as their primary targets. Benjamin still managed to catch three TD passes, but he wasn't the same game-breaking threat.
He insists he never lost confidence, and an offseason of hard work has brought Benjamin back.
''I feel way different (this year),'' said Benjamin, who already has six receptions and leads the league with an average of 34 yards per catch. ''I feel so much faster this year.''
Browns first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo didn't know much about Benjamin when he got to Cleveland. But it didn't take long for DeFilippo to recognize the 25-year-old's potential.
''When we got here in the spring, I just noticed this guy that had really good hands and could run fast,'' DeFilippo said. ''I was like `There is a place on the field for this guy somewhere.' It is a credit to him how far he has come as a receiver. He has worked his butt off.''
Benjamin's speed is a weapon the Browns plan to use as much as possible. His early success will change the way defenses scheme Cleveland, and Benjamin doesn't mind being a decoy if necessary since that means other receivers will get open.
As long as The Rabbit can run.
''I always felt like I can change the game each and every time on the field,'' he said. ''I can be that playmaker that can take over a game.''
NOTES: Browns CB Justin Gilbert sustained a hamstring injury during the early portion of practice. His setback came shortly after Pettine said the former first-round pick who has been a major disappointment so far, was having a good week and could make his debut this week against Oakland after missing two games with a hip flexor. ... Cleveland's rushing defense remains a major problem - opponents are averaging 160 yards - but coordinator Jim O'Neil sees improvement despite the bad stats.
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