Remember March 14, 2013. It’s the day the Bucs’ woeful pass rush actually got worse.
It’s the day the team’s leading sacker, right defensive end Michael Bennett, was allowed to leave in free agency and sign a one-year, $5 million contract with Seattle.
Bennett wasn’t worth $5 million to Tampa Bay?
Bucs general manager Mark Dominik gave overrated receiver Michael Clayton $6 million in 2009. He caught a career-low 16 passes for 230 yards and one touchdown before being released prior to the 2010 season.
With just over $20 million in salary cap room left in 2013 Dominik couldn’t spare $5 million to keep the team’s best pass rusher?
Dominik also gave running back Derrick Ward, a bum, $5 million in 2009. He rushed for 409 yards and one touchdown, while averaging 3.6 yards, in addition to catching 20 passes for 150 yards and two more scores before being cut after just one season in Tampa Bay.
Clayton and Ward were fat-cat players who played football for the paychecks. Bennett, who led the team with a career-best nine sacks in 2012, plays football for the love of the game and it shows in his performance.
Last offseason, Dominik doled out $7.75 million for troublesome cornerback Eric Wright, who produced just one interception. Dominik will say that after Wright didn’t fulfill the amount of workouts to earn his $250,000 workout bonus, and missed four game checks due to his suspension for Adderall the team was actually on the hook for just over $5 million last year.
That’s fine, but $5 million is still $5 million. And $5 million would have kept Bennett in Tampa Bay for another season.
I spoke with Bennett on Thursday night and he was baffled as I was as to why the Bucs weren’t more interested in keeping him. He wanted to stay in Tampa Bay and play alongside defensive linemen Gerald McCoy and Roy Miller – players Bennett knew from back in his days in the Big 12 playing for Texas A&M.
But when that looked it wasn’t going to happen, Bennett had to do what was best for his career. He opted to go to a Super Bowl contender in Seattle and join the legion of pass rushers that now includes Bruce Irvin, the Seahawks’ first-round pick in 2012, last year’s leading sacker Chris Clemons, and newly signed Cliff Avril. Including Bennett’s nine sacks and three forced fumbles, that foursome produced 38 sacks and caused 10 fumbles last year.
By comparison, Tampa Bay’s entire defense recorded just 27 sacks and forced fumbles last year.
As I understand it, the Bucs’ rationale for being cool on Bennett is the fact that he is undersized at 6-foot-4, 274 pounds and gets banged up from being tossed about by bigger right tackles. Yet Bennett wound up playing in all 16 games. Keep in mind that Seattle’s Clemons is 6-foot-3, 254 pounds and that didn’t stop him from getting to opposing quarterbacks 11.5 times.
The Bucs are also concerned that Bennett might be an overachiever. After all, Stylez G. White, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound pass rushing defensive end, recorded a team-leading eight sacks and seven forced fumbles in 2007. His 2007 season was similar to that of Bennett’s 2012 campaign.
But White followed that up with only five sacks and a forced fumble the next year. White never reached his 2007 numbers again, finishing his career with another 11 sacks and two forced fumbles from 2009-10. When White became a free agent after the 2010 season, the Bucs let him walk away.
However, Bennett is a much better player than White was, and to compare Bennett’s game to White’s would be a mistake for the Bucs’ front office. While White abhorred playing the run, Bennett was Tampa Bay’s leading tackler among defensive linemen with 34 tackles, and his 18 tackles for loss were the second-most on the team.
In a contract year in 2012 after being tendered an offer over $2 million with a first-round draft pick as compensation, Bennett more than doubled his production from the previous season that saw him post four sacks and a forced fumble in 2011. He’s a very good player, and one that Dominik should not have let go of.
By parting ways with Bennett, what Dominik and head coach Greg Schiano are thinking is that third-year defensive end, Da’Quan Bowers, can match Bennett’s production for about one-fifth of the price. Bowers, the team’s second-round pick in 2011, will earn $725,512 as a base salary this year.
Bowers, who is slated to step in and start at left defensive end in 2013, recorded a personal-best three sacks and five tackles for loss as a situational pass rusher over the last 10 games of 2012 after missing the first six games as he recovered from a torn Achilles tendon in the offseason. Bowers has just 4.5 sacks in his two-year NFL career.
In the end, Dominik may be right. This year, Bowers may be ready to be just as productive as Bennett was last year. But where the Bucs should be concerned is the lack of depth and proven pass rushers at the defensive end position.
Adrian Clayborn, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2011, recorded 7.5 sacks to lead the team as a rookie, but didn’t record a QB takedown in the first three games of 2012 before a knee injury ended his second season prematurely. Clayborn, the team’s starting right defensive end, is expected to be ready for the start of the 2013 campaign, but will be able to return with 100 percent effectiveness?
Behind Bowers and Clayborn is fourth-year defensive end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, who notched a career-high four sacks and eight tackles for loss. But combine the career sacks of all three players and the total is just 17 sacks. Bennett alone has 15 sacks in his career.
Tampa Bay will likely draft another defensive end in the first or second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, such as BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah or SMU’s Margus Hunt, to help provide depth now that Bennett is gone. What would have been better would have been to keep Bennett for one more year – at say, $5 million – and let Bowers and the rookie develop, and ensure that Clayborn is back to his optimum playing ability in 2013.
Why have the New York Giants won more Super Bowls over the past five years than any other team? Because they keep drafting pass rushers.
Back in the day, the Giants had Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. Then they drafted Justin Tuck and then Mathias Kiwanuka. When Strahan retired, they added Justin Pierre-Paul and didn’t miss a beat from a pass-rushing perspective because they still have five solid and versatile edge rushers.
The Bucs’ stable of pass rushers isn’t even close to that of the Giants’. By losing Bennett, it’s gotten worse. This team should be adding pass rushers – not losing them. Unless Tampa Bay makes a play for either aging, but experienced John Abraham or Dwight Freeney to be used as a situational pass rusher, losing Bennett will be a big blow to the Bucs.
There are two ways to create more sacks. Get better pass rushers that can get to the quarterback before he can get the ball off, or get cornerbacks that can cover wide receivers so that quarterbacks have to hold on to the ball longer. Great pass rushing teams have both, but in 2012, Tampa Bay had neither.
The team has yet to sign a cornerback to improve the worst secondary in the NFL. Buccaneers cornerbacks only accounted for only nine out of the team’s 18 interceptions, and the sub-par play at the position accounted for many of the team’s over 4,000 yards surrendered through the air in 2012.
Unless the Bucs trade for New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, who is coming off a torn ACL, and he winds up being healthy and in Pro Bowl form this season, Tampa Bay can’t count on its cornerbacks to help its pass rush. The Bucs had a chance to do that by re-signing Bennett for a reasonable $5 million, but failed to do so.
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