Michael Bennett emerged as one of the postseason’s biggest stars, keying a Seattle Seahawks pass rush that harassed opposing quarterbacks into six turnovers over three playoff games.
With his contract set to expire, the 28-year-old will look to cash in on his success in free agency. In the aftermath of the Seahawks Super Bowl triumph, Bennett expressed his desire to stay with Seattle for the rest of his career, but that will be easier said than done.
Many of Seattle’s key players — Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman, chief among them — are still on their rookie contracts and will be due large extensions in the next couple of years. Giving Bennett the multi-year deal he wants would severely handicap the Seahawks’ ability to keep those players on the roster.
As of right now, Seattle is projected to have about $2 million dollars in cap space, but cutting wide receiver Sidney Rice, defensive end Chris Clemons and tight end Zach Miller will clear up an additional $19.8 million, according to Spotrac. But with seven players who played more than 50 percent of the team’s snaps last season hitting free agency, that money will be tightly budgeted.
Bennett proved to be an immense talent in 2013, but questions remain about the pass-rusher’s worth on the open market.
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The underwhelming stat line
With only 8.5 sacks and 35 tackles, Bennett’s stat line isn’t going to wow anyone. Despite the lackluster numbers, he did, however, have one of the more productive 2013 seasons of any defensive end. The Seahawks rotated their defensive line often, which limited Bennett’s snaps and pass rushing opportunities — he played only 617 snaps, while Carolina’s Greg Hardy played 891. With 65 quarterback pressures (that includes sacks, QB hits and QB hurries) on just 379 pass rush snaps, Bennett finished behind only Robert Quinn and Cameron Wake in pressures-per-snap among defensive ends, according to Pro Football Focus. He finished ahead of Hardy, who is considered the most coveted free agent pass rusher.
Don’t let the sack total fool you: Bennett’s combination of strength and speed puts him in the elite of NFL pass rushers.
The ‘Legion of Boom’ effect
The relationship between a pass rush unit and a defensive secondary is reciprocal: A defensive line capable of getting to the passer quickly will make the pass coverage look better; and sticky pass coverage will give the pass rush more time to get to the quarterback. With the best secondary in the NFL playing behind Bennett, GMs will wonder how much of his success was due to opposing passers holding onto the ball because no one was open.
Bennett took an average of 2.87 seconds to get to the quarterback on his 8.5 sacks last season. His longest sack took about 3.3 seconds – for context, his teammate Russell Wilson was sacked after about 4.26 seconds on average, according to Pro Football Focus.
Having the ‘Legion of Boom’ backing him up certainly helped Bennett, but he wasn’t feasting on coverage sacks, by any means.
What does he bring to the table?
Though he’ll be signed for his ability to get after the quarterback, Bennett has proven to be more than just a pass rusher. Before getting to Seattle, he was known more for his ability to blow up opposing teams’ running games in Tampa Bay. It’s no coincidence the Bucs went from first in the league against the run in 2012 down to 15th after Bennett’s departure.
As a pass rusher, Bennett is much more than your typical edge-rushing defensive end. The Seahawks moved him all over the line, and the former Texas A&M standout managed to produce wherever he lined up. Most of his quarterback pressure came when he was aligned inside.
Where will Bennett end up?
Bennett’s versatility should create quite the market for him. His brother, Bears tight end Martellus Bennett, has been trying to recruit the free agent to join him in Chicago. The Bears certainly have a need along their defensive line — and everywhere else on the defense, for that matter — but they don’t have too much cap room to work with, and signing Bennett would take up a lot of it.
Another interesting option is the Jacksonville Jaguars. Former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is trying to recreate the defense he led in Seattle. Though Bennett never played under the Jags head coach, he is definitely a fit in Bradley’s scheme. It doesn’t hurt that Jacksonville should have close to $50 million in cap room to spend.