The statistics used in this column are those acquired from the Reception Perception methodology for evaluating wide receivers. To see full results of the project’s first full offseason, check out the tables at Backyard Banter. Additionally, use the #ReceptionPerception tag on Twitter to follow all the analysis from the series. Every week at Footballguys I'll profile one receiver whose recent numbers stand out as interesting. If you have a suggestion for the column, file it on Twitter.
Sorting out what’s real and what’s fake from the early season data is one of the more difficult task for football observers. Deciding just how much weight to place on what is taking place in the moment, against the hours spent developing our preseason conceived notions, isn’t easy. Almost every situation could just as easily go the other way, after we were so sure we had the outcomes down pat just a week before
The one thing we should know by now: there’s little utility in laughing off and dismissing something as impossible when it’s revealed to us on the field. Last year, it was Justin Forsett. Almost universally dismissed by fantasy observers after having a big game to open the season, Forsett went on to finish as a top-10 running back.
This year, it was Travis Benjamin who broke out with an 89-yard and one touchdown game in Week 1. He followed it up with a three touchdown game against the Titans. And still we literally laughed, discounted and said spend your waiver attention on someone else.
However, he hasn’t gone anywhere. Through the next two games, Benjamin became more of a part of the base offense, and put up 124 yards and another score. He’s demanded the laughter stop. It’s time we think about taking him seriously. In order to find out exactly what we have on our hands with this mysteriously productive player, we consult his Reception Perception.
It’s important not to let size or physical dimensions be the end all be all in deciding what a player profiles as. We’ve looked at players before who fit the X-receiver mold because they’re big-bodied receivers who possess a large catch radius. That’s normally the mold. However, there are more than a few outliers that fit the X-receiver brand that don’t profile as an Andre or Calvin Johnson.
One attribute that can lift an outlier from the crowd is speed. Mike Wallace had it, and he was the Steelers X-receiver before Antonio Brown was THE Antonio Brown that he is now. Before Todd Haley truly inundated that team with his brand of timing based, strike when you need to offense, they played sandlot ball with Wallace as their number-one, X-receiver.
Right now, Travis Benjamin is sliding into that same role with the Cleveland Browns. He’s lined up on the right side (44.5 percent) and the left side (46.2 percent) of the field on a near equal amount. Size be damned; he’s not a slot or tertiary receiver. Of those snaps, he’s been set on the line of scrimmage 79.7 percent of the time. Through the 121 snaps he’s seen so far this season, the Browns are lining him up in a fashion indicative of the primary receiving threat in their passing game.
We’ve normally regarded number-one level receivers as those who carry an above average target per route rate. That’s typically in the 26 percent or more range. Benjamin falls below that, coming in targeted on 22.3 percent of the routes he ran over the four game sample used from 2015 here.
That’s not a load indicative of a primary threat in an offense over the course of four games, but the good news is it’s trending up. Benjamin saw 20 targets over the last two contests. The Browns seem to be coming around on the asset they have with this player. We’re encouraged by this, as the Browns have seemed to lack clarity in decision-making in their offense. Benjamin looks hard to ignore, and credit to Cleveland for not doing so.
As a shot player and deep threat, we’ll never gaze upon Benjamin’s efficiency numbers with amazement. We see that here with only 13.2 percent of his routes featuring a reception hauled in. However, he’s displayed consistent hands over the opening quarter of the season. Benjamin only dropped one pass on a slant route over the middle, resulting in a 3.7 percent rate of his targets.
Success Rate Versus Coverage and Route Analysis
The real question with Travis Benjamin, and why many of us were quick to doubt him, was whether he could compete in multiple phases of the receiving game. If he was just a flash in the pan, straight line deep threat, there’d be little sustainability to his current ridiculous statistical output. Reception Perception unveils a clarifying answer to the quandary.
Of the 121 routes charted over this four game sample size, 28.9 percent were nine routes. That isn’t terribly surprising. Speed is Benjamin’s biggest asset. Three of his four receiving touchdowns this season came on passes of 50, 54 and 60 yards. He also scored on a 78-yard punt return. We know he can fly, and that’s why he’s been sent vertical so often.
Outside of the straight-line vertical game, this is a rather simplistic route chart. The other primary represented patterns are the post, slant and curl route. There’s sprinklings of other routes, but primarily the assignments are simple ones.
(SRVC denotes success rate versus coverage for each route. PTS indicates how many PPR fantasy points a receiver earned on each particular route)
However, it’s incorrect to use that as a denigration tool against Travis Benjamin. Time and time again in these Reception Perception profile we’ve examined receivers with “limited” usage and pondered whether that was truly a bad thing. There’s no reward in what you’re asked to do, rather how you execute what’s asked of you.
On his most ran route, Benjamin boasts a 65.7 percent SRVC. That’s pristine execution on the deep pattern, especially considering how frequently he’s asked to run the nine-route. The football community is universally impressed with Martavis Bryant’s ability in the deep game, and Travis Benjamin’s nine-route scores are nearly identical to Bryant’s 2014 output. He’s a deep game artist. Benjamin has a double move in his arsenal that, if he gets you to bite on it, the opposing corner has no chance to stop it. The scouting community frequently talks about the extra gear. Benjamin is one of the rare players in the NFL who possess the next level after the extra gear. His speed advantage simply isn’t fair. One of his other highly represented routes, the post, is another indicator of his artistry in the deep game. On these routes, in order to create pristine separation, the receiver must dip his hips to the outside and then smoothly cut back in-field. Benjamin’s 76.9 percent SRVC illuminates that he does that quite well.
Of course, we’re concerned with the rest of his game, as mentioned earlier. We noted that the curl and slant were two other routes Benjamin runs often. His 72.7 and 81.8 percent SRVC scores on these routes are inspiring. When Johnny Manziel was in at quarterback, the Browns saw Benjamin’s talent come into focus as a backyard style vertical player. But in order to maximize his presence with the more limited Josh McCown behind center, they’re had to work him in underneath. He’s proven capable, posting 10 catches for 124 yards and a short red zone touchdown over the last two games (the 16.9 PTS on slants coming into focus).
The name Mike Wallace was mentioned earlier, and the plan for Benjamin to follow that same path of utilization is becoming a reality. When he runs the crossing route, he’s able to quickly separate from the corner just on his pure speed advantage. On curls, the corner is playing deep ball so judiciously, Benjamin can sharply break back to the quarterback, creating an easy open target. There’s little nuance to either task, but there doesn’t have to be. On both patterns, he plays the game aggressively with a “take the fight to the defense” mentality. That’s exactly what Wallace lacked in Miami, but made him so effective in Pittsburgh. It looks like the Browns have their own version in Benjamin.
One final note: it was encouraging to watch some of his comebacks and out routes and see such high marks. Posting an 87.5 and 100 percent SRVC, respectively, on those assignments. Again, it’s a very small sampling of his routes run, but this was encouraging to see him execute in some more advanced portions of the game. If only for brief viewings.
Overall, Benjamin showed in the first four games he could defeat multiple types of coverages:
Red indicates the figure is below the NFL average, Green is above and Yellow is within one percentage point.
Outside of one attempt against double coverage, Benjamin scored at or above the current NFL average in SRVC against man, zone and press. His average score against man is impressive when you consider the type of routes he’s running. We see the averages fall the farther you go up the route tree, as one would expect, indicating it’s harder to separate the deep the player goes. Even an average score while running so many lengthy patterns is notable.
His zone (80 percent) and press (72.7 percent) scores were particularly impressive. He’s integrating some good timing into his work against zone, while also maximizing his speed advantage. It’s hard for defenders to keep track of Benjamin in zone coverage with how quickly he can work through it. Given his light frame, he needs strong release technique to get off press coverage. He showed well in doing so in this four game sample.
Given his speed and aggressive style of game play, we always knew that Travis Benjamin was capable of busting a big play every now and again. Yet, when we combed the Browns for any potential fantasy value over the summer, not a single person dared to bring up his name. Even when he brought his talent to the field, we still brushed it off, and even laughed at the possibility that he’d keep this up.
We look foolish now, in light of reviewing his film. Travis Benjamin will have the last laugh. He’s an intriguing talent who is impacting his offense in a multitude of ways. Reception Perception shows that not only is he a special deep threat with a rare extra gear, but he can help his offense as a primary threat.
We’re inclined to look upon the unexpected with disbelief. Travis Benjamin’s emergence counts as such. However, eventually we need to trust what the game is revealing to us and what our eyes see. Hopefully Reception Perception helps us write in pen that Travis Benjamin isn’t going anywhere.