NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
The New England Patriots made a silent signing last January, inking ex-Cleveland Brown Marcus Benard to a reserve/future contract.
A 27-year-old pass-rusher who went undrafted out of Jackson State, little was made of the Benard acquisition. He had recorded just three tackles since 2011. And to some, he was seen as merely padding for the 90-man offseason roster.
But to the Patriots, Benard may have been seen as more than that. He may have been seen as a reclamation project.
The 6’2”, 260-pound defensive end/outside linebacker battled his way into relevancy as a rookie. He worked his way up from Cleveland’s practice squad and was promoted to the active roster in November of 2009.
He didn’t look back.
Through his first NFL season with the Browns, Benard participated in six games, totaling 14 tackles and 3.5 sacks. By 2010, he was a vital part of Cleveland’s rotation, playing in 15 contests, notching 28 total tackles and 7.5 sacks.
Benard was hitting on all cylinders heading into his third professional campaign. That assurance was short-lived, however. The Browns switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme over that offseason. In turn, Benard was left without a niche.
Although on Oct. 10, 2011, playing time became the least of Benard’s worries. After practice, No. 58 crashed his Can-Am Spyder into a highway guardrail and was thrown 80 yards from the initial point of impact.
Benard was lucky to be alive, let alone walk away with just a broken hand and other minor injuries. Shortly thereafter, though, he was placed on Cleveland’s reserve/non-football injury list.
He hasn’t played a down since.
Despite making a return for the 2012 preseason, Benard ended up dislocating his elbow and was released in an injury settlement soon after.
In 25 career games between 2009 and 2011, Benard accumulated 11.5 sacks. Yet now, Benard faces the tall task of rekindling an NFL career once brimmed with promise.
In order to gauge a feel for what he could become, it’s important gauge what he once was.
A Watchful Eye
For the most part, Benard’s utilization in Cleveland kept him away from coverage. If he was on the field during passing downs, it wasn’t to defend receivers.
That said, Benard has shown he is capable of reading the quarterback’s eyes. Case in point: Week 14 of the 2010 season against the Buffalo Bills.
On a 3rd-and-4 versus Buffalo’s “10” personnel, Cleveland counteracted with a two-up, two-down front.
Benard charged outside the left tackle, jamming Bills running back Fred Jackson out of his route while quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick eyed the right side of the field.
Benard disengaged from his nudge on Jackson and redirected his focus towards Fitzpatrick’s eyes. He backpedaled, which allowed Jackson to slip behind him and into the flats.
Foreseeing Fitzpatrick’s next move, Benard left his feet and extended his arms over his head.
The ball ricocheted off Benard’s arms and fell the ground for an incompletion, forcing fourth down.
While it was only one of two pass deflections the natural 3-4 outside backer collected during the 2010 season, that speaks more about how he was implemented than it does about his reaction time.
Undersized Against the Run
Benard’s strong suit has been using his feet to negotiate the line of scrimmage. So when he was forced to put a hand in the dirt as a defensive end in a four-man front two seasons ago, he was taken out of his element.
A “tweener” more than a prototype end, Benard has the tendency to be lifted out of the play, particularly versus the run. Therefore he hardly saw the field — when healthy — during his third year in Cleveland, especially when the offensive huddle exuded any hints of a run call.
But late in the Tennessee Titans tilt in Week 4 of the 2011 season, Benard was on the field. And he was on the field facing the run.
The Titans were aligned in “21” personnel, with tight end Daniel Graham aligned helmet-to-helmet across from Benard’s seven-technique.
Chris Johnson garnered the Jake Locker hand-off and proceeded to run a cutback up the A-gap of the offensive line.
The O-line run-blocked Cleveland’s front past the right hash mark as Johnson switched field. At the time same, Graham was powering Benard back and out of the play.
Graham kept his legs moving and his head low, winning the leverage battle against Benard. He did so even as Johnson was swarmed by Browns.
By the time the whistle had blown, Tennessee had gained only a yard.
Nevertheless, Benard had been handled convincingly and pushed almost 10 yards away from the action. He was handled by a tight end — albeit a strong blocking tight end — of nearly identical measurables.
A Viable Edge-Rusher
Benard’s greatest triumphs have come as a situational rusher during passing downs. This may make him a one-trick pony. But it’s better to have one trick than no trick. Three seasons ago, a then-25-year-old Benard even led the Cleveland defense in sacks.
He’s got excellent quickness of the snap and knows how to elude bookends better than he knows how to bull rush through them.
Benard exemplified his elusiveness in Week 2 of the 2010 season when the Browns hosted the Kansas City Chiefs.
Lined up on the outside shoulder of right tackle Barry Richardson on a 3rd-and-6, Benard was able to take advantage of Kansas City’s three-wideout trips right. The Browns, operating out of a three-man front and adapting with a sub package to face the targets, still had firepower on the field to bring pressure.
Benard used his lateral agility to sidestep Richardson while running the arc. In the process, he forces the tackle out of his anchor, freeing up a lane to quarterback Matt Cassel.
Cassel stared downfield, feeling comfortable knowing that three Browns D-linemen were absorbed by a wall of protection. The signal-caller had a pocket to step into, and seemingly enough time to deliver the football.
He forgot to account for the outside linebacker shadowing his peripheral vision.
Benard swung a 360-degree turn around Richardson and throttled an unsuspecting Cassel to the ground.
Benard’s prolific numbers during his extensive workload in 2010 may suggest he was a one-year wonder. His pass-rushing effectiveness may suggest he was a byproduct of a 3-4 system with few playmakers. His lack of size may suggest he was never cut out to do more than chase the passer.
Some of those accusations may ring true. Others may not. But in the Patriots’ eyes, there’s little harm in finding out what Marcus Benard currently is and can still be.