Michael Bennett: Something to Prove
Free agency is the time of year where players try to cash in with a new team and earn that big second contract that players dream about from the time they make it to the NFL. However, not everyone gets the money they were hoping for when they hit the open market.
Recently we took a look at how some of last year’s “Prove It” players fared in 2012 and one player who is in a similar situation this year is new Seattle defensive lineman Michael Bennett. One of our highest rated 4-3 defensive ends last season and our No. 1-ranked free agent edge defender entering free agency, Bennett clearly didn’t find the multi-year deal that he was hoping for and had to instead “settle” for a one year $5 million contract with the Seahawks.
Here I’ll take a look at some of the doubts that lingered from Bennett’s stellar 2012 season and what he will have to do to follow in the steps of his brother Martellus who parlayed a one-year prove it deal with the New York Giants into the multi-year contract he was looking for with the Chicago Bears.
The first and most obvious thing to state here is that the Seattle Seahawks are getting another tremendously talented football player to add to their already stacked defense. After struggling to find his feet during his first two seasons in Tampa Bay (-2.8 in 2009, -9.1 in 2010) Bennett was stellar in his final two years grading among our Top 10 4-3 defensive ends in both 2011 (t-7th, +21.7) and 2012 (7th, +18.8). In both seasons he did that rare thing of grading not only positively, but very well as both a run defender and a pass rusher. In a league that continues to strive to find dynamic pass rushers, Bennett is one of the few 4-3 defensive ends who takes as much pride in his run defense as he does in his pass rushing and put up his 2012 grade on the fifth-highest number of snaps (985) of any 4-3 defensive end, suggesting that durability is no concern either.
Bennett was a big part of the Buccaneers’ solid start to the 2012 season when they appeared to be playoff contenders in the NFC earning a +10.3 grade through the first three weeks of the season. He recorded five total pressures or more in eight games last season and his 29 defensive stops were amongst the league’s 15 best 4-3 defensive ends. Bennett is an all-rounder and makes the most of favorable matchups, not taking weeks off against inferior opposition and coasting on having an edge over his opposing tackle.
The opposite of everything above is the concern hanging over Bennett and quite possibly the reason that nobody came in with a lucrative multi-year deal for him. As much as he can dominate inferior opposition at tackle, he struggles to make a consistent impact against the league’s best right tackles when he faces off with them.
Last season Bennett collected five pass rush grades of -1.0 or worse and all of them came against some of the league’s better right tackles. Those were Zach Strief (-2.9 & -1.2, three pressures in two games), Eric Winston (-2.0, two hurries), Tyson Clabo (-2.5, no pressure) and Orlando Franklin (-2.8, one hurry). As talented as Bennett is and as well as he performed across the rest of the season, this consistent inability to perform against top opposition (he also struggled against Strief and Winston in back-to-back games in 2011) had to be a nagging concern for any team looking to sign him to a long-term deal. If you’re going to pay someone top dollar then you want to be confident in the knowledge that not only can he demolish the right tackles that he should be but that he can also turn in performances of quality and give the league’s best right tackles fits.
In those five games this season where Bennett struggled with top opposition he also rarely graded well as a run defender. Across those five games he only recorded one run defense grade above +0.5, in his second encounter with Zach Strief and the Saints. It wouldn’t have been a surprise to see a team look past these weak performances and invest long term in Bennett with the belief that these are a blip but clearly the ability to isolate these weak performances on a consistent basis was too much to look past for them.
Everybody else’s loss however was the Seahawks’ gain who much like their deal with Cliff Avril appears to be based on an attitude of, “well if no-one else is going to sign him…”. This approach has netted the Seahawks two fine edge defenders, one of whom is an out and out pass rusher to add to their pass rush which struggled when they lost Chris Clemons during the playoffs, whilst the other adds to the all-around strength of their stellar front seven.
However, this move could not only prove a positive and profitable one for the Seahawks but also for Bennett himself who will be hoping to repeat Jason Jones’ trick of taking one year in Pete Carroll’s defense and turning it into a multi-year deal. Not only will Bennett profit from the association with one of the league’s most heralded defenses, but he is also presented with a series of encounters with some of the league’s best right tackles for him to put to bed the theory that he cannot up his game against these players. The Seahawks’ schedule, as with the rest of the league has not been set yet but their opponents have and it is chocked full with some of the league’s best on the right side. Presuming Bennett remains in his customary spot on the left the table below shows some of the better right tackles he will be facing this year.
As you can see, he will be reunited with his former foes Zach Strief and Tyson Clabo from the NFC South but will also face off with Anthony Davis twice a year along with quality pass protectors David Stewart and Gosder Cherilus in the Seahawks’ encounters with the AFC South. Throw in Bobbie Massie’s improvement in the second half of the season in Arizona and you have the potential for this to either be a nightmare schedule for Bennett or the chance for him to prove once and for all that he is worthy of that multi-year contract that he couldn’t earn this season.
How the Seahawks deploy Bennett and Cliff Avril and how they perform will be a fascinating storyline to watch developing this season. At the very least Pete Carroll has got another position group that will see a fierce competition through the summer.
Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben