Tampa Bay running back Michael Bennett, who was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on February 29, was signed to a three-year contract extension on February 15. But the type of money Bennett received from the Buccaneers has remained a mystery until now.

PewterReport.com is reporting that Bennett received a modest $750,000 signing bonus in addition to a $750,000 base salary in 2008. That translates to a cap-friendly $1 million salary cap value this season in a year in which Tampa Bay will have close to $35 million in cap room due to a $13 million salary cap rollover from 2007 and the departure of cornerback Brian Kelly, who bought out the final year of a contract that was scheduled to pay him $3.2 million in base salary.

This continues a trend of Tampa Bay signing players to conservative deals with low signing bonuses. Last year, the Bucs signed the likes of quarterback Jeff Garcia, left tackle Luke Petitgout, linebacker Cato June and defensive tackle Kevin Carter in free agency, but the largest signing bonus the team dished out was $3 million, which went to both Garcia and Petitgout.

Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen and his front office staff, including senior assistant Kevin Demoff, pro personnel director Mark Dominik and personnel executive Doug Williams, have successfully lured top free agents to Tampa Bay for less than market value contracts over the past few years. The Bucs have done this by using their excellent coaching staff, top-notch facilities, the superb grass surface at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa Bay’s team chemistry and veteran leadership, the state’s warm weather and the fact that Florida has no state income tax as selling points.

However, after a 9-7 season and an NFC South divisional championship in a year in which several of the team’s young players gained valuable experience and made great strides on the gridiron, Tampa Bay is expected to buck their current trend and go after a few free agents that are expected to come with much bigger price tags. Yet with key role players like Bennett, Allen and the Bucs will continue to not overload the team’s salary cap and spend conservatively.

Bennett’s base salary climbs to $1 million in 2009 and $1.25 million in 2010. The 29-year old running back was acquired in a trade with Kansas City on October 16 just prior to the NFL trading deadline after Williams suffered a torn patellar tendon injury in Week 4. Seeing only limited duty as he learned head coach Jon Gruden’s playbook, Bennett, a former first-round pick by Minnesota in 2001, rushed for 189 yards and one touchdown on 41 carries (4.6 avg.) and caught five passes for 54 yards and another touchdown in 2007.

The 5-foot-9, 207-pound Bennett has the speed that Gruden craves on offense and was used in screen passes as a running back and also in bubble screen plays as a wide receiver. He has rushed for 3,615 yards and 13 touchdowns on 810 carries (4.5 avg.), and has also caught 150 passes for 1,218 yards (8.2 avg.) and six scores throughout his career. Bennett’s best season in the NFL came in Minnesota in 2002 when he made the Pro Bowl after rushing for 1,296 yards and five touchdowns on 255 carries (5.1 avg.), in addition to hauling in 37 receptions for 351 yards and one touchdown.

Bennett’s signing gives Tampa Bay four halfbacks under contract in 2008: Cadillac Williams, Earnest Graham, Kenneth Darby and Bennett.

Graham, who rushed for a team-high 898 yards and 10 touchdowns during the regular season when Williams was lost for the season, is hoping to get a contract extension. Graham, who hired Drew Rosenhaus to serve as his agent in 2007, has just one year left on his deal and is looking for a substantial raise. Talks between Rosenhaus and Allen have begun, but little progress has been made thus far.

Michael Pittman, who has been with the Buccaneers since 2002, will be an unrestricted free agent on February 29.

Want the inside scoop on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2008 offseason plans? Want to find out who the Bucs are targeting in free agency and the NFL Draft this year? Subscribe to PewterReport.com's Pewter Insider by clicking here.

WATCH Pewter Report's Scott Reynolds and Jim Flynn on select Sunday nights at 11:30 p.m. on Sports Zone with Al Keck and Tom Korun on ABC Action News in Tampa Bay for Bucs game highlights and the latest Bucs news. And for the best local coverage of Tampa Bay sports and Tampa Bay news, check out ABCActionNews.com.

LISTEN to Pewter Report's Jim Flynn each Monday morning at 8:30 a.m. on the Pewter Pulse with Dan Sileo on WDAE 620 AM The Sports Animal, and catch Pewter Report's Scott Reynolds each Wednesday afternoon at 5:00 p.m. on the PewterReport.com Buccaneer Blitz with Steve Duemig on WDAE 620 AM The Sports Animal.

 

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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