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Bring on Weekend (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday February 28, 2007 6:37PM; Updated: Wednesday February 28, 2007 6:37PM
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Drew Bennett was a quarterback at UCLA before switching to wide receiver.
Drew Bennett was a quarterback at UCLA before switching to wide receiver.
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Relentlessly optimistic by nature, Bennett showed up at the team's training camp thinking, I'm in the NFL. I made it. Then he saw the depth chart: Bennett was 13th out of 13 receivers. Uh, maybe not ... But a slew of injuries got him a look in the first preseason game, and he parlayed that effective performance into additional action over the next several weeks.

Still, on the final cutdown day, Bennett kept dreading his imminent release. Last Thursday morning he recalled that shaky cutdown day -- like, 4 a.m. early -- while enjoying a scrumptious post-blackjack breakfast of huevos rancheros for the second consecutive day:

"Our strength coach, Steve Watterson, is the guy who goes around telling people, 'Coach wants to see you.' He acts like he hates being The Turk, but I'm not so sure. Every time he walked by me I felt a chill and wondered, Is this it? But at the end of the day I was still there!

"They have this barbecue that night for everyone who's still around, to celebrate making the team. I was walking over there to join in, and I called my parents to tell them the news. My mom answered and said, 'Oh, honey, I'm so sorry.'

It turns out that the Titans' Web site had reported I'd been cut; I didn't know what to think. I walked into the party and asked a coach, 'Did I make the team?' He said, 'Let me check.' A few minutes later he said, 'You made it, but don't sign any leases, and don't unpack your suitcase, because that could change quickly.'"

Bennett stuck around, and another run of injuries quickly vaulted him from sixth to third on the depth chart. In the Titans' fourth game, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Nashville, Bennett caught a short pass from Steve McNair and came bouncing back to the huddle like a kid halfway through his Halloween basket.

"Guys, I just made my first NFL catch!" Bennett blurted out. The next player to speak was 40-year-old guard Bruce Matthews, since elected to the Hall of Fame.

"I've been in the league 19 years, and I haven't had a reception yet," barked Matthews, glaring at the rookie. "Get over it."

Before long Bennett proved to Matthews and the rest of his teammates that he belonged, using his rangy speed, precise routes, soft hands and fearless pursuit of the football to become a standout player. In 2004 he showed he was more than pretty fly for a white guy, catching 80 passes for 1,247 yards and 11 touchdowns.

A broken hand in 2005 and the transition to rookie quarterback Vince Young in '06 caused Bennett's numbers to drop over the past two seasons, but he's still more prolific than you might think. Last year he averaged 16.0 yards per catch, more than (among others) Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens, Steve Smith, Torry Holt, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Lee Evans and Javon Walker.

When Bennett's agent, Gary Uberstine of Premier Sports Management, talks contract numbers with the various GMs who come courting later this week, here is one comparison he might want to throw out: Over the past five years Seahawks wideout Deion Branch -- whose former teammate, Tom Brady, told me was as good as any receiver in football during his holdout last summer -- had 266 receptions for 3,469 yards (13.0 average) and 18 touchdowns.

Over that same span Bennett has 249 receptions for 3,704 yards (14.9 average) and 24 TDs.

Last September Seattle traded a first-round pick in this year's draft to acquire Branch and gave him a four-year, $27.5-million contract with $13 million in signing and option bonuses.

Can you say, Cha-Ching?

Whichever team signs Bennett -- and the Titans remain a legitimate suitor, along with, we hear, the Patriots, Falcons, Vikings, 49ers, Raiders and Giants -- will get a player who both appreciates his good fortune yet carries himself with the breezy air of a man who expects to earn every penny.

"I'm up for it," Bennett said as he finished his huevos rancheros. "I'm gonna play my ass off for someone."

He pulled out a purple chip, spun it on the table and flashed that boyish grin. Very soon, it will be best described as a multi-million-dollar smile.

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