Michael Bennett knows his chance to make tens of millions of dollars playing defensive end in the NFL was not borne solely out of God-given talent, hard work and dedication.
He realizes it was also borne, at least in part, out of an opportunity the Bucs gave him when he was on the street looking for work four years ago, and he won’t forget that before he cashes in.
“They gave me a chance and took the time to develop me, so I will definitely give them a chance to match whatever kind of offer I get,’’ Bennett said as he prepared to enter the NFL’s open market on Tuesday.
“I’m definitely still hoping everything works out with the Bucs. Right now I’d say my chances of coming back are 40-60 or maybe even 50-50, because you never know. A lot can happen once things get going.’’
For prospective free agents such as Bennett, who led the Bucs in sacks with nine last season, things will get going at 4 p.m. Tuesday, when teams will finally be given the official go-ahead to start signing non-contracted players. For the first time, the signing period follows a three-day stretch in which teams and agents were allowed to negotiate deals.
Bennett said his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, has taken good advantage of the time.
“A lot of teams have called already,’’ Bennett said. “So we’ll see what happens. But I’m not in a hurry. This is a big decision for me. I’ll probably take a couple days before I decide anything, because this is a big decision.’’
His decision to let the Bucs match his best offer is big in itself. It has the potential to slow negotiations with other suitors, who might fear they’d only be setting the market for Bennett.
The Bucs like would welcome the chance to match Bennett’s best offer, but their decision not to place the $10.9-million franchise tag on him is an indication they only want him back at less than starter’s money. Last month, Bucs general manager Mark Dominik expressed his and coach Greg Schiano’s desire to see more of 2010 second-round draft pick Da’Quan Bowers in Bennett’s spot next season.
“Being able to pair (right end) Clayborn with a guy like Da’Quan who we feel can be a premier left end in this league (is) part of the entire picture we’re looking at,’’ Dominik said.
“But I wouldn’t rule anything out. Pass rush is a premium and we’ve been trying to put together the right front four for us, and we just haven’t been able to put those guys all on the field at the same time.’’
Bennett isn’t the only member of the front four to be deemed not quite right for the Bucs. Talks between the team and the agent for nose tackle Roy Miller, a 2009 third-round draft pick out of Texas, broke off a couple weeks ago when the Bucs made it clear they would not pay Miller more than $2 or $3 million a year.
Miller is preparing to move on, and cornerback E.J. Biggers likely will see what his open-market value is, too.
Veteran safety Ronde Barber might even opt to gauge the interest of other teams. Barber met with Dominik and Schiano last week and learned the Bucs want him back for another year in 2013, but that he could end up playing a reserve role.
The Bucs might use free agency to add not only a starting cornerback, tight end or slot receiver, but a safety, as well. The primary objective this offseason is to improve a defense that ranked last in the league last season against the pass.
Dominik warned, though, the likelihood is small the Bucs will find two free agents of the caliber they added a year ago, when they signed Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson, Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright on the first day.
“That was the biggest free agent class that ever hit the market,’’ Dominik said. “This class isn’t that size. It’s not the same overall class there was last year.
“Now, there are some really talented players in free agency this year, but there are also 30 other clubs that may want to have them and one that already has them, so it’s going to be difficult. We just want to make sure we’re well positioned in case something makes sense for us.’’
WRIGHT FILES GRIEVANCE: Cornerback Eric Wright filed a grievance against Tampa Bay’s decision to void the guarantee on his $7.75 million salary for 2013.
The void went into effect after Wright was suspended four games for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing substances. Wright said he used Adderall, which is banned without a prescription approved by the league.
The Bucs declined to comment on the grievance.
A ruling could come as soon as today.