Leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we'll try to answer one question every day as a way of giving you a better idea of where our focus will be when practices begin. Today we take a look at the biggest veteran acquisition they made this offseason, Michael Bennett, and wonder how he'll be deployed.
When the Patriots acquired Michael Bennett in a trade with the Eagles prior to the start of free agency, Bill Belichick was commended almost universally. The consensus was that Bennett would be a pretty nice insurance policy in case Trey Flowers departed via free agency.
That's exactly what happened. Flowers signed a five-year deal worth $90 million with the Lions that the Patriots were never going to approach. Bennett, meanwhile, was scheduled to make a fraction of that yet showed in 2018 that he still had the talent to replace a reasonable portion of that which Flowers provided. (The Patriots have re-worked Bennett's deal since trading a fifth-round pick for him, giving the 33-year-old a two-year deal worth $16.75 million.)
But what percentage of Flowers' production might Bennett replace? And will Bennett even be used similarly to his predecessor? Is his skill set such that Belichick will have to cook up a unique role, sharing what were Flowers' responsibilities between multiple defenders?
We won't know for sure what Bennett's specific duties will be for the entirety of 2019 based on how he's used in training camp. But I think it's reasonable to assume we will have a better idea of the team's plan for its newest pass-rusher once the pads come on and he's placed in a competitive situation on the fields behind Gillette Stadium.
What makes Bennett's role somewhat difficult to pin down ahead of camp is that a) he's played a variety of techniques, been used in a variety of situations over the course of his career, and b) the same was true for Flowers.
Flowers played all along the defensive line -- left end, right end, three-technique, nose tackle in passing situations -- and was used in just about every situation. He was New England's highest-graded pass-rusher last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and its second-best run-stopper. He played 892 snaps last season, including playoffs, which put him on the field for 77.4 percent of his team's defensive plays. Sixty-eight percent of those plays came against the pass.
Bennett's career took an interesting turn in his one season with the Eagles in 2018. He played about 100 fewer snaps than he did in each of his previous two fully-healthy seasons with the Seahawks in 2017 and 2015 . . . but he still was on the field for 830 plays and didn't miss a game. His situational breakdown was tweaked a bit as well. Seventy-five percent of his snaps came against the pass last year, a significant up-tick from how he was used in Seattle. From 2014 to 2017, Bennett saw at least 36.5 percent of his plays come against the run.
What's more is the Patriots have for years been a two-gapping defense. Their linemen and linebackers are consistently asked to stand up their blockers, read the play, then shed and flow to the ball wherever it ends up. How might Bennett fit in that type of scheme? In both Philly and Seattle, Bennett made the most of his ability to aggressively attack a single gap to get up the field quickly.
Bennett thrived in Pete Carroll's 4-3 "under" front for years -- where four defensive linemen shade away from the strength of the offensive formation -- making three Pro Bowls. He often played the five-technique defensive end spot (across from the offensive tackle) and then kicked inside in passing situations. He, of course, played out wide as well, creating havoc just about everywhere he was aligned, as the Patriots found out in Super Bowl XLIX.
With the Eagles, Bennett fit their scheme as more of a true edge rusher, rushing off the left side 71 percent of the time, per PFF. From that spot, he was credited with chipping in on eight sacks, with none coming from the right side and one coming from the interior. Of his 78 total pressures last season (tying him with Flowers), 45 came from the left end position.
Will Bennett see more time as an interior rusher for the Patriots now that the team is learning to cope with life after Flowers? Flowers rushed quarterbacks from the inside on 177 snaps last year, far and away the most of any "edge defender," according to PFF, winning one-fifth of those pass-rush reps.
It'd make sense for Bennett to help make up for that interior production, as he has been an extremely productive interior rusher in the past. PFF credits Bennett with 45 interior pressures on 331 interior pass-rush snaps since 2015. A role more similar to the one Bennett held in Seattle -- more time spent against the run, more time rushing from the interior -- would seemingly benefit the Patriots as they re-shape their line in Flowers' absence.
All that said . . . Will training camp, where fundamentals are so often the focus, provide us with answers as to how Bennett will be used in New England? Probably not definitive ones. Nonetheless, we'll keep our eyes open for clues once practices kick off next week.
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