“We don’t have a guy like Jimmy,” coach Pete Carroll said this week. “Jimmy had an expertise of playing defensive end on early downs and going inside (on passing downs). We don’t have a guy like that, so we’re going to use a combination of guys to rush and see what we can find.”
Pete Carroll lost a key aspect of his defensive game plan just weeks into his tenure with the Seahawks back in 2010. Jimmy Wilkerson suffered a career-ending injury during the pre-season, leading to the eventual signing of Anthony Hargrove to replace him. Carroll made it clear that players like Wilkerson do not grow on trees.
Hargrove did fine as an interior disruptor, but was not capable of sliding outside, and had limited overall impact. Carroll went back to the well in 2012 when he signed Jason Jones to one-year deal. Jones became a critical part of the Seahawks pass rush, disrupting the interior while Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin crashed the edge or twisted inside Jones. There is a good chance that Jones would still be a Seahawk if his health was not in question. It is difficult to find interior pass rushers. There are probably fewer interior pass rushers in the NFL than quality starting quarterbacks. And they are incredibly valuable. That is why John Schneider’s signing of Michael Bennett may end up being his best of the off-season. Yes, Percy Harvin is an MVP-caliber talent. Yes, Cliff Avril signed a two-year deal worth more per season. Bennett is such a unique talent that he may end the 2013 season as the third-most valuable player on that vaunted Seahawks defense behind only Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman.
Carroll may have been able to start his career in Seattle with Bennett in tow if Schneider had been GM just a year earlier. Tim Ruskell brought in Bennett, who made the team with a great pre-season, and then waived him to make room for an extra offensive lineman. Schneider, then with Green Bay, put in a waiver claim on Bennett because he saw the talent, but Tampa Bay was higher in the queue and won the claim. Bennett went on to earn more and more time for the Bucs as a sub-package interior pass rusher. By 2011, he was earning significant snaps, and he translated that into 4.0 sacks and 9 tackles for loss. His experience playing inside made him especially effective against the run as a defensive end.
ProFootballFocus.com had him rated as +14.2 versus the run in 2011. Cliff Avril, by comparison, was -7.4 and -9.9 versus the run the past two years. Red Bryant, during his strong 2011 season, graded out as +5.6. Bennett really put it all together last season when he dominated against the run (+10.6) and took a major step forward as a pass rusher (+11.3). That turned into a career-high 9.0 sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
Bennett accomplished those numbers by starting at defensive end, but sliding inside in nickel or dime situations. He is incredibly effective at using his hands to drive blockers back into the back-field and jabbing them off-balance. His tendency is more towards power moves like bull rushing on the outside, but it turns into a quickness game inside. There are precious few men in the NFL that can do what Bennett does, especially to the level he does it.
Why a player like that could be had for a one-year, $5M deal is curious. The market for pass rushers has been odd this year. Every team seemed to understand that there was little reason to overpay for a young guy when players like John Abraham, Osi Umenyiora and Dwight Freeney were pretty darn good consolation prizes. There was also a clear correction away from the idiocy of Mario Williams deal last year. As valuable as Bennett can be, he is not Geno Atkins. He will not single-handedly dominate a game. It is hard for teams to make major cap allocations to players like that.
There may be not better place for Bennett to showcase his talents than Seattle. Carroll knows exactly how to use a player like him, and may never have had a player quite like him. Bennett could conceivably start at either end position. Most likely, he will challenge Avril and Irvin for the starting LEO spot. It took Avril about twenty-four hours to learn what Matt Flynn did last year, nothing will be handed to you on this team.
The one thing Seahawks fans can count on is that Bennett will be rushing from the defensive tackle position against passing formations. That role got roughly 40% of the snaps last season in Seattle when Jones was healthy. Jones was not a great edge defender, though, which Detroit will find out this season. Bennett’s dual-threat ability will get him more snaps than Jones saw last season.
The argument could made that Bennett will be the Seahawks most valuable defensive lineman. Brandon Mebane was off to a terrific start last year, but faded as the year went on. Bryant, even at his best, is a guy with a single purpose. Avril has to prove he can be on the field against a strong running team like the 49ers.
The idea that Bennett could be the third-most valuable player on the defense will seem sensationalistic to some. Value is born of scarcity. Finding a starting linebacker can happen in every draft. As great as Bobby Wagner was last year, middle linebackers are far less difficult to find than defensive lineman. There is already great depth at cornerback on the roster. Kam Chancellor is a legitimate contender with Bennett for the value category as his talents are unique and rare, and would be difficult to replace. That, by itself, is a controversial statement among many Seahawks fans.
Regardless of where Bennett ranks on the value chart within the Seahawks defense, he will be a weapon unlike any Carroll has been able to employ during his time here. He has the potential to start at two different spots and can play significant snaps at three of the four line positions. His presence will enable Irvin and Avril to be far more effective, enabling a pass rush attack that could fuel this team to heights not yet seen. His ability to play the run from an end position while still threatening the passer will give offenses fits, as they have become accustomed to attacking Seattle’s smaller LEO end. The disruption and push he will create up the middle will lead to quicker and poorer decisions by quarterbacks that this secondary will prey on. Michael Bennett is not a super hero, but he very well may be a key to a Super Bowl.