Of the 13 Tampa Bay Buccaneers players who finished the season on injured reserve, Arrelious Benn was last to join the list. The rookie receiver's season ended prematurely, but not before he had seen action in 15 games, starting nine of them.
The timing of Benn's season-ending knee injury – he suffered an ACL tear at the end of a typically hard-nosed run-after-the-catch against Seattle in Week 16 – meant he wrung almost as much experience out of his rookie year as possible. However, that also meant the clock started ticking on his recovery later than a handful of his fellow 2010 rookies, including Gerald McCoy, Brian Price and Cody Grimm. While his teammates were battling to stay in the playoff race on the season's final weekend, Benn was beginning his comeback and turning his attention to 2011.
The Buccaneers' roster will get a significant boost during the 2011 offseason from the many key players returning from injured reserve, and one of the most welcome returns will be that of Benn, a second-round draft pick out of Illinois. Contributions from the 2010 rookie class had a lot to do with the Buccaneers' stunning turnaround last fall, but the franchise believes that group has just scratched the surface of what it can do. That might apply most directly to Benn, whose debut campaign followed a steady climb upward.
The late-season interruption in that climb was frustrating for the determined rookie, but he didn't stay down for long. He had emerged in the second half of the season because he had steadfastly stuck to the coaches' plan for his development; he knows he can take the same approach to getting back on the field in 2011.
"I was disappointed but I got over it because I knew how hard I was going to work to come back next year and be in the same position," said Benn. "I'm not worried about it. I know my job and I'm here for a reason."
Benn was the first of two receivers the Buccaneers took in the 2010 draft, but the second to make a big splash. Fourth-rounder Mike Williams looked like a star in the making from his very first practice in Tampa, a week after the draft, and he had a starting job nailed down by the opening of training camp. Williams would catch a touchdown pass in his first regular-season game, another one in Week Two and a team-record 11 by the time the season was over. When it was all said and done, he was a strong candidate for the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award, finishing second in the balloting to St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford.
Williams cast a long shadow over the rest of the NFL's rookie class of receivers, including his own teammate. Externally, some analysts wondered about Benn's comparably slow development. Internally, the Bucs couldn't have been more pleased with the former Illinois star. Head Coach Raheem Morris insisted that Benn was right on track, and sure enough he quietly became an integral part of the offense.
"I felt good," said Benn. "I was picking it up, I was feeling confident, I knew the playbook, I knew what I was doing. Each week I became a bigger part of the offense. It was coming along great, the coaches were getting me involved and I was just going out there and having fun. I was doing what I knew I could do."
With little fanfare, Benn settled in as the starter at flanker, opposite Williams at split end. His first start came in Week Four and he would open nine of the next 12 outings, occasionally taking a sat on the first snap when the Bucs opened in a two-tight end package. His first big splash play came in a thrilling Week Eight win at Arizona, when he made a diving catch on a deep post to gain 53 yards down to the Cardinals' one-yard line. The next week, at Atlanta, he scored his first NFL touchdown, and he added a second score the following Sunday at home against Carolina.
While the Bucs prized Benn on draft day because they believed (and still believe) he had the power and open-field skills to turn short passes into longer gains, they also found him to be a potent deep threat in 2010. Three of Benn's 25 catches were bombs of 40 or more yards, and he finished the year with a very healthy 15.8 yards per catch.
Benn also helped form the nucleus of a very young and very promising offense. Quarterback Josh Freeman, just one more year experienced than his two starting wideouts, posted a 95.9 passer rating in 2010 and appears completely comfortable with a receiving corps almost completely made up of rookies and relative newcomers. They're joined in the backfield by the rookie rushing leader in 2010, LeGarrette Blount, and even the front line included two starting rookies by the end of the season in Ted Larsen and Derek Hardman.
That group will continue to grow together during the 2011 offseason. Benn will have to devote a good portion of his offseason time to his rehab, but he still believes he can be part of the process with his fellow offensive starters.
"It doesn't change anything," he said of his necessary rehab. "I'm still going to do all the things that I was going to do if I didn't have this injury. I'm doing everything I'm supposed to be doing but at the same time I'm resting my body. This is the first break I've had in awhile, coming from college into the draft and all that kinds of stuff. Everything is the same. I'll just take it one day at a time, get better each day and just be ready."
Benn says he isn't currently focusing on a specific timetable for his return to various activities. He's simply following a day-to-day plan to get back to 100% health. He is very encouraged, however, by how his work has gone since the injury.
"Rehab's coming along great," said Benn. "Everything is positive and I'm just looking ahead to the season that's coming along. Right now I'm just taking it one day at a time, just getting better. I'll be right and ready to go when it's time to go."