My curiosity with Benn dates back to his college days. He came to Illinois as a five-star recruit and he gained 676 yards and 2 touchdowns as a true freshman. While that might not sound impressive, he gained more than twice as many receiving yards as any other player on the team, and his production earned him Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. That 2007 Illini threw the fewest passes in the Big Ten, suppressing Benn’s numbers, but landed in the Rose Bowl based on a run-heavy attack led by Rashard Mendenhall. They were quarterbacked by Juice Williams, a running “quarterback” in name only, and coached by Ron Zook, the two men who would torpedo the Illinois offense over the next two seasons.
As a sophomore, Benn again more than doubled the production of the next best receiver on the Illini: he caught 67 passes for 1,066 yards and ran 23 times for 101 yards. Those numbers were good enough to lead the conference in receiving yards during the regular season, although Minnesota’s Eric Decker passed him in Minnesota’s Bowl game. Illinois didn’t have a Bowl game, as the team imploded and finished 5-7.
Still, going into his junior year, Benn looked every bit the elite prospect he was hyped to be. ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg named Benn his top player in the Big 10 entering the 2009 season, ahead of Decker and Rittenberg’s top-ranked defensive player, Navorro Bowman. Here’s what my favorite college football writer, Matt Hinton, wrote about Benn before his junior season:
Other than maybe Dez Bryant, Benn is easily the first receiver I’d pick from the returning crop this fall. In basically every way I can think of, Benn is the real thing, an unusually blessed recruit who’s lived up to nearly every ounce of the hype through two years. It is very weird, than, that he descended so far beneath the radar the last two months of last season, lost amid the heavy breathing for Bryant, Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, Julio Jones, Jeremy Maclin, Oklahoma-Texas banners, Brandon Carter‘s Legion of Doom getup and, most fatally, his own team’s steady fade from the national consciousness after midseason. As Illinois limped to the finish, perhaps the most physically imposing receiver in recent memory turned into the forgotten man outside of his immediate vicinity.
It’s an interesting phenomenon (but a verifiable one; I’ve asked around.) On paper, it’s all there: Benn certainly has the stats (67 catches, 1,000-plus yards, five 100-yard receiving games last year, with 24 catches of at least 25 yards in two years). Even Juice Williams, somehow, has bona fide numbers that refute my certainty in his incompetence as a passer….
But the ’08 team didn’t go to the Rose Bowl, or any bowl; it was held to 20 points or less in four losses over the last five games, one of them against Western Michigan. Something about the Illini, something baffling and unquantifiable, was missing last year. For all his big play ability, the creeping malaise kept Benn out of the end zone: He only caught three touchdowns, two against Penn State, and none when the point totals dried up in November. (Though the yardage totals didn’t dry up, oddly. Everything about the ’08 Illini was odd.) He only had two receiving touchdowns as a dynamic freshman.
It has to be Juice’s fault. Or better yet, Ron Zook’s. But, assuming Benn’s on his last tour in Champaign, this fall is the time to keep him the spotlight, to prove that he doesn’t just look the part. I think Illinois and probably Big Ten fans know, and the rest of us are aware. Still, no one’s gotten his money’s worth yet.
But Benn suffered a high-ankle sprain three plays into the first game of his junior year, and multiple injuries combined with the ineptitude of Zook and Williams torpedoed his 2008 season. He led the 3-9 Illini in receiving yards, but a stat line of 38-490-2 was every bit as inconsequential as it sounds. Benn decided to enter the draft, a decision that screamed “get me out of Illinois.” Here is what Matt Waldman wrote about Benn in his 2010 Rookie Scouting Portfolio:
Benn is a terror in the open field with all the physical potential to develop into a top-12 NFL receiver. His breaks need to get sharper and he’ll need to get used to press coverage. If Dez Bryant has some T.O. in him, Benn has a lot of Boldin.
He is a very powerful runner after the catch with enough shiftiness to be a threat with the ball in his hands. He can take a hit and hang onto the ball over the middle. He is a physical player capable of being a physical blocker. His potential is enormous, but he is still raw.
Benn needs to learn techniques to maximize separation such as sinking his hips into breaks. He lets balls get into his body that he should catch with with better hands technique. He will be good enough to make plays immediately in the NFL, but to become more than a star slot option that he was at Illinois, he needs to refine his game and become a technician and not just an athlete.
Waldman ranked Benn as his #4 receiver that year and was the fourth receiver selected in the 2010 draft. For a raw receiver, he was moderately productive his first two years with the Bucs, but knee and shoulder injuries ruined his 2012 season. And now he lands in Philadelphia under Chip Kelly.
Sheil Kapadia has a good breakdown of some of Benn’s versatility over at Philly Mag. Along with James Casey, Benn will help make the Eagles offense one of the more versatile in the league. By making these two acquisitions, it’s clear that Kelly has a specific vision for his offense. It’s not realistic to expect great numbers out of Benn anytime soon — and I imagine he’ll be used as a H-Back, TE, and slot receiver at times — but at only 24 years old, I’m still curious to see if he can develop into a legitimate starting wide receiver.