It's that time of year again. You know the time, don't you? It's the time of year when one or two teams will invariably follow the model of overpaying a player from another team in hopes of strengthening their own. There are never discounts when signing an upper-echelon free agent, and that pretty much goes for any sport. The team where the player came from had their services at a discounted rate. The new team must pay full retail price for used goods.
Think about that for a second. A team is rewarding a player for what he did with someone else. Let's take it to the real world for a second...
"Listen, I've had my eyes on you for the last three years. You look amazing and you were a great girlfriend for David for three straight years. Here is what I would like to do. I'm going to offer to buy you a tricked-out Denali. If you say accept, then we will start going out and I will just hope that you care as much about being the same type of girlfriend for me that you were for David. And if not, I guess I just gave you that sweet Denali for nothing."
Actually, I didn't expect for that scenario to come out quite like that. When you read the "real world" version of free agency, it makes teams seem like some pathetic sad-sack character from an early '90s romantic-comedy. That representation isn't necessarily true. Sure, the Eagles tried to buy a Super Bowl by paying for Cullen Jenkins, Jason Babin and Nnamdi Asomugha, and ended up embarrassed and dumped by the end of the movie. In contrast, the Texans added Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning in the same year and their movie had a happy ending with their first two division championships in franchise history.
It's all about spending smart money for the right player. It's about being shrewd and not the sucker. I think I've found the perfect target for teams looking to step their defensive end game up.
My Eyes See Bennett
Tampa Bay and "defense" have not exactly been synonymous terms over the last couple of years, but a player who's emerged from the rubble and really become a force is defensive end Michael Bennett. When I watched the tape on Bennett, I saw a motor that was upper-echelon. The physical attributes have always been there, but Bennett's desire to play at full-speed on almost every down was the catalyst for his strong 2012 performance.
2012 was Bennett's first year as a full-time starter and he responded with a 9-sack season which, as you will soon find out, doesn't even come close to telling the story of how well he played. Bennett does a great job of getting into offensive linemen quickly with his hands and getting arm-extension. He has the power to jar offensive linemen out of their stances and a step into the backfield if they aren't ready for it. Combine that pop off the line of scrimmage with outstanding quickness and athleticism for a man in his 270s, and you can understand why Bennett was effective against the run and the pass.
Bennett flashes outstanding pass rush knowledge and skill. The Bucs used him inside as well as outside and he absolutely flourishes with stunts and twists from either the end or tackle positions as a pass rusher. Bennett has a nifty dip move when rushing around the edge, which makes it hard for less flexible right tackles to get their hands on him. Inside spin move? Check. Bull rush? Check. Whether it is against the run or the pass, Bennett is the prototype strong-side defensive end in the 4-3.
What The Numbers Say
There are three defensive ends getting the most attention in free agency and they are Michael Johnson (Bengals), Cliff Avril (Lions) and Michael Bennett. The Bengals franchised Johnson, but for the purpose of my argument, I want to compare these three defensive ends.
I went to John Pollard, the GM for the Sports Solutions Group arm of STATS. John works closely with NFL and College teams to provide advanced data and technology revolving around team and player performance. Both college and the NFL are moving at a breakneck pace toward increased analytics, so I wanted to work with John to make sure that the numbers matched what my eyes were seeing. We used his STATS ICE platform to compare the three defensive ends.
Pass Rush Effectiveness
* - “Pressures” are the combination of hurries and knockdowns as charted by STATS ICE.
Sacks are a sexy stat and an important stat, but we always have to keep it in perspective. Not all sacks are created equally. On the other hand, we get a more complete look at a player’s pass rushing effectiveness when we view pressuring the quarterback in its entirety which includes hurrying the quarterback and hitting the quarterback.
Stopping The Run
| ||Michael Bennett||Cliff Avril||Michael Johnson|
|Run Support Snaps
|Effective Run Support %
* - “Stuffs” are all tackles for no gains or losses as charted by STATS ICE.
** - “Impact Tackles” are tackles that are 1 or 2 yards from line of scrimmage that do not result in a first down or touchdown as charted by STATS ICE.
Michael Johnson has 11 more tackles in 13 fewer run support snaps than Michael Bennett, but what was the value of those tackles? Bennett had six more tackles for losses than Johnson and one more impact tackle. When you look at the numbers, Bennett (6.23%) made a higher percentage of high impact plays against the run and the pass when he was on the field than both Avril (5.11%) and Johnson (5.07%).
Bennett Destined To Be A Buc?
So I was able to prove with data from STATS what my eyes were telling me – Michael Bennett deserves to be paid as the most valuable defensive end in this free agent class. The question, however, is what will that value be?
Tampa is $32.8M under the cap and will likely look to match any offer that Drew Rosenhaus is able to find out on the market. The question is whether or not anyone will even look to make a serious offer on Bennett. I think they should. Here are possible suitors:
Atlanta: They have money to spend (for now) and could get creative with how they set up the contract. While Bennett is not a pure edge rusher, he is ready to produce at a high level for a team who is ready to win at the highest level. The Falcons make sense but probably won’t get involved thanks to Matt Ryan’s impending contract demands.
Miami: The Dolphins make a ton of sense. Jared Odrick was drafted as a 3-4 defensive end back in 2010 and isn’t much of a bookend for Cameron Wake outside. Wake is still one of the most prolific pass rushers in the game, but the Dolphins must find another defensive end. It just so happens that the Dolphins are expected to have over $30M in cap space headed into free agency.
Indianapolis: This one takes some outside-the-box thinking. The Colts run a 3-4 now, but their version of the 3-4 is more of a hybrid 3-4/4-3. Robert Mathis is already paid and won’t be going anywhere this year, but why not play Bennett outside at Mathis’ spot on running downs and then bump Bennett inside (where he already has some experience) and bring Mathis in for pass rushing situations. Bennett would strengthen the Colts' run defense and make them a more formidable “up-the-field” defensive front on pass rush downs. The Colts have enough cap space to wallet-whip the Bucs for Bennett if they wanted.
There are plenty of teams who need defensive ends, but not many who have the cap space available to compete with the Bucs. Miami could be a serious player if they chose to, but my guess is that Bennett ends up back with the Bucs. Tampa will be getting a better value than the Bengals will with Michael Johnson.