I knew Martellus Bennett before he was a black unicorn. He was first a professional Cowboy, struggling to live up to expectations in his first four years for a variety of reasons, some of which included poor training and misuse. He then swapped outfits to become a Giant, where he finally produced and parlayed a big year — 626 yards, five touchdowns, and wonderful run blocking — into a $20 million contract with the Chicago Bears.
Three teams in six years isn’t pretty on paper for the 26-year-old, but it’s hard to argue that Bennett hasn’t improved tremendously since he first came into the NFL. He’s improved in every area of his game and is consequently a very interesting fit as a dual-threat for new head coach Marc Trestman’s West Coast Offense. Bennett can set the edge as a blocker, run past linebackers through the seam, and he’s a tall target for quarterback Jay Cutler, who sometimes likes to leave the ball (inaccurately) hanging in the air.
Last season, Bennett spent 491 snaps blocking, 388 of which were run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. He excelled — as indicated by the 2.6 point grade from PFF — by holding up not only linebackers but defensive ends as well. He stood them up regularly when lined up inline, bending his knees and dropping his weight to anchor and seal them off. By doing so, he cleared out running lanes for the Giants’ ball-carriers on the edge, where they could square their shoulders, get downhill, and make contact-shy defensive backs miss.
Against the Carolina Panthers, he held his own against a weak-side defensive end, creating a gaping hole in the C-gap between himself and the left tackle. He was lined up to the left of the Giants’ “12″ personnel, which consisted of two tight ends and one running back.
When the play began, Bennett exploded off the line and quickly locked arms with the defender. He stuck his hands inside the defender’s chest pads, subsequently bending his knees and widening his feet to form a wide and firm base.
Then he extended his long arms — which exceed 33 inches — and seized control by pinning the defender parallel to the sideline. With the edge sealed and the left tackle driving the interior defensive lineman further inside, an alley was formed between them for the ball-carrier to run through.
His ability to set the edge could prove vital to running back Matt Forte’s season. Forte is an excellent runner on the edge, showing the ability to stretch plays out and then find the cutback lane that springs him into the open field.
In the passing game, Bennett’s size and strength shows up as well. He’s very tall, has good hands, and is athletic, all of which stem from his basketball background. It’s one of the things that general managers and coaches look for when scouting players because former basketball players are typically spatially aware and possess quality ball-skills. In Bennett’s case, he also uses his past to separate from defenders like a power forward does in the post prior to shooting the ball.
In the same game against the Panthers, he was inline at the right of the formation as part of “21″ personnel, a set consisting of two backs and Bennett as the single tight end. He was set to run a seam route against the strong-side linebacker of the Panthers’ 3-4 defense. To get past the linebacker, he’d have to do two things: beat him inside at the line and then find separation at the top of the route like any other good route-runner does.
At the snap, he beat the strong-side linebacker inside, giving himself a step on the defender and a clear stem to set up his post route. As he ran just outside the right hash, he was struck by the defender at the right shoulder, who looked to reroute and slow down Bennett. It wouldn’t work, however, because Bennett used that same shoulder to lean in and push the defender away from the middle of the field, where Bennett would later explode toward.
Following the burst to the seam, Bennett picked up an additional couple of steps on the defender that freed him up to haul in a 29-yard pass.
Bennett’s blocking and catching prowess could prove to be a great asset in Trestman’s offense, provided he’s used correctly. Trestman will likely feature him on seam and corner routes because those highlight Bennett’s strengths, and the West Coast Offense philosophy is based on attacking the field with those routes using the tight end. In addition, he can block defensive ends one-on-one as well as stay in to pass block, giving the offense a dynamic and versatile formation that’s akin to the one used by the New England Patriots’ when tight end Rob Gronkowski is in form.
Of course, all of that hinges on Bennett continuing his development as a player. Although he’s 26, an age in which athletes are nearing their prime, Bennett still has a lot of growing room to become a fully bred Black Unicorn.