I chose Ohio State's Michael Bennett for my first defensive tackle to breakdown this year. I, of course, went to Draft Breakdown to watch him play against Maryland, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon. Those represented the fifth, ninth, 13th, 14th and 15th games of Ohio State's season, respectively.
I know these games weren't as spaced out as I normally would like, but I thought it was important to see how Bennett played on the big stage. That's why I wanted to watch him in both the Big Ten Championship game as well as both of the playoff games. It's cool to dominate against Arkansas Central State University, but it doesn't tell me nearly as much as seeing a guy kick ass against top competition.
It took me awhile, but I finally realized which current NFL player Michael Bennett reminds me of: Geno Atkins.
Yeah, Atkins took a step back this past season rebounding from a torn ACL, but that was to be expected. I know everybody, including myself, has kind of fixated on Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy as the two best three-technique tackles in the league at the moment, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if Atkins comes roaring back for his crown this upcoming season now that his knee will probably be a lot closer to 100 percent. That's right, back for his crown because he was undoubtedly the king of under-tackles just a couple years ago.
Please believe me.
I'm not saying Bennett will ever reach that kind of peak as an NFL player, but I do think after watching these games that he has the potential to at least get close. There are a few "ifs" to consider:
If he takes coaching.
If he stays motivated.
If he does more than is asked of him.
Now the reason Bennett reminds me so much of Geno, rather than say McCoy or Suh, is that he bases all of his pass rush off of his bull rush initially. Early on in each game he almost always worked his bull rush over and over. And over. And over.
That kind of repetitiveness can kind of lull you to sleep as he keeps running down the middle of guys at first. Then, just when those opposing offensive guards let their guards down (I'm a cornball), all of a sudden he pulls out a quick arm-over inside move or a long-arm-to-rip outside move. Before you know it, he's doing some stupid dance standing over the quarterback after sacking him.
That's pretty much the same pass rush formula Atkins has used to great effect since coming into the league in 2010. Whereas Suh is more pure power rusher and McCoy is more pure finesse rusher, Geno has always been a happy medium of the two. That's what I see when I watch Bennett pass rush, the potential to reach that ceiling of what Geno has done in his first five years.
OK, so now is the point in the column where I tell you to calm down and get a fucking grip, Bengals fans and Geno Atkins family members. It is not a perfect comparison and I never said it was. Geno Atkins put up freaky numbers at the Combine when he came out, ran like a sub 4.7 with over 30 reps of 225 pounds on the bench.
Bennett didn't work out at the Combine, but I'm pretty damn positive after watching him for five games that his numbers ain't gonna come close to that. Also Geno has been to three Pro Bowls and has been a first-team All-Pro in 2012. So trust me on this, I'm not putting Bennett on that kinda pedestal yet. Not even close.
Game recognize game, though. The boy has legit skills as a pass rusher. Skills I almost overlooked after his slow start in the Michigan State game, which happened to be the first game of his that I watched. I was juuuuuuust about ready to call bullshit on Bennett being a top prospect. I'm watching and the dude is looking pretty fucking average overall, and I'm like "I'm not about to watch four more games of this shit!"
What irritated me the most watching him at first is that he got "whammed" like four times during that game. "Whammed" is when a team decides to trap the three-technique. The guard to his side flashed Bennett, then went up to the linebacker. Then, either a tight end or a fullback would come across and kick him out so the running back could run up inside of him. Four friggin' times!!! Not only did he not catch on by the fourth wham, but he got cockroached on that particular play.
I kept watching, however, because Bennett kept intermittently making big plays. Hell, I was almost watching in dismay at times. That first sack he got was legit, but the second one was a gimmie sack all the way. Michigan State decides to do a half roll-out pass play, but the damn offensive line stopped blocking and the quarterback stopped rolling without throwing the ball.
Bam, gimmie sack!
I was in full on hater mode at that point because old defensive linemen know how hard it is to get a sack. You can make the perfect move, beat your man clean, and still not even touch the quarterback before he throws the ball, let alone sack him. And that can literally happen dozens of times in a row before you actually get the sumbitch on the ground. This dude getting a gimmie sack after looking pretty lackluster just irritated the living shit out of me.
Then a funny thing happened. I always take notes when I'm doing my breakdowns so I started to tally up all the big plays he made that game.
Another hit on the quarterback after he beat both the right guard and running back.
A tackle for loss.
A pass knocked down.
I had to look at myself in the mirror and admit at that point that nobody really gives a shit if he got whammed a time or two, myself included.
You have that kind of game and you get all of the passes. Period, point blank.
To be fair, in comparison to the other four games I watched, that Michigan State game was one of his poorer games against the run. For whatever reason he didn't look nearly as quick against the Spartans as he did against, say, Wisconsin.
The honest-to-goodness truth is that Bennett isn't all that great against the run unless he's running a line stunt. (A line stunt like Bennett crossing over into a different gap than the one he lined up in the snap of the football. It could be a stunt to the outside or to the inside; he was pretty good at both.) Specifically, he was usually hit or miss against the backside cut block on zone running plays. The same could be said for his ability/inability to hold up strong against double team blocks. Sometimes, he was able to hold the point, but other times he got blown the fuck off the ball.
And as I mentioned earlier, he didn't always do a good job of recognizing the blocking schemes deployed against him.
Those things are all true about Bennett's deficiencies in those five games and he certainly has a lot of drill work ahead of him in order to improve in those areas and then some.
But here's the deal, even with all those areas of needed improvement, Michael Bennett is still undeniably a first-round talent. With good times and jumps whenever he does end up working out, he'll probably be a top half of the top half of the first-round pick. Guys his size with his ability to rush the passer just don't grow on trees. He isn't as polished as someone line Aaron Donald was last year and probably not as physically gifted either. By hook or by crook, the guy makes it work, and everything I see on tape suggests what he did in college will indeed transfer to the pros.
Hell, the guy notched two sacks against both Michigan State and Wisconsin (or at least appeared to) and had at least one sack in four out of the five games I watched. That shut my ass up real quick on nitpicking his problems.
I'm sure other evaluators will harp on his negatives, especially against the run. Many of them will probably also be leery of ranking him very high before he posts workout numbers.
Well, I'm here to say FUCK THAT SHIT!
Unless Michael Bennett absolutely falls on his face in his workouts, he is at least a mid first-round draft pick in my book.
If you disagree, show me another three-technique type coming out this year with the same level of pass rush skill or better.
Can't do it, can you?
That being the case you just gotta understand that none of that other bullshit really matters. Sure, he'll have to get better at his negatives and he more than likely will, but as long as he can generate a pass rush on the next level similar to what he generated at Ohio State, nobody is going to care. This is a passing league after all. Too many teams lack the ability to generate a rush inside without blitzing to let Bennett fall much further than the middle of the first round.
I just don't see that happening.
If you really think some minor flaws in his run defense technique should hold teams back from taking him that early in the draft, I have this word of advice for you: Don't be a hater all your life!