INDIANAPOLIS At the end of this past season Michael Bennett told me “I probably won’t be back” with the Seahawks in 2018.
Thursday brought more evidence Bennett might be right.
In the afternoon, in his first public comments in two months, coach Pete Carroll didn’t exactly squash the possibility that the 32-year-old, three-time Pro Bowl defensive end has played his last game for Seattle.
“I haven’t talked to Mike in a while now,” Carroll said from the NFL scouting combine inside the Indiana Convention Center, “but it’s the time of year, conversations going in all directions.”
That was a few minutes after Carroll was asked if, with all the overhaul of the coaching staff and the changes in players still to come, this may end up being a “franchise-altering” offseason for Seattle.
“I am looking at it in that regard,” Carroll said.
By evening, espn.com reported a league source told it the Seahawks are shopping Bennett for a possible trade out of Seattle.
The team is without second- and third-round picks in April’s draft, the result of acquiring defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and left tackle Duane Brown during last season. Recouping those picks in a trade is high on general manager John Schneider’s wish list in the next two months.
There appear to be more pros than cons to having Bennett on the roster in 2018.
The biggest pro: He can still play, and at a highly productive level. He played in the Pro Bowl for the third consecutive season in January (and, yes, he jumped offsides in that game, too.) Last season he played through a painful toe that’s remained basically sideways for years, a torn plantar fascia in his foot and bruised knee, yet still had 8 1/2 sacks. That total tied for second-most in his second stint with the team since he returned in 2013 from Tampa Bay. He has 23 1/2 sacks in the last three seasons.
He has three years remaining on a contract Seattle extended for $29.5 million through the 2020 season in December 2016, to get him $17.5 million in guarantees up front while he could still command them. Trading or cutting him this offseason would save the Seahawks just $2.2 million against the 2018 salary cap; his base salary for this year is a mere $1.65 million, a team-friendly bargain for a three-time Pro Bowl player and Super Bowl champion. But his salary balloons to $6 million and Seattle’s potential cap savings by trading or releasing him goes up to $5,275,000 in 2019.
Seattle is tight against this year’s cap, with about $13.4 million in space. That does not count the approximately $6 million it will need to sign what is currently scheduled to be seven draft picks in April. That is why veterans from Jeremy Lane (who could save Seattle $4.5) to Bennett’s great friend Cliff Avril ($7.1 million would be saved if he retires because of his serious neck injury) to Bennett are wondering about their futures. Saving just $2 million while creating a gaping pass-rush void with fellow Pro Bowl end Avril’s career in doubt sound like penny-pinching over prudence.
Plus, Carroll loves stockpiling pass rushers. Dion Jordan is a restricted free agent waiting on a Seahawks decision. Carroll said Thursday he had “nothing new” on 2017 top draft choice Malik McDowell, who may never play because of head injuries and more from a still-unspecified ATV accident last season. Frank Clark is the only other pass rusher on the roster. And Clark’s contract ends after this year.
Releasing Bennett would follow a philosophy the New England Patriots have championed to sustain the one, true NFL dynasty over last couple decades: shed an expensive, star player one year too early instead of one year too late, before his presumed declining performance and soaring cost damage the team’s plans for years.
Cutting him would also back Bennett’s belief he gave me on New Year’s Eve after the 2017 season-ending loss to Arizona as the reason he didn’t think he’d be a Seahawk next season.
“Just seems like it's a young man's game. I can see them going younger, with younger players,” Bennett said. “That's part of the game."
“I expect there to be a lot of changes,” he said moments after the Seahawks didn’t make the playoffs for the first time in six years. “Especially when you lose, there’s always changes. ... Like I said, it’s a young man’s game. We lost a lot of players, and we’ve seen some of those great players, when those young people got in the game they had to be prepared. So I could see trying to get those guys going and seeing what happens.
“With me, I’m fine. I mean, whatever happens, I’ve loved being a Seahawk. ... You love the organization. You love the players that you played with. We’ve won a lot of games. So if I am not here I would never have any hard feelings toward the organization. I love Pete Carroll and (general manager) John Schneider, and we just move forward. It’s part of football.
“This is just part of sports. It just keep growing and you continuously play for another organization, if you have the opportunity.”
Seattle and Carroll’s players-first, embrace-individuality environment in the Seahawks’ locker room helped spawn Bennett’s growing social activism over the last year. Beginning in August with the first preseason game Bennett began sitting during the national anthem before games, to protest the mistreatment of minorities and the need for police reform in our society.
In late August he was detained briefly by Las Vegas police officers outside a casino. He alleged racism and mistreatment. He said in early September he was considering a civil-rights lawsuit against the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. That department vehemently denied Bennett’s charges, and Bennett knew many people in the U.S. thinks he’s lied about the incident.
In early December the Seahawks named Bennett its 2017 nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
Asked Dec. 31 if he was thinking about retiring to his offseason home in Hawaii, Bennett smiled and shrugged.
“I mean, people think about retiring all the time,” he said. “But I continuously want to play with these guys, and see what’s next.
“If not, and nobody picks you up, then you go on and find something else to do.”
On Thursday here, Carroll didn’t say the Seahawks weren’t going to keep Bennett. He didn’t say they were going to let him go.
He did say this has the potential to be an offseason like no other in his eight years coaching the Seahawks.
“I think the opportunity for it to be an altering moment for us is there,” Carroll said. “But every offseason we approach it the same way: to compete as hard as we can to figure out the best ways to put our guys in the right positions, to do the right things, to make the right choices, to stay abreast at what's going on in the league.
“And sometimes you've got to make some tough calls to get that done and put it in the right order. I really feel confident that we've done that. But there is a lot of work here, a lot of stuff to get better on before we figure all that out.”