The Buccaneers finished the 2012 season with just 27 sacks, but could potentially lose their leading sacker this offseason. Defensive end Michael Bennett, who recorded a career-high nine sacks and accounted for nearly a third of the team’s quarterback captures this year, is poised to become an unrestricted free agent in 2013.
Re-signing Bennett is one of general manager Mark Dominik’s top priorities this winter, and upon the conclusion of Tampa Bay’s 2012 campaign, which ended with a 7-9 record due to Sunday’s 22-17 win at Atlanta, Bennett wants to return.
“Of course I want to come back,” said Bennett, who had 41 tackles and 19 tackles for loss in 2012. “I want to see what happens when [Da’Quan] Bowers gets healthy, when A.C. (Adrian Clayborn) gets healthy – just to see where we could be as a group. I want to be back because I’ve been here a long time and I’ve grown with the Bucs. It would be a great chance to be back and play with these guys.”
Bennett, who has amassed 98 tackles, 15 sacks, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in his four seasons in Tampa Bay, would prefer to have a long-term deal from the organization, but didn’t seem opposed to having the franchise tag being placed on him.
“I don’t know,” said Bennett, who signed a one-year deal worth $2.742 million as a restricted free agent in 2012. “I haven’t thought that far as far as being franchised or it being a long-term deal. You know, ultimately you want a long-term deal, especially with this team and the way it’s going. They have all these young guys here making big plays. I’m just looking forward to the draft and the players they are going to bring in.
“I’ve got a great relationship with Mark. He’s helped me grow as a player, especially him and Raheem Morris. I love those guys and what they did for me.”
Rams defensive end Chris Long, who is slightly more accomplished than Bennett, signed a four-year, $50 million contract extension with $27 million in guaranteed money this offseason, so it’s a safe bet that Bennett will be looking for a deal that will pay him between $7-11 million per season.
If Bennett and Dominik cannot agree on a long-term contract extension, the Bucs could always use the franchise tag on him. The problem with tagging Bennett is that would require a lot of cap space for one player, as the 2012 franchise number for defensive ends and cornerbacks was $10.6 million. That was the second-highest franchise number behind quarterbacks, which was $14 million, and only slightly ahead of offensive linemen and wide receivers, which was $9.4 million.
Bennett said he hasn’t had any discussions with the team about a contract extension yet.
“Not that I know of for sure,” Bennett said. “They deal with my agent and I hear about it at the end. Whenever they ask me I’ll be up there talking to them.”
One of the wild cards in any contract negotiations with Bennett is the fact that his brother Martellus, who is a tight end with New York, will also be a free agent in 2013 after signing a one-year deal with the Giants, and the two want to play together as they did in college at Texas A&M. Bennett caught a career-high 55 passes for 626 yards and five touchdowns this year and the Bucs could use a tight end as starter Dallas Clark will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
“Playing with my brother would be one of those great things to do, but ultimately I have to do what is best for my family and he’ll do what is best for his family,” Bennett said. “If he does come here or if we do play together [somewhere else] it would be nice.
“Of course he would like to play in Florida – it’s nice weather out here. But he loves New York. It would be great to play together, though.”
Martellus Bennett would prefer to stay in New York and have his brother become a Giant and join New York’s defensive line.
Bucs Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said that re-signing Michael Bennett should be among the first thing Dominik does this offseason to ensure that he remains in Tampa Bay.
“I think it should be one of the first priorities with how he has prepared each week and how hard he’s fought the four years he’s been here,” McCoy said. “He was great for us this year. It will be huge for getting us where we want to be.”
With nine QB captures this year, Bennett just missed on becoming the Bucs’ first double-digit sacker since Simeon Rice last accomplished that feat in 2005.
“There’s always a goal of trying to do something that hasn’t been done in a while, but I can’t complain,” Bennett said. “As long as we got that last win, that was the most important thing. As long as we win, that’s all I cared about. Getting double digits would have been a nice thing, but we played a great game yesterday. Hats off to everybody doing a great job.”
Both Bennett and McCoy also want to see unrestricted free agent defensive tackle Roy Miller re-signed during the offseason. While Miller doesn’t have gaudy statistics with just 23 tackles and a pair of tackles for loss, he does draw double teams and has been an integral role in Tampa Bay’s top-ranked run defense in 2012.
“Roy and I are the longest tenured defensive linemen here,” Bennett said. “I grew up with Roy. He’s my brother, just like Gerald is my brother. Roy does everything. He plays through every injury and he does everything the team asks him to do. He’s such a great player with the run defense being the way it is. There is no negative in his game. He took a lot of criticism last year like Gerald and he came out and performed at a high level.”
McCoy said Miller is underrated and is capable of being more than just a two-down run defender.
“Roy is the man,” McCoy said. “Roy takes a lot of slack off me with how he plays on first and second down. I think Roy can do a lot more than has been seen. Roy is actually, in my opinion, a pass-rushing nose guard. He hasn’t been put in that position so it hasn’t been seen. Roy is definitely a dominant force and I’m praying that he comes back for sure.”
The play of both Miller and Bennett helped McCoy have his first Pro Bowl season in which he recorded 30 tackles, nine tackles for loss, a career-high five sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Against Dallas and Philadelphia, Bennett and McCoy fed off each other and teamed up to produce two-sack games apiece versus each of those foes.
“Nobody was happier for Gerald than me,” Bennett said. “To see him go through everything and persevere the way he did. Everybody criticized him for getting hurt, but people that criticized him obviously didn’t play football because in one movement you can get hurt. Gerald did the best thing he could do with closed ears and closed eyes and just played the way he played. I’m honored to play with Gerald everyday. I’m proud of him and everything he’s accomplished.”
McCoy and the Buccaneers hope Bennett can continue to be a part of Tampa Bay’s young and up-and-coming defensive line.
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