Understanding the Travis Benjamin Breakout

To start the year, Travis Benjamin has been a revelation in Cleveland. Can he maintain this pace, or will it prove to be a fluke?

R.A. Dickey, Josh Hamilton, and Kurt Warner all enjoyed success in their respective sports after breaking out late in their careers.

After playing many years in professional sports, or waiting many years to enter the professional ranks, it is rare to see late-career developments like these vault such players in to stardom. 

Once a player knocks on the door to the professional ranks, or enters as a pro, there is only so long that such development is expected to materialize. While fans hold their breath hoping for a player to reach his potential after so long, that faith should end as a player is unlikely to meet it. 

For wide receivers, the third year as a pro is the year they are expected to prove their skills. While Rueben Randle might finally be emerging in New York in his fourth year after having fans holding their breath for his career, another fourth-year pro is enjoying a far more shocking and impressive breakout: Travis Benjamin.

Benjamin was an unheralded fourth-round draft pick who was used mainly as a returner and occasional deep threat prior to this year. Benjamin was formerly buried in the shadows of Josh Gordon when Gordon produced a near historic season in 2013. Since then Benjamin was never considered as a potential breakout candidate.

But after his early-season success, it's time to find out if this breakout is a fluke or sustainable.

Diminutive Stature

Despite the emphasis on wide receiver size in the current NFL, Benjamin, 5'10" and 175 pounds, is making an on-field impact.

While he compares closest to Eddie Royal athletically according to, Benjamin also resembles rookie Tyler Lockett, who has been lauded as a dynamic playmaker. 

Prior to this year, Benjamin was looking more like DeSean Jackson, who also profiles in a similar athletic manner, as a pure deep threat with blazing speed.

Now after ascending the Browns' thin receiver depth chart, Benjamin is showing he is more than just a one-trick pony, and his newly minted profile is providing a healthy spark to the overall passing offense in Cleveland. 

Electric Playmaker

While Jackson was noted as a deep threat in Philadelphia to start his career, much of the same could be made for an early-career Benjamin. This year, Benjamin has extended his game, as evidenced from Matt Harmon's Reception Perception, a break down of how a receiver is being used in an offense. Benjamin is no longer a deep-route specialist, and he is seeing success all over the field as his route tree indicates.

While Benjamin has added new tricks to his stable, he averaged an incredible 18.7 yards per reception through five games. All of this was done while he was seeing under 21% of his teams targets, which is low for a team's top target.

Digging deeper into his playmaking, we can see the overall impact Benjamin has made through his Net Expected Points (NEP) contribution, which indicates how a player performs relative to expectation-level.

Through Week 5, Cleveland as a team ranks fifth in the league in Adjusted Passing NEP per play. Benjamin's Reception NEP (36.97) ranks 12th in the league and 11th among receivers. Of the 54 receivers with at least 25 targets so far, Benjamin's Reception NEP per target (0.95) ranks fifth.

Most remarkable about Benjamin's numbers is that he is contributing these with minimal surrounding help. Outside of Gary Barnidge, who leads all tight ends in Reception NEP, there is not much help taking pressure off Benjamin.

The two other Browns receivers with at least 20 targets (Taylor Gabriel and Andrew Hawkins) each own a Reception NEP per target lower than 0.50, which places each outside the top 50 among 63 receivers with that many targets.

Week 5

Although the overall Week 5 numbers did not paint the picture that Benjamin has represented so far this year, the important numbers for success still remained.

While Benjamin only produced 6 catches for 84 yards, he did so on 12 targets, which was only 15 fewer than he had already seen for the year. Despite the imperfect Week 5 production, the opportunity remains for Benjamin in this offense.

Even though Benjamin did not have his most efficient day, he improved his Reception NEP to 36.97 from 31.43. While his Reception NEP per target slipped to 0.95 from an unsustainably high 1.16, he still finds himself near the top of the league in efficiency.

Final Outlook

Benjamin, Leonard Hankerson, and Allen Hurns are leading the new crew of upcoming receivers in the NFL from the University of Miami.

While they are not near the Andre Johnson, Michael Irvin, or Reggie Wayne level, it is nice to see "Da U" represented well out wide again, and perhaps no breakout has been more unexpected or fruitful as the one that Benjamin is enjoying this year.

Although Benjamin may not maintain his freaky pace, he has proven that he is a playmaker who needs to be taken seriously. His production could be here to stay even if Josh Gordon returns next year. Our projections rank him as the 28th-best fantasy receiver for the rest of the season.