When reading other medias offseason grades or comments about certain players, you can tell who actually watched the guy play and who did a quick stat check, looked at his height/weight/speed, and made some assumptions. In this case, Travis Benjamin fell victim to the latter. He's 5'10, under 180 pounds, so he has to be a slot receiver, right? Not even close.
Before San Diego signed Benjamin, I wrote how he was more than just a deep threat and was 1 of 2 receivers that fit what the Chargers need on offense. It's not so much as getting a guy that can get open deep. It's more of getting a guy that can get open, period. An area where the Chargers receivers struggled mightily last year after they lost Keenan Allen halfway through the season.
Let's go ahead and debunk this myth right now that Benjamin is a slot receiver. John DeFilippo did a great job of using his route running skills on the perimeter last year. He just wasn't targeted. Even though he had 68 catches and 966 yards, with even an average quarterback he likely has over 1100 yards. What else I noticed, and something that media members never mentioned, is that Benjamin wasn't on the field for chunks of passing plays. Missing 10-15 snaps a game. Or where his incompetent QB's just refused to throw him the ball. There was a play where a screen was perfectly set up last year against the Raiders and for whatever reason Josh McCown did not throw it to him. So pairing him with an outstanding quarterback where you know he's not coming off of the field makes Benjamin much more easy to project.
Watching Benjamin, you see that he has some nuance and layers to his route running. You have to watch more than just plays he is targeted on to get a feel for how he sets up defenders. Here are some examples:
I wanted to use exposures of Benjamin being used outside. That's where they'll need him the most. Stevie Johnson is cemented in the slot role. I believe that's where he's better suited given his route running style. Malcom Floyd was a shell of himself last year and just could not get the separation necessary. Separation isn't an issue in the case of Benjamin. He does a fantastic job of eating up the defenders cushion and getting on top of them before they know what hit them. By then it's too late and they're beat deep or they have to bail and he just stops on a dime. For what the Chargers want to do offensively, Benjamin is a perfect fit.
Even minor things like adjusting to coverage in zone on the fly, Benjamin showed good awareness.
Dealing with physicality
An area where Benjamin did struggle was when DBs were able to get their hands on him and reroute him. Whether it was press coverage or at the top of his route and he was going to make his break. Putting him in motion or lining Benjamin up as a Flanker will eliminate the majority of press coverage issues. As for struggling at the top of his route he'll have to do a better job of using his hands and feet to keep himself free. His slight frame doesn't help him here because once there is contact he rarely, if ever, won the battle. He's going to have to improve at contested catch situations. This would be the 1 concern I have with Benjamin. It's likely why pundits peg him as a slot receiver.
Creating for himself
36% if Benjamin's yards came after the catch. Another reason why the "just a deep threat" comments are confusing. Most deep threats catch a long pass and are tackled. Benjamin's athleticism shines in this area and I imagine he'll be the Chargers new screen receiver. San Diego's offense is humming when the quick passes are aided by 5-6 yards after the catch. It doesn't need to be a home run every-time, but a handful of yards here and there is what makes the offense tick. Insert, Benjamin:
Maybe a better way to explain Benjamin after the catch is less of a creator and more of a maximizer. Just 1 cut and get up field and makes the most of the yards he can. Another reason why I'd guess he is the screen WR is not only the final clip above but you probably don't want to rely on Benjamin blocking.
There were a handful of routes where Benjamin gator-armed it when going over the middle. In this offense that can't happen because there will be a lot of usage between the hashes. He's going to have to be able to hang on to a big hit. Even on a couple of passes where he caught it he was already "babying" the ball in bracing himself for a hit. This is another area where Benjamin will have to improve. I don't think the receivers last year had this problem. Benjamin did.
The trait that everyone knows Benjamin for. The ability to get vertical. He has a gear that no one on the team can rival. I think Dontrelle Inman is pretty fast, but I'd bet Benjamin could beat him easily in a footrace. Tyrell Williams can scoot, but Benjamin accelerates easier. Last year Benjamin had 7 big plays, or plays over 25 yards. Based on who was throwing to him and how often he was missed I'm going to cheat here and extrapolate that number to roughly 12 with Philip Rivers as his QB.
Even on special teams, his speed shows.
SD avg start was on their 23. They had 84(eighty four!) PR yards all season. Here is 133 by Benjamin vs TEN. pic.twitter.com/OlpgEF8ULu— KP (@KP_Show) March 9, 2016
He had more punt return yards in 1 game than the team had all year in 2015. Seeing all of his returns from a year ago, there were double digit occasions where Benjamin had 10 or more yards as a punt returner. If he is able to flip field position with a good return once every couple games his impact will be felt.
What to expect
I hope the team signed Benjamin as a Malcom Floyd replacement. A player that can be their vertical receiver but can also separate underneath and maximize his yardage after the catch to keep the offense ahead of the chains. I don't think they'll pigeonhole Benjamin into a vertical threat and a decoy. He's too talented for that and will help the Chargers immediately at receiver. He's an upgrade. He'll have to player more physical and keep himself clean in his routes that way he's not rerouted. That's on both him and the coaches. He'll also need to improve on 50/50 type passes that are contested. It's something to keep an eye on and if Benjamin does struggle, that'll be the reason. My expectations for Benjamin are what most fans expected from Johnson a year ago. 8-900 yards with 4-5 touchdowns. I would establish him as a vertical threat early on in games to keep an extra defender out of the box to help your run game as well. What do you expect from Benjamin?