Looking to add more explosiveness and speed to the offense and special teams, Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco signed former Browns wide receiver/kick returner Travis Benjamin to a four-year contract on the first day of free agency. Coming off a career-best season where he set career-highs with 1,302 all-purpose yards, 68 receptions, 966 receiving yards and five touchdown catches, Benjamin is expected to have a major impact both as a receiver and punt returner.
A former fourth-round pick out of Miami, the 5-foot-10-inch, 175-pound Benjamin is a three-time AFC Special Teams Player of the Week and the older brother of Carolina Panthers’ wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. MilitaryPress reporter Art Garcia Jr. caught up with Benjamin prior to the season opener in Kansas City to ask him a few questions.
Art Garcia: You have been here all off-season working with your new team, how does it feel being a Charger?
Travis Benjamin: Everything’s been going good. I’m appreciative to be here and it’s a blessing for me to come in and play in an offense like this under Ken (Whisenhunt) with a quarterback like Phil (Rivers) and a receiver like Keenan (Allen) — all of us have just been coming in and getting better.
AG: Speaking of quarterbacks, I’m sure you have heard talk about Rivers across the league, what’s it like to have him as a teammate and playing with him?
TB: Even before I came here we all know who the top five quarterbacks in the league are and once I knew the Chargers wanted me and I wanted to be here, I feel like the sky’s the limit for us. And playing with No. 17, it’s an incredible feeling that everything is open on the field.
AG: Was there anything about Rivers that surprised you and how close are you to developing that sort of sixth sense where you can look at each other and know what the other is thinking without saying a word?
TB: It didn’t surprise me because I kind of Googled and searched him before coming in and learned about his kids and family until I got here and actually met him and he’s an outstanding, amazing guy.
AG: How about the connection between you and Rivers?
TB: We’re close, almost close to 100 percent because I can look at him sometimes and he’ll tell me (non-verbally) to run a certain route this way and I’ll give him a look back to let him know we’re on the same page.
AG: What are your goals as you enter your fifth NFL season?
TB: To be great. I won’t put no numbers on what I want to achieve, but better than last year. Last year I caught nearly 1,000 yards, so I want to go over 1,000 and I want to go over double-digits in touchdowns, and just hopefully win. I came here to win. I didn’t come here to be an individual — I came here to win games and hopefully we’ll be here at the end.
AG: What is going to be the key to your success this year?
TB: Just staying consistent and healthy. As long as I’m consistent and healthy I know how I play and what I choose to play like and it’s going to be great.
AG: You were ranked one of the top free agents on the market, what skill sets do you bring to the team?
TB: I bring speed, knowledge and just a love for the game, knowing that even if it’s not on offense, I can still go on special teams and make something happen to shorten the field. I want teams to be afraid to punt to me — punt it out of bounds and miscommunicate things on their side of the ball to help out the offense with field position.
AG: Since entering the league four years ago, you have been one of the top special teams performers in the NFL. What makes a dominant kick and punt returner?
TB: No fear, no fear. First thing is you have to catch the ball and then you try to get a first down — 10 yards on the punt return — and anything after that is a bonus.
AG: Doug Flutie once told me his size worked to his advantage because the defensive players could never get a solid hit on him. Do you feel being smaller has been an advantage for you?
TB: I wouldn’t say it’s been an advantage or disadvantage because there are guys out there bigger, faster and stronger than me, so I’m just going out there to compete — just going out there to play the best of my abilities. But I’m the same way (as Flutie) — just limit the hits on myself because I know my stature is so small.
The Endzone: In their 33-27 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday, the Chargers made the same fatal mistake they did in their playoff loss to the Patriots in 2007 — namely, getting away from a running game that was working in the first half. On that day, LaDanian Tomlinson, the league MVP, rushed for 123 yards and two scores and caught two passes for 64 more yards. He carried the ball 23 times, but had just nine carries in the second half.
On Sunday, Running Back Melvin Gordon had eight carries for 39 yards and two touchdowns — averaging nearly five yards per carry in the first half. In the second half he had six carries for just 18 yards, no touchdowns and averaging three yards per carry.
As for Benjamin, he had just seven receptions for 32 yards and no touchdowns in his Chargers debut. On special teams he returned two punts for seven yards with a 4-yard average. With Keenan Allen being placed on IR due to a torn ACL, all eyes will be placed on Benjamin since he was Telesco’s high-priced, free agent acquisition.
“Travis is explosive,” said Chargers Head Coach Mike McCoy on the day he was signed. “He’s a playmaker that brings a different dynamic to our team. He was highly productive last season and his speed will be an asset to our offense. We’re also excited for what he can do as a returner. His speed and overall athleticism will help us in both phases.”