HOUSTON – Thirty minutes before kickoff, scout Matt Berry took a seat on Seattle’s bench to talk about one of the players he evaluated in college: defensive lineman Michael Bennett.
Berry, Seattle’s Southwest area scout, thought back to the book on Bennett coming out of college: Talented and athletic but inconsistent and in the doghouse. Then he thought about Bennett now, a guy who is praised across the board for his high motor, tenacity and consistency.
“He’s really made himself into what he is,” Berry said. “You would see it in flashes and see the talent, but now he’s playing lights out and hard all the time.”
Two hours later, in a reminder of how fragile and variable the game can be, Bennett left the field on a stretcher in front of about 30 friends and family. He has been cleared to practice this week and could play in Sunday’s game against Indianapolis, which is good news for the Seahawks.
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Michael Bennett, who Seattle once released four games into a season, is now extremely valuable.
Of all the moves the Seahawks made this offseason, the free-agent signing of Bennett wasn’t high on the list for many.
Bennett’s signing came a day after Seattle signed free-agent pass-rusher Cliff Avril, who Sports Illustrated ranked as the best free agent on the market. Bennett was ranked 13th on that list, but he fell in the shadows of Avril, Percy Harvin and even draftees like Christine Michael.
Yet those in the game knew what the Seahawks were getting.
Seattle defensive line coach Travis Jones clashed with Bennett when Jones coached in New Orleans and Bennett played in Tampa Bay. “He was a pain in the butt,” Jones said.
Safety Earl Thomas played against Bennett in college when Thomas starred at Texas and Bennett was at Texas A&M.
“I knew he was the guy he is right now,” Thomas said. “He put Colt McCoy out back in college.”
Bennett’s value is twofold. He’s good enough to be a productive defensive end, if that were his only position. But at 274 pounds, he’s strong enough and quick enough to also play defensive tackle in pass-rushing situations. That combination of size, speed and versatility makes him a rare commodity, one the Seahawks have taken full advantage of.
He played at every spot along the defensive line against Jacksonville, and Pro Football Focus ranks him the third-best defensive end so far.
If he were a chess piece, he’d be a knight.
“This is a classic example that I’ve tried to explain to you guys that we’re looking for guys with special qualities,” coach Pete Carroll said. “We’re not just looking for cookie-cutter guys.”
Bennett has long been called a ‘tweener because he’s not as fast as most defensive ends but not as big as defensive tackles. The Seahawks have taken that to mean versatility. He typically lines up at defensive end in run situations and slides inside to create a pass rush up the middle on third downs.
He has been effective for a number of reasons, but one of the leading ones is his rare knack to get off the line quickly at the snap. On one play against Jacksonville, Bennett blew by the guard almost before he rose from his stance, then blew by the running back before he could block him.
“Sometimes I tell him that I can use him as my snap count,” defensive end O’Brien Schofield said. “I can just get off when I feel him move. You don’t even have to look at the center.”
Said Bennett, “If you punch somebody first, you usually win the fight.”
Bennett has given Seattle’s pass rush another dimension inside on third downs. He is tied for the team lead with 2.5 sacks and has helped eliminate space for quarterbacks to step up in the pocket.
“He’s more than what we thought he was,” Carroll said.
The same can be said for much of Bennett’s career.
Matt Berry graded Bennett as a starter and worthy of being drafted entering his senior year. But Texas A&M hired a new coach before that season, and Bennett played on a bad defense and a bad team.
“He got in the coach’s doghouse,” said Zerick Rollins, the Seahawks’ linebackers coach at the time. “That was a big part of his deal. They said he can be a little bit lazy, a little bit selfish.”
The Seahawks, under general manager Tim Ruskell, still viewed Bennett as a fifth- or sixth-round pick before the draft, but they didn’t take him. No teams did.
This is one of the pivotal moments of Bennett’s career. He, along with many around the league, knew he had the raw talent to get drafted and play in the NFL. But he hadn’t been productive enough and hadn’t shed the questions about his attitude and work ethic.
“I re-evaluated myself and went back and just wanted to prove to everybody that I could play at a high level,” Bennett said.
Bennett arrived in Seattle in 2009 as an undrafted rookie free agent with an Xbox, some clothes and no car. He took the shuttle from the hotel to the team’s training facility in Renton. But he also looked far more like the player who showed up in spurts on tape with big, flashy plays.
This is another pivotal moment of Bennett’s career. Dan Quinn, Seattle’s current defensive coordinator, was the defensive-line coach under Jim Mora that season. When he watched Bennett play, he saw a defensive end who was explosive off the ball — but who was also big enough to play inside in pass-rush situations.
Bennett was skeptical at first. “I think I’m kind of small,” he said at the time.
He quickly bought in and used his strength and initial burst to make up for size.
“That’s helped me stay around for a long time,” Bennett said. “It’s second nature to me now.”
Yet Bennett only lasted four games with Seattle as a rookie. The Seahawks waived him to make room for offensive tackle Kyle Williams because of injuries along the offensive line. Williams played in just three games, and Tampa Bay picked up Bennett. It was not a popular decision in the Seahawks’ organization.
“It was killing me,” Quinn said. “Looking back, I wish I had fought harder because he would have been with us the whole time. He would have never left the building.”
Bennett developed into a solid defensive end in Tampa Bay and had nine sacks last season. When he became a free agent this offseason, Quinn called him. He had kept in touch with Bennett after he went to Tampa Bay, and he saw how he could use Bennett’s versatility in his first year as Seattle’s defensive coordinator.
Bennett listened and was convinced it was a good fit.
“Pete and DQ appreciate what I can do,” he said.
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org