When the New England Patriots sent a fifth-round draft pick to the Philadelphia Eagles to acquire defensive lineman Michael Bennett, the expectation was that the team would use him to fill the role previously held soon-to-be free agent Trey Flowers. Flowers indeed left the club a few days after the trade to sign a five-year contract with the Detroit Lions, paving the way for Bennett to become an equally integral part of New England’s defense.
Initially, the veteran sounded quite optimistic about his potential role with the Patriots: “When I was a young kid, I always used to watch the Patriots play on defense — and now I got a chance to be here and it feels really good,” he said during mandatory minicamp. “You see a lot of hard-nosed football, a lot of great guys. Technically sound, fundamentally sound, and I think that’s what makes this team one of the best teams in the NFL.”
Six games into the 2019 regular season, however, his role has not materialized as was initially expected: after playing 832 of the Eagles’ 1,179 defensive snaps (70.6%) over the course of the 2018 season, Bennett was on the field for just 133 of the Patriots’ 374 (35.6%) this year — with his 11 snaps against the New York Giants last Thursday a new season-low. This usage also caused a shift in tone compared to the mid-June remarks.
“It’s hard, but at the same time, you want to be a good teammate. You don’t want to break any... just playing the best you can, I guess,” the 33-year-old told Patriots Wire’s Henry McKenna in early October. “I just try to adjust to it as best I can. We’ll see how I keep going. But all the guys are playing good. [...] It’s different. I’m just used to guys playing one position all the time, and I’ve just got to get used to it.”
Bennett’s adjustment hit a major road block this week, however, as New England suspended him for one week because of “conduct detrimental to the team.” What exactly caused the club to take disciplinary action against its offseason acquisition is anyone’s guess at this time, but a lack of playing time and notable frustration certainly contributed to the “philosophical disagreement” Bennett apparently had with an assistant coach.
This creates two major questions:
1.) Why is Bennett receiving comparatively limited playing time?
2.) Where does the three-time Pro Bowler go from here?
The first question is not easy to answer without venturing too deep into speculation, but the adjustment process to the Patriots’ system certainly may have played a role. The same can also be said about the way the team uses its defensive ends this season: New England likes to rotate the players on a regular basis, with John Simon, Deatrich Wise Jr. and rookie Chase Winovich all seeing considerable time on the field alongside Bennett.
Trey Flowers, of course, was used differently and regularly played more than 75% of the Patriots’ defensive snaps. The role the now-Lion held between 2016 and 2018, however, is starting to disappear from New England’s defense: the team has played only minimal snaps with four down-linemen on the field so far this season after using a more traditional 4-3 defensive concept (one that actually looked more like 5-1-5) when Flowers was still around.
As a result, Bennett was used as more of a sub pass rusher as opposed to the every-down edge defender that his predecessor used to be. This, in turn, means that the older brother of former Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett will need to adapt to a new role better suited for the team’s 3-4 front. So far, this process has apparently not gone swimmingly as players such as Simon or defensive tackle Adam Butler have seen increased action instead.
Bennett’s tenure with the Patriots therefore appears to be at a crossroads just six games in — not entirely because of the suspension. Essentially, there are two options: he either returns from his team-ordered sabbatical as the classic good foot soldier and continues working on his new and reduced role, or he will see his time with New England come to an end sooner rather than later. With the trade deadline coming up, anything seems possible.