TAMPA — A persuasive argument can be made that the Bucs' most consistent defensive lineman during the past two seasons isn't the 2010 third overall pick and consensus All-American. It's not the guy who once led Division I-A in sacks. Nor is it the team's 2011 first-round choice.
While Gerald McCoy, Da'Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn have seen promising careers interrupted by injuries, a teammate who wasn't drafted then was waived by his first team has quietly made a rapid ascent. And, as he sees it, there's much more to come.
End Michael Bennett leads the Bucs in sacks and, perhaps, big plans. Some never saw him as a solid NFL starter on the verge of a sizable free agent payday.
But the fourth-year player views himself as only scratching the surface of a great career.
"I'm proud of what I've done, but I'm not satisfied," Bennett said. "I want to go to the Pro Bowl. There are a lot of other things I want to do."
Maybe that's why Bennett plays at such a blinding, breakneck pace, never letting up until after the whistle. He has things to do, people to disprove.
"My philosophy is to just be relentless in everything," he said. "I just keep coming."
It's a common story line, players wanting to prove something to teams that passed them over. But for Bennett, 27, the fact so many overlooked him out of Texas A&M in 2009 truly is a source of motivation. He ultimately was picked up by the Seahawks and made their final roster. But when injuries forced abrupt roster moves, they let him go.
His name appeared on the NFL's waiver wire that day, and it pretty much sparked no interest. Only the Bucs, impressed by his preseason performance and dealing with an anemic pass rush, made a claim.
"We were very excited because we saw the potential," Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said. "But Michael's done a lot of work to get to this point. And he's still working hard to get better, and the coaches have done a good job with him. It's been a good combination. I think Michael knows he's not a finished product, and that's encouraging."
It was a detour he hadn't planned, but Bennett's arrival in Tampa Bay also was an opening.
"Mark Dominik and (former coach) Raheem Morris gave me an opportunity," Bennett said. "I might not be here otherwise."
Dominik said he and the former coaching staff saw signs Bennett could tap into his potential within his first few practices.
But it has been a process. Bennett first had to work his way into the rotation then prove he was worthy of starting. He wasn't even projected to start this season until Bowers tore his Achilles in the offseason, keeping him off the field until October.
No matter. Bennett used the latest opportunity to kick-start his best season. His seven sacks are one more than his total entering the season. He also has been a consistent run stuffer and presence in the backfield. His 11 tackles-for-loss rank second on the team, and his three forced fumbles rank first.
Bennett has displayed growth off the field, too. A sentiment in NFL circles that he lacked maturity helped lead to him going undrafted. Bennett was suspended for one game during his senior season at Texas A&M for an undisclosed violation. Whether that violation was disclosed to NFL personnel is unclear.
But as Bennett stands in front of his locker and proudly points to photos of his family, crediting them as his inspiration, he seems to have his priorities in the right place. His wife, Pele, and daughters, Blake and Peyton, keep him focused.
"I'm playing for them," Bennett said. "It's not for me. I have bigger things going on, and that keeps me going."
So when you see Bennett coming off the edge with uncommon abandon, you know why.
"He's a great effort player," Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "That's where he makes his money. He falls into a lot of plays just because he's active and instinctive and hustles."
"He's played awesome. He's been relentless," said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, preparing to meet the Bucs on Sunday.
It's the only way Bennett knows. It's more than just a mind-set. It also has been his meal ticket.
"You only get so many opportunities to change your life," Bennett said.
"This is my opportunity. I'm not going to let that go to waste."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]