The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' sudden plunge into the free agency waters last week was astonishing and, hopefully, transformative. However, it did not transform the team's core priorities, one of the most prominent of which is an emphasis on re-signing its own successful players.
The team attended to that priority on Monday with the return of defensive end Michael Bennett, a 26-year-old player who has been on a steady rise since first joining the team in October of 2009. Bennett took care of the matter himself by choosing to sign the one-year qualifying offer that was extended to him as a restricted free agent (RFA) in February.
With a career-high four sacks in 2011, Bennett ranked second to rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn on Tampa Bay's defense. He also led the team with nine tackles for loss and tied for second with 13 quarterback pressures. Considered one of the team's best defenders against the run, Bennett added 47 tackles, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.
Bennett is the second of the Buccaneers' own pending free agents to re-sign with the team. On March 5, eight days before the start of the new league year, potential unrestricted free agent Jeremy Zuttah signed a new four-year deal to remain in Tampa. The team's starting left guard, he is expected to move to the starting center position in 2012, with newly-acquired free agent stepping in at the vacated position. The Bucs have also taken the necessary steps to bring back another highly-valued player, placing the franchise tag on kicker on the same day Zuttah's deal was announced.
Teams must extend qualifying offers to prospective RFAs before the start of free agency in order to retain a right-of-first refusal on any contract offer the player may get from another team. The tender offer also establishes a level of compensation should that player sign with another team and not have the offer matched by his original team. The Buccaneers' extended a qualifying offer to Bennett that would have required compensation of a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
That the Bucs chose to give Bennett a qualifying offer of that degree is an indication of how seriously they wanted him to remain with the team in 2012. Restricted free agents rarely change teams unless the necessary compensation is quite a bit lower, as high draft picks are obviously considered extremely valuable.
Players may sign their tender offers and play under the resulting one-year contract at any time after it is extended. However, they have until the week before the draft in April to negotiate with other teams, and many restricted free agents wait until later in the offseason to re-sign. Bennett, who recently told Buccaneers.com that he is on a "quest" for a ring in 2012, didn't waste any time in returning to the team that claimed him off waivers during his 2009 rookie campaign. The fourth-year defender is excited about the new coaching staff that has been put in place under Head Coach Greg Schiano.
"I'm impressed with the people they brought in," said Bennett. "[Defensive Coordinator] Bill Sheridan has a great history, [Defensive Line Coach] Randy Melvin has done a lot of good things in the league, and of course (Front Seven Coach) Bryan Cox. I talked to him for a minute the other day and he was telling me about all the stuff they did in different places, and it seems like it's going to be a good situation."
Bennett spent a good portion of the 2011 season as the Buccaneers' starting left defensive end before a run of leg injuries slowed him down the stretch and the emergence of rookie Da'Quan Bowers deepened the team's D-Line rotation. Bennett fought through his various ailments to play in all four games in December to cap his most productive season yet.
In almost three seasons in Tampa, Bennett has recorded 73 tackles (50 solo), 13 tackles for loss, six sacks, 21 quarterback pressures, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. He is capable of playing either end position and has also occasionally been used inside as a third-down pass-rusher from the defensive tackle position.
Bennett originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Seattle Seahawks in 2009. He captured a spot on the 53-man roster with an outstanding preseason but did not appear in any regular-season games for the Seahawks before he was released on October 10. After being claimed by the Buccaneers, he appeared in seven games and recorded his first career sack against Green Bay and quarterback Aaron Rodgers on November 8.
In 2010, Bennett again made the team but was used sparingly in the early weeks of the season. However, his role in the defense gradually increased throughout the campaign, to the point where he was the starting right defensive end for the last two games of the year, both Buccaneer victories. Bennett followed that with a strong 2011 training camp and opened the season as the team's starting left end.
At Texas A&M, Bennett came on strong during his final two seasons with the Aggies, earning Honorable Mention All-Big 12 honors as a junior in 2007 despite starting only one game. As a full-time starter in 2008, he racked up 42 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and two sacks. Bennett hails from Houston, Texas, and has a brother, Martellus, who plays tight end and recently signed with the New York Giants as an unrestricted free agent.