Put a big, fat check next to priority No. 1. The Seahawks crossed that off the list Monday by re-signing defensive linemen Michael Bennett to a four-year contract.
Bennett is generally listed as a defensive end, which isn’t wrong. But it’s not exactly right, either. Bennett’s value is based on many things — his quick first step, his motor — but it also stems from his versatility. He can play effectively at defensive end on first and second down and at defensive tackle in pass-rushing situations.
“Because of how comfortable he is rushing in traffic like that as a defensive tackle, he’s a movable chess piece as far as trying to exploit matchups,” said Louis Riddick, an ESPN analyst and former scout. “For example, if you have a guard who is a liability but you don’t have people comfortable rushing as a (defensive tackle), then it’s hard to exploit that. Otherwise you have to exploit it with games and movement. Well, Michael can exploit it just one-on-one.”
Bennett surprised even the Seahawks with how effective he was after signing a one-year deal last season. He was Seattle’s most consistent pass rusher. He played every position along the defensive line, from lining up outside the tight end to nose tackle. And he displayed an unusually explosive burst when the ball was snapped. (“I tell him that I can use you as my snap count,” linebacker O’Brien Schofield once said. “I can just get off when I feel you move. You don’t have to look at the center.”)
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Bennett’s versatility played a large role in Seattle’s success in the Super Bowl. The Seahawks played the majority of the game with their nickel package — meaning Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons lined up at defensive end while Clinton McDonald and Bennett lined up at tackle. It was that defensive group which made Peyton Manning uncomfortable all night.
Bennett played the most snaps of any Seahawks defensive linemen last season, despite not always starting. As the year went on, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn started playing Bennett more all over the line.
As former Seahawks coach Zerick Rollins once described Bennett, “He’s a utility player who’s very productive. You have some utility players who are stopgaps. They just won’t get you beat. But he’s a utility player who gives you production.”
Bennett’s role could change some in 2014. The Seahawks released 323-pound Red Bryant, who played defensive end last season. Bryant’s responsibilities dealt almost solely with stopping the run — he played more like a defensive tackle — and coach Pete Carroll said on SiriusXM NFL Radio that the Seahawks might elect to go with a more traditional defensive end in Bryant’s absence.
A potential glimpse into the future came in the one game Bryant didn’t play last season. Against Atlanta, the Seahawks used Bennett, Avril and Clemons in a rotation at defensive end. That could be how it looks next year, although the Seahawks are expected to release Clemons, who is owed $9.7 million next season.
Defensive-line coach Travis Jones said last year that he didn’t have “any reservations” about deploying Bennett against the run.
Bennett led Seattle in sacks and played with a relentless tenacity that made him popular with teammates. He once got a sack with an offensive lineman on top of him, and he routinely yelled at offensive linemen while they were walking up to the line of scrimmage (“They’re not good,” he said by way of explanation, “and we’re better than them”).
“The best thing about him is he works,” safety Earl Thomas said during the season. “You can’t coach a guy who has a high motor. His motor never stops. I told him his swag is not up to par as far as his pants hanging down and his jersey being untucked. He’s looking sloppy out there. But I told him, ‘Man, when you’re playing the way you are, swag doesn’t matter.’ ”
Bennett will now play with the big contract that he always wanted. At one point last year, when explaining how he got that sack with a lineman on top of him, Bennett referenced his three daughters.
“Those three weddings,” he said. “I had to get to the quarterback with those three weddings.”
“They better appreciate it. They’ll be the best weddings ever.”
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org