The signing of Cedric Benson was in no way a conventional move for Green Bay Packers’ general manager Ted Thompson.
Yet, there the 5-foot-11, 227-pound running back stood at Monday’s practice, wearing shells and shorts (per new collective bargaining rules) for his first practice with the team after finalizing his contract Sunday.
On the field, Benson has question marks as the eighth-year NFL veteran looks to show there’s still tread left on his 29-year-old tires following 1,529 regular-season carries and 5,769 career rushing yards.
Off of it, there are undeniable red flags. A pair of offseason arrests aided his departure from the Chicago Bears in 2008 and two more misdemeanor assault arrests in Cincinnati led to him serving a one-game league suspension in Week 8 of last season.
Now in Green Bay, Benson says he’s a changed man. He made similar comments in an interview with Sirius XM NFL Radio last month during which he got emotional talking about his checkered past and the fact that no NFL team signed him after the Bengals let him go.
“I’m definitely a different person now than I was then,” Benson said after practice Monday. “I think with that stuff still lingering around, naturally people tend to reflect on the bad things you’ve done as opposed to the good things. I think it was just, I got emotional in the fact that I’ve moved on from that, but yet it still seems to follow me.”
With the Packers’ backfield hurting, Benson’s arrival couldn’t come with better timing as coach Mike McCarthy was forced to cut Monday’s practice 20 minutes short after fullback John Kuhn exited with a sprained ankle.
Kuhn’s departure left the team with only three healthy backs in undrafted rookies Marc Tyler and Nic Cooper, and second-year running back Alex Green, who’s on a rep count in the wake of reconstructive knee surgery.
“That’s big,” said Cooper, who’s the team’s only healthy fullback. “On top of the talent we already had, you bring in somebody like that and as talented and experienced as he is. Even today, he helped me out on some pointers. That’s big getting a guy like him. It’s big for the organization.”
That doesn’t mean, however, Benson won’t have to prove he can still play to earn his paycheck.
According to ESPN NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt, Benson’s contract is for one year at the seven-year veteran minimum of $825,000 with no guarantees. If Benson doesn’t make the roster, the Packers wouldn’t owe him any more than his weekly training camp per diem.
The one thing working in Benson’s favor is his durability. He’s played in 82 games since 2006 and hasn’t missed a contest because of injury since Nov. 29, 2009.
That reliability allowed Benson to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards with six or more touchdowns in each of the last three seasons. Despite coming to a pass-first offense, he’s not giving up those aspirations.
“I definitely have a goal to still rush for 1,000,” Benson said. “I understand it’s not a run-first team and the run is not real heavy here, but there’s times where a back gets the ball 25 times. And I’m sure if things are rolling, the run game is set to a standard that we’re hoping to achieve, it could be way more carries than that.”
Benson has his weaknesses. He has averaged more than 4 yards per carry only once in his last five seasons and never has been much of a receiving threat out of the backfield. Last season, he had only 15 receptions in 15 games for 82 yards.
He’s also developed a bit of a fumbling habit. After coughing up the ball only seven times in his first five NFL seasons (935 carries), Benson has fumbled 12 times over the last two years (594).
“That’s all part of the evaluation,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said when asked about the fumbling. “Very familiar with the statistics, very familiar with the film study. It’s a football fundamental that we obviously pay a lot of attention to and try to emphasize as much as we can in practice, and he’ll be a part of that.”
Benson will practice again Tuesday in shells, but won’t play in Thursday’s preseason game against Cleveland. That means the first action he’ll likely see in a Packers’ uniform will come on the road next week against his old team, Cincinnati.
Despite going into the offseason hoping to land a deal more befitting his past credentials, Benson said he’s still happy to be back in the NFL after an emotionally taxing wait to find a new home.
“Some days were better than others, where I'd be kind of wondering why,” Benson said. “Putting too much thought into trying to figure out why or why it hadn’t happened. So I would struggle with that and put that behind me and staying positive and looking forward to something happening.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.