Most of the headlines surrounding defensive linemen in free agency have focused on guys like Cliff Avril, John Abraham and Dwight Freeney. But there's another player set to hit the open market and he deserves just as much, if not more, coverage than the other guys: Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Michael Bennett.
Bennett has flown under the radar for one reason or another, but he's been one of Tampa Bay's best players for a few seasons now. His 2012 season was his best yet, with nine sacks and three forced fumbles to go with his 41 tackles. He also had two pass deflections.
He'll be billed primarily as a pass rusher, and for good reason. If he wasn't working with one of the worst secondaries in the NFL this past season, Bennett might have been able to get into double-digit sacks. He's a player who puts consistent pressure on the quarterbacks even when he doesn't manage to get the takedown.
On top of that, Bennett is regarded as an all-around strong player. He stops the run well and, again, there's the pass deflections. Pro Football Focus rated him as one of the top 4-3 ends against the run, as well as one of the top pass rushers. They also have Bennett as having 48 quarterback hurries for the 2012 season.
Tampa Bay has had some high-profile defensive linemen on the roster due to their high picks in recent drafts, but Bennett has outperformed all of them. The team wanted to get Bennett extended, but they waited until he broke out in 2012 and that will likely cost them big time.
It's rare that a player coming off what was essentially his rookie contract (Bennett re-signed with the Bucs last season, but he was a restricted free agent after his three-year rookie contract expired) with the stats that Bennett has actually hits the open market. Sure, he's only had one really good year, but it was a truly dominant season and that might be enough for one team to go out and pay Bennett like a top guy at the position, with plenty of incentives.
As noted at Bucs Nation, Tampa Bay has to be kicking themselves knowing that Bennett could likely have been extended for pennies by comparison if they had just done it last season. Now, where he ends up is anybody's guess. One 4-3 team will have a bolstered pass rush in 2013, that much is certain.