Patriot Way: Why tight end Martellus Bennett may have been the steal of the off-season
The highlight that lived on was of LeGarrette Blount hurdling Miami cornerback Byron Maxwell for a key first down, as the Patriots tried to close out a Week 2 win.
One of the first things that happened on that play, though, before Blount even had the ball in his hands, was tight end Martellus Bennett moving right to left in motion and then sealing the edge with a crack block on Miami’s Andre Branch.
There was not anything overly remarkable about Bennett’s play—NFL tight ends should be able to the handle the level of responsibility New England entrusted him with on the toss sweep to Blount. But this also was not a one-time occurrence. While Bennett has been a trusted target for Jimmy Garoppolo in the passing game (11 targets, eight catches for 128 yards and a touchdown), his reputation as a standout blocker has followed him.
With Rob Gronkowski out of the lineup, that element of Bennett’s game has stood out as much as, or more than, his pass-catching talents.
“Yeah, I mean he obviously made some big plays for us,” Bill Belichick said of Bennett following Sunday’s win. “I think probably the best thing he did was block. We were running outside quite a bit, running to the edge, and he did a real good job on that.”
This was part of the package New England knew it was getting in Bennett. The ex-Cowboy, Giant and Bear has ranked as a top-20 run-blocking tight end each of the past seven seasons, per Pro Football Focus. He was top-10 before arriving in Chicago, where he then set career highs in catches, yards and touchdowns back-to-back seasons (2013 and ’14).
There was obvious excitement over the prospect of a Gronkowski-Bennett pairing as it pertains to the Patriots’ passing game. If Gronkowski is the premier receiving TE in the game when healthy, then Bennett is firmly in the second tier. Two years ago, Bennett led all tight ends in receptions (90) and was one of six at his position to post double-digit plays of 20-plus yards.
All of these factors made Bennett stand out as a steal when New England traded for him this off-season.
As part of an effort to reshape their locker room, the Bears—much as they did in dealing Brandon Marshall to the Bears—decided to sell Bennett at a reduced price rather than deal with any headaches. So, the Patriots sent a 2016 fourth-round pick to Chicago in exchange for Bennett and a sixth-rounder. (Chicago chose DB Deiondre’ Hall with its pick; New England, through a series of trades, eventually wound up with WR Devin Lucien plus an extra 2017 fourth-rounder).
Not every transaction works out, but the pennies-on-the-dollar moves like New England’s for Bennett have a habit of helping good teams stay near the top. Bennett’s value escalated even higher when the Patriots, already down Tom Brady, had to sit Gronkowski due to a hamstring injury in Weeks 1 and 2.
Gronkowski will make his season debut Thursday night against the Texans, but Bennett will still be on the field a ton. Houston presents quite a challenge up front, and not just because of J.J. Watt. Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and John Simon all can bring heat off the edge, meaning New England may need its tight ends to pick up some of the blocking load.
Bennett has played 97.2% of the Patriots’ offensive snaps thus far, according to Football Outsiders, being utilized in a variety of ways. The Patriots have not hesitated to lean on him in passing-down protection. On Garoppolo’s 10-yard TD pass to Danny Amendola Sunday, Bennett wound up in a one-on-one block with Miami’s Cameron Wake. While Wake did drive Bennett several yards into the backfield, Bennett managed to redirect the confrontation just enough to allow Garoppolo to slide right into a vacated area so he could find Amendola.
Par for the course for Bennett.
“He’s almost as good as a lot of left tackles and right tackles in the NFL,” Bennett’s former offensive coordinator in Chicago, and current Miami head coach, Adam Gase told the Chicago Tribune last year. “He is that good of a pass protector.”
The Patriots have a way of zigging whenever the opposition expects them to zag. To that end, as the NFL has seen an infusion of lighter, versatile defenders in recent seasons, Belichick has shifted gradually toward his team being more physical up front. The results were not always there last season: New England ranked 30th in rushing. Through two games this season, however, they’re averaging 133.3 yards on the ground—No. 7 in the NFL.
There’s no limit to the ways Belichick could take advantage of his Gronkowski/Bennett pairing to keep those numbers up. It almost goes without saying that Tom Brady’s return for Week 5 will unlock the passing playbook in its entirety, too.
Not since Aaron Hernandez’s career (and life) unraveled has Gronkowski had this talented a complement at tight end.
“Unselfish, team guy, just played hard on every snap, played a ton of snaps for us and really did his job,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said of Bennett on a post-Week 1 conference call. “When he was asked to do whatever it was, he performed his responsibility and helped us in a number of different ways. That’s what our tight end position generally does.
“We gained a lot of production out of the things that he did, regardless of whether they showed up in the statistics or not.”