When Michael Bennett first came into the league in 2009, as an undrafted free agent signed by the Seattle Seahawks, he was considered a defensive end. That is, after all, the position he played at Texas A&M.
By the time Seattle was playing preseason game in '09, Bennett was primarily playing defensive tackle, as the Seahawks felt he had interior pass-rushing skills. Bennett took to the new assignment immediately, playing so well in August that he made the Seahawks' 53-man roster.
He didn't see much action in the first month of the season, however, and was eventually released by Seattle in early October. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers immediately claimed him off waivers, in part because they thought he might be a good fit at the three-technique tackle position in their defense. The Bucs took a look at a lot of young and unproven players that season as General Manager Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris worked to turn the roster over in their first year at the Bucs' helm. Bennett saw some pockets of action here and there during the season, but nothing major, finishing with seven games played, five tackles and one sack.
As the Bucs headed into 2010, Bennett was back at defensive end on the depth chart. Once again his playing time was relatively sparse in the early going. He made the team (in part because he recorded two of the team's four preseason sacks) but was inactive for the first three games. In October and November Bennett gradually began to see more playing time; he had three tackles in a win at Arizona and a sack in win at San Francisco.
Finally, for the last two games of the season, the Buccaneers moved Bennett into the starting right defensive end spot ahead of Stylez G. White. Bennett played well and the Bucs won both games as they fought to the bitter end to stay alive in the NFC playoff race.
So naturally, as Bennett prepares for his third NFL season, he is now listed as the Buccaneers' starter at left defensive end. He is just continuing on his tour of the entire defensive line.
On Monday, the Bucs released their first depth chart of 2011, which was necessitated by the pending preseason opener at Kansas City on Friday. Bennett took the first slot at left end, ahead of rookie Da'Quan Bowers and fellow third-year man Kyle Moore. Of course, an August 8 depth chart is not only subject to change but almost certain to do so, which meant Bennett wasn't reading too much into it yet.
"I'm just going out there and playing hard every day, trying to get better and being a good teammate," he said. "I'm just working as hard as I can and not really worrying about being a starter. We've got a good, young group of guys – Da'Quan, Adrian [Clayborn], Tim [Crowder], Kyle – so we've got a very good group of defensive ends."
Still, Bennett's name jumps out on first examination of the new depth chart because, if he retains that spot, he'll be one of only a few new starters heading into 2011. Clayborn, the rookie first-rounder, is listed first at right defensive end, fellow rookie Mason Foster has the top spot at middle linebacker and Jeremy Trueblood's name is first at right tackle after James Lee started nine games there in 2010. At the very least, it looks like he won't have to wait a month or so into the season to get his chance this time.
"It feels good," said Bennett, who said he expects the team to rotate liberally at the two end spots. "I've come a long way, working hard. Everything from last year I've brought into this year and I'm feeling more comfortable as I get older in the game. Last year was kind of difficult learning all the plays. This year, it's like a whole different thing. I'm understanding offenses and what's going on as far as pass-rushing and playing defensive end.
"That success [in 2010] helped a lot. Last year I started coming into my own and this year I'm really going to be in my own as far as being a defensive player and knowing everything I need to do."
Like Bennett, Foster knows he has to keep working hard in order to keep his spot at the top of the depth chart. He has impressed in his first few weeks with the team, but the Bucs have also been happy with the practice work of middle linebackers Tyrone McKenzie and Derrell Smith.
"Everything's a competition," said Foster. "Every day is a competition. Every day you step into One Buc here you've got to push yourself. It's a privilege to be on the team and I approach it like that.
"I've got to work on my overall game. The NFL is totally different than college. I'm working on everything – using my hands, knowing every little check. I'm coming along well. Everybody's giving me little tips, even the D-linemen. I'm trying to get better all the way around so I can be the best player I can be for this team."
Even if the first depth chart of 2011 doesn't guarantee Bennett or Foster anything in the long run – and by "long run," we mean the rest of this month – it does mean they'll get the first snaps when the preseason finally begins on Friday. That means Foster won't have to wait long after the opening whistle to realize his lifelong goal of playing in the NFL.
"I'm excited to get out there and play," he said. "It's been a dream of mine since I was a little kid. I'm really excited – I can't even explain. I can't wait to get out there and put on that uniform and fly around a little bit."
During the individual-position period of practice on Monday evening, the running backs and linebackers combined efforts in order to stage a combined blitz/pass-protection drill. Soon, that drill near the north end zone of the far field was drawing attention from all over the two fields in use.
A series of low bags were placed on the ground to create lanes that linebackers were supposed to blitz through. Each rep was a one-on-one between a linebacker and a running back, with the defender coming in full-speed and the back tasked with stopping his progress before he could get to the quarterback. It was full-contact, and there were some very loud pops when shoulder pads met, which was part of what drew the eyeballs of players and coaches in other drills.
What really caught the onlookers' attention, however, was the outstanding performances of several players on both sides of the drill. Linebacker Quincy Black was dominant on several of his blitzes, and rookies Allen Bradford and Mossis Madu each had nice moments. The star of the period, though, was LeGarrette Blount.
Blount joined the Buccaneers as a waiver claim last September and thus missed the team's entire training camp. As it became clear in September and October that he was the team's best option in the rushing attack, the expansion of his role was slowed down somewhat by his blocking deficiencies. Blount simply didn't know the Bucs' protection schemes at first, and thus the coaches were leery of putting him in a position to keep Josh Freeman safe.
Obviously, then, that's a portion of his game on which Blount has been working very hard since arrival. Heading into his second season, with the benefit of a Buc camp this time, Blount looks to be far more advanced in that category than he was in 2009, which conceivably could increase the number of snaps he'll get during the season.
On Monday, he had several reps in the protection drill that had Running Backs Coach Steve Logan howling with joy. Morris caught wind of it, headed over to the drill and soon was praising Blount as loudly as Logan. Eventually, cornerback Aqib Talib was yelling his own words of encouragement to the running back from all the way over on the adjacent field.
"That was a pretty good drill, period, but definitely LeGarrette, he's come a long way," said Morris. "That's a credit to Coach Logan's coaching and it's a credit to the effort the kid has put into it. You've got to give him a lot of credit for that – he's come a long way in a year's time."
Blount may soon see the benefits of that hard work on game day, as will the Bucs' offense as a whole.
"Being able to block and being able to stay in there sometimes on third down to help out will definitely be a big time move for him," said Morris. "It's a big step for him."
Scheduled Day Off for Bowers
Da'Quan Bowers watched Monday's practice from the sideline, and he may do the same thing on Friday night in Kansas City. That in no way indicates a step back for the rookie defensive end, who had surgery on his knee early in 2011. Monday's day off was simply a precautionary move by Morris.
"I feel good," said Bowers. "Coach gave me the day off to recuperate and get my legs back because my first day running was the first day of camp. I've been going pretty hard, pretty steady, so they decided to give me the day off. I'll be back full-go tomorrow."
The Bucs did not have access to Bowers for any examinations between the draft and the beginning of camp, thanks to the work stoppage, but they anticipated having to devise a plan of periodic rest for the recovering defender. Feedback from Bowers on how his knee feels would obviously be a part of that plan, but he hasn't had to ask for any special treatment through the first 11 days of camp.
"It depends on how I feel," he said. "If I tell them I'm tired then Coach might say, 'Well, take the day off.' But this is the first day that I've taken off. I've been going hard. I haven't been left out of any contact, haven't been left out of any drills. Coach decided; it was his idea for me to take the day off, so who am I to argue with him?"
Bowers insisted that he has experienced absolutely no swelling or soreness since he began stressing the knee in training camp. He said he thinks its likely he'll skip the preseason opener and then play in the other three games. He needs to in order to pursue his goal of becoming a starter on opening day.
"Once it gets close, time to grind for Detroit, I'm going to be working to get into that starting lineup," he said.
The Buccaneers did add a new injury during Monday evening's practice. Rookie wide receiver Raymond Webber had to be helped off the field and into the training room after suffering an apparent left leg injury. Webber's status will be updated by Morris during his Tuesday press conference.