In the last seven years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have spent eleven draft picks on defensive linemen. That could mean two things. One, that they haven’t been satisfied with their defensive line talent or depth in that time span. And the other reason could be that the Bucs just simply don’t draft well when it comes to this vital position. But on the other hand a few of those picks have and will pan out so all is not grim for the Buccaneers defensive line rotation.
In 2011 the Bucs defensive line unit was loaded with talent including ALBERT HAYNESWORTH (defensive tackle), JOHN MCCARGO (defensive tackle), TIM CROWDER (defensive end), and JOVAN HAYE (defensive end). None of those four linemen are on the current roster. McCargo has pretty much been a bust everywhere he has gone (a former 1st round and 26th overall pick of the 2006 draft by the Buffalo Bills). Haynesworth is nearing overrated waters. Crowder has pass rushing potential but he was just a tease last year. As for Haye, he is in the same boat as Crowder. Getting rid of those players and hiring new defensive line coaches in BRYAN COX and RANDY MELVIN shows that the Bucs are focused on turning the corner with their D-line.
Last year Tampa Bay possessed four former first round draft picks (and two others who should have gone in the first round) on the defensive line. And together those six players and assorted others contributed just 23 sacks (last in the entire NFL) in 16 contests or just 1.4 per game. Plus the defense ranked last versus the run (the Atlanta Falcons in Week 17 ran through the Bucs defense like they weren’t even there).
New head coach GREG SCHIANO is a detailed and high energy coach who won’t stand for that type of performance under his watch. And luckily for Bucs fans, he is a defensive mind. The Bucs have brought in seven new defensive linemen to try to rectify their pass rushing, run defense, and depth situation. Among those linemen are AMOBI OKOYE, JAYME MITCHELL, and WALLACE GILBERRY. Mitchell and Gilberry have the pass rushing skills to contribute as either rotational or backup ends. Okoye has fallen off in recent years but he can still help a defense.
Last season the Bucs had to rely on their younger talent as far as pass rushing and run defense were concerned. But some of those young players hit the rookie wall or injuries stunted their development. The brightest spot on the entire defensive line last year was rookie ADRIAN CLAYBORN (1st round and 20th overall pick out of Iowa), who led the team in sacks with 7.5, and he led the entire defensive line in tackles with 42. Clayborn will be a heck of a player and possible Pro Bowler in the future. He is a feisty and motor-driven pass rusher who does not like to be blocked. He has very good technique and he already is one of the better defensive ends at disengaging from contact. He exudes a sense of urgency to harass quarterbacks and make offensive linemen’s lives a living hell. One just hopes he can continue the success he had last year into 2012 and beyond.
Fellow defensive end MICHAEL BENNETT (he usually lined up on the left side and Clayborn on the right), finally showed that he could be a threat as a pass rusher after two years of being inert. The four sacks he gave the Bucs last year aren’t anything to jump for joy about, but it was a sign that the Bucs may have something in this guy who will be in his contract year in 2012. Bennett is a very good athlete with the speed, body contortions, and vision to have an impact. But he wasn’t a consistent annoyance to quarterbacks last year. He isn’t a star but he can be an eight-sack or more guy in this defense.
DA’QUAN BOWERS is another defensive lineman like Clayborn, with mountains of potential, but in 16 games (and 6 starts) last year he only contributed 1.5 sacks. He has the ability to get that in one quarter of play. Both Boowers and Bennett must quit underachieving and deliver on their potential if the Bucs are going to improve their defense significantly. It will be interesting to see if the new position coaches can help them to delivery on their talent.
Defensive tackle ROY MILLER has toiled in anonymity for the past three years, and that’s fine with him. Miller is a technique-savvy and angry player who likes to tie up offensive linemen so other defensive linemen and the linebackers can eat. He also has underrated pass rushing skills. He is a not a top shelf run defender but he can do some damage in that area. Fellow interior defensive linemen FRANK OKAM is a big body who could be much better than what he has shown. He is basically a one to two down lineman who can wear down or be invisible at times.
Defensive end DANIEL TE’O NESHEIM only played in one game last year. But he is a high energy and solid pass rusher who needs a chance to show what he can do. It would have been nice if they would have kept defensive end NICK REED (signed by the Minnesota Vikings) who has pass rushing ability and a motor/intensity that won’t quit, but he was active for all of 3 games last year and the Bucs weren’t interested in waiting for him to develop, plus they had other defensive ends on the roster who were more ready or with more upside.
Former 3rd overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft, GERALD MCCOY, needs a season in which he can stay healthy and perform like the Bucs need him to. In the last two years the Bucs have played 32 games and McCoy was active for 19 of them. That’s 13 missed games that the Bucs could have used his pass rushing skills, quick hands, technique, disdain for being blocked, and improving run defense. This is a potentially great defensive line, but for it to achieve on its potential, players like McCoy must be on the field more than on the sideline nursing injuries.
BRIAN PRICE when healthy is the most active and effective defensive tackle that the Bucs have had for the last two years. If he had it his way he would never come off the field. But even he can’t play every down. Not many defensive tackles can in the first place because it is such a demanding position. But when he is in the game, he provides pass rush skills, separation from guards and centers, and defense versus the run.
The Buccaneers have seventeen defensive linemen on their roster right now. And nearly half of them (eight) will have to put together good or great seasons for the Bucs to be successful on defense. This unit has too much talent (albeit a lot of youth) to rank near the bottom of the league against the run and in sacks. Hopefully this new coaching staff can light a fire under this underachieving unit.
By Matthew Robinson