Two first-round picks, a high second-round pick and an undrafted rookie free agent…which of these things doesn't belong?
The answer, at least if you're talking about the starting defensive line for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is that they all belong – including Michael Bennett, whose path to the NFL is the one that sticks out a bit in that list.
While fellow starters Gerald McCoy, Brian Price and Adrian Clayborn were all highly-touted early-round picks that came to the Bucs with the requisite fanfare, Bennett's rise to the top of the depth chart was a bit more circuitous and unheralded.
Bennett joined the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, and though he impressed quickly enough to make the active roster he was eventually waived in October. The Buccaneers claimed Bennett off waivers, adding him to a defensive line group that, at the time, had a much more veteran flavor than the current group. Bennett began his time in Tampa practicing and playing with veterans like Chris Hovan, Ryan Sims, and Stylez White but now finds himself right in the middle of a youthful overhaul on the D-Line.
"It's been a good transition, coming here and learning from those [veteran] guys," Bennett said. "Taking a step back, when I first got here, I didn't get to play a lot, but it was better not to play and just learn. I've learned a lot from those guys over the years, and it feels good to come in here and start playing well."
Despite the influx of highly regarded first- and second-round talent around him, Bennett says he has felt like a part of the transition, not a piece to be replaced, and he believes Head Coach Raheem Morris has always viewed him as part of the plan.
"I felt like I was part of the process," Bennett said. "[Morris] never really outed me as not being part of the process or the transition with the Bucs, so it feels really good to come in here with these guys and be part of the family."
In fact, Bennett says the added competition created by the last few drafts is a great challenge, and one that only elevates the play of the entire group.
"Competition does bring out the best, and that's what Rah wants," Bennett said. "He doesn't want everybody just sitting there. You've got to play good to be able to play here. Every day is a day that they're judging you on your skill and your learning ability and everything. So it's a good opportunity just to be here and to get to learn from these coaches that we have."
Since coming to Tampa, Bennett has shown himself to be a versatile player (he's played both end and tackle at times) with a solid work ethic. Even though he's backed up by yet another early-round draft choice (2011 second-rounder Da'Quan Bowers), Bennett has established himself atop the depth chart at right defensive end – the premier pass rushing position – and showed the entire NFL world what he's capable of in the Bucs' Monday Night Football win over the Colts.
Bennett notched two sacks and a forced fumble in the game, and says his stellar performance was even more satisfying considering it came in a prime-time matchup.
"I felt like it was a great opportunity to show how good of a player I can be or what I'm going to be," Bennett said. "The Bucs know what kind of player I've been, because I've been playing really well, but not getting many opportunities to show it. So the spotlight felt good."
After his two-sack game, Bennett now finds himself tied for the team lead in the category. But he says bringing down the quarterback isn't enough – forcing the ball loose on the way is paramount.
"That's the key," Bennett said. "Rah always talks about big plays on defense. Everybody makes a tackle, and a lot of guys make sacks, but it's about trying to get a turnover and get the ball back for our offense. That's what we practice every day, trying to strip the ball. Try to go above and beyond. It's not good enough if we're not coming back with the ball."
Going above and beyond is the mindset Bennett and the Bucs' other young defensive linemen share not only when rushing an opposing quarterback, but also as they try to cement their place in team history.
Tampa has been spoiled by supremely stout defenses in years past, and the current iteration of the Buccaneers defense knows it has much to live up to. While the unit has been playing better as of late, including greater pressure from the defensive line, Bennett feels the best is yet to come - for both himself and the defense as a whole.
"I don't know the ceiling," Bennett said. "Having a coach like [Defensive Line Coach Keith] Millard, we've learned so much. I've learned more in four weeks than I've learned in my whole NFL career, just learning from a guy like Millard. He does a great job of everything, teaching us, and he really homes in on what we do good, so it's not like everybody is trying to rush the same. Everybody's just doing what they're doing at the highest possibility.
"It's a new era for the defense. We're not trying to copy [Derrick] Brooks and all those guys, but we're trying to make an identity for ourselves. Those are hard shoes to fill, so we're just trying to create something for ourselves. It started with [Warren] Sapp and all those guys. They all came in and grew up together, and they became a great D-line and a great team in general. That's what we're dealing with, with all these young players and second-year players and just learning who we are as a team."