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2012 Bucs Free Agency Primer: Defensive Line

Posted Feb 28, 2012

Tampa Bay’s heavy draft investments along the D-Line make it seem like less of a target in free agency, but there is always need for up-front depth


Dontari Poe, the massive defensive tackle from Memphis, had a very good day on Monday.  Perhaps even a lucrative one.

 

A day after setting this year’s NFL Scouting Combine standard with 44 reps of the standard 225-pound bench press (impressive, but not shocking), Poe somehow blazed his 345-pound frame down the 40-yard dash stripe in 4.98 seconds.  Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III may be stealing the spotlight in Indianapolis this week, but Poe could emerge as the event’s biggest winner.

 

Before the Combine, Poe was seen as a likely high-second round pick, perhaps a player who could sneak into the first round due to his apparent potential, even though his production at Memphis wasn’t spectacular.  Now he’s being compared to Baltimore Ravens All-Pro Haloti Ngata and getting linked to teams as high as Kansas City with the 11th overall selection.

 

Now, it’s true that these are mock draft trends, the combined opinions of a number of NFL analysts, and not necessarily those of the actual team decision-makers who will pull the trigger on draft weekend.  But these reporters are attempting to reflect the strategies of the teams involved, and it’s likely they’ve gleaned a positive shift in the overall opinion about Poe.  His few days in Indy seem to have significantly affected his draft stock.

 

That’s particularly true when one considers how highly defensive linemen are valued in the first round of the NFL Draft every year, especially linemen who can get upfield in a hurry.  The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for instance, have spent four first or second-round picks on defensive linemen in the last two drafts alone.  It’s understandable: Proven veteran pass-rushers don’t become available very often, and when they do it’s usually at a steep price.  The best and most cost-effective way to acquire one is to make the right pick on draft weekend.

 

That said, it is possible to address the defensive line in free agency, and some teams will surely be trying to do so in a little less than two weeks.  In a previous entry in this series, we discussed the 1993 signing of Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White by the Green Bay Packers during the infancy of true NFL free agency.  That is still considered one of the best and most impactful signings since the current CBA system was put into place.  In the Buccaneers’ own history, the 2001 signing of defensive end Simeon Rice might be their best-ever foray into free agency, with apologies to Hardy Nickerson and Brad Johnson.

 

Last year, two of the top three sack artists – Jared Allen and Jason Babin – were on at least their second NFL teams, though Allen actually moved from Kansas City to Minnesota in a trade.  Chicago’s Julius Peppers and Seattle’s Chris Clemens, who tied for 11th in the NFL in sacks last year, and New England’s Mark Anderson, who was one QB takedown behind those two, had all switched teams at some point.  And, obviously, sacks aren’t the only criteria for judging productive linemen in the league; San Francisco’s Justin Smith, formerly of Cincinnati, got some consideration for NFL Defensive Player of the Year  despite tying for 33rd in that category.

 

The very fact that the Buccaneers have invested so heavily in the defensive line in recent years would suggest that the position isn’t near the top of their free agency shopping list.  However, injuries the past two seasons have demonstrated how important depth is along the line, and it’s certainly possible that the right deal for the Buccaneers will present itself in free agency.

 

It’s more possible, at defensive line and every position, than it was in recent years.  The Bucs only lightly touched on free agency in 2010 and 2011 while focusing on building through the draft.  However, General Manager Mark Dominik has stated on several occasions that the team intends to be more active in free agency this offseason, and the team’s salary cap situation is certainly quite favorable heading into the open market.  As such, Buccaneers.com is taking a position-by-position look at free agency and how it might affect the team at every spot on the depth chart.

 

The 2012 free agency period begins at 4:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday, March 13.  Buccaneer decision-makers obviously do not plan on sharing their free agency strategies beforehand, but we can still survey the landscape, in regards to both team needs and the possible pool of free agents, before the opening bell.  This is the fifth in a series of position-by-position primers prior to the start of free agency on Buccaneers.com.  Once again, we will be discussing five categories of information in each article:

 

1. How might the Buccaneers’ own list of pending free agents affect the position?

 

2. What level of talent will potentially be available at that position on the open market?

 

3. How effectively could a need at that position be addressed in the early rounds of the draft instead?

 

4. What is the Buccaneers history in free agency at that position?

 

5. How did that position perform for the Buccaneers in 2011?

 

After covering the safeties, wide receivers, linebackers and tight ends, we continue our pattern of jumping back and forth across the line of scrimmage and move over to the defensive line.  Coming up next:  offensive line.  As always, player evaluations and other points of conjecture are not meant to reflect the opinion of the Buccaneers’ coaches or player personnel staff.

 

**

 

Positional Free Agency Primer: Defensive Line

 

- Tampa Bay’s own pending free agents

 

As with the last entry in our free agency primer series (tight end), this will be brief.  The Buccaneers’ 2011 group of defensive linemen can return almost intact in 2012, at least to the extent that the team wants it to.

 

Obviously, the Bucs have already parted ways with defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who joined the team near midseason and started six games down the stretch for a very injury-plagued group.  Another player picked up along the way last fall, defensive tackle Jovan Haye, is the only player in the Bucs’ D-Line room who is currently headed for free agency.  While Haye was a strong player during a previous stint in Tampa from 2006-08, it’s hard to imagine his very brief return engagement in 2011 putting him near the top of the team’s priority list.

 

Defensive end Michael Bennett, who started for about half of the 2011 season and was a valuable contributor throughout (despite some lingering injury problems in the second half), is scheduled to become a restricted free agent.  However, restricted free agents rarely move from team to team as long as the original team is motivated to keep them; by extending a qualifying offer to Bennett, the Buccaneers are likely to keep him around for at least the 2012 campaign, after which he would become an unrestricted free agent unless a longer-term deal is reached.

 

Bennett contributed 47 tackles and nine tackles for loss and was second on the team to Adrian Clayborn with 4.0 sacks.  A former undrafted free agent who has seen his playing time steadily increase since joining the Bucs as a waiver claim in October of 2009, his rookie season.  There is a sense that Bennett, who played very well against the run at times in 2011, is still an improving player who could be a very valuable asset amid all of the team’s high draft picks on the line.

 

- The potential free agent market

 

Potentially the biggest name on the defensive line market is a player who technically lined up at linebacker last year…at least for a third of the year, until he landed on injured reserve.  That would be the Houston Texans’ Mario Williams, who was the first overall pick in the 2006 draft and who has 53.0 sacks through his first six NFL seasons.

 

Williams tore a pectoral muscle five games into the 2011 season, but before the injury he had made a successful transition to outside linebacker in new Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme.  Williams had racked up 11 tackles, five sacks and 17 quarterback before the injury and seemed to be adapting well to the novel idea of being a 290-pound linebacker.  That said, there is little doubt that any team that would be interested in him in free agency would be comfortable asking him to put his hand back down on the ground.  The Texans seem unlikely to hit Williams with an incredibly expensive franchise tag, but are expected to make an attempt to re-sign him before March 13.  If they can’t, the suitors should be lining up for the natural pass-rusher, meaning he will likely command a very big and quite long contract.

 

The franchise tag might be an issue, however, for the lineman most analysts consider second on the list to Williams (and thus potentially the most coveted end if Williams re-signs early): Detroit’s Cliff Avril.  Avril has improved steadily in his four years in the league and has been particularly effective since the 2010 arrival of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.  Avril has 19.5 sacks over the past two seasons, including a career-best 11 last year.  The Lions seem motivated to keep Avril around, but the former Purdue standout has made it clear he will be unhappy with the franchise tag if it’s applied.

 

The situation with defensive end Calais Campbell in Arizona seems almost identical to that of Avril, where the team doesn’t want to let a young player on the rise get away just as he’s hitting his prime.  Campbell had eight sacks and 72 tackles last year and is a pre-free agency focus for the Cards.  A tag could be in play here, as well.  Indianapolis’ Robert Mathis is quite a bit older, at 31, but the Colts seem as motivated as the Lions and Cardinals to keep their starting end, even if it requires a tag.

 

If these teams do succeed in holding onto their players, the most intriguing names on the market, at end at least, could be a couple of players who are much farther along in their years.  John Abraham, who turns 34 in May, has played six years each for the Jets and the Falcons but may now be moving on again.  The Falcons have a long list of pending free agents to take care of, and laying out top dollar for a player late in his career may not be a priority.  Andre Carter (turning 33 in May) is coming off a 10-sack season in his one year with the Patriots, but has a very interesting career trend in his stats.  Here are Carter’s sack totals for the last six years, beginning in 2006 in Washington: 6.0, 10.5, 4.0, 11.0, 2.5, 10.0.  Carter played in every game during that span, so this is not the product of injuries.  Still, given his strong season in New England, a team may be willing to bet that he will break that up-and-down streak.

 

There are some potential impact players at defensive tackle who could hit the market, as well, particularly the trio of Sione Pouha, Paul Soliai and Jason Jones.  Pouha could leave the Jets, who have a complicated cap situation, and he’s still a valuable run-plugger in the middle despite being 33.  Soliai is younger and is coming off a season in which he played under the franchise tag with the Dolphins last year.  Assuming that doesn’t happen again, he could leave in search of a 3-4 team for whom to play nose tackle, with Miami switching to a 4-3 front under its new coaching staff.  Jones has quietly been a very good player in his first four years in Tennessee, though his production slipped last year when the Titans used him at both end and tackle.  He could seek a new situation and arrive at his new team in the prime of his career.

 

The potential for a run of franchise and transition tags among the pending defensive line free agents underscores the point made above: Successful players at that position are highly coveted and teams do their best to hold onto the ones they have.  Still, there are sure to be at least a few helpful players on the market, and that evaluation will become much more optimistic if Mario Williams makes it through to free agency.

 

- Is the top of the draft a better option?

 

Obviously, the Buccaneers have favored that option over the past two seasons.  In 2010, the team reworked its interior line, drafting defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price at #3 and #35 overall, respectively.  Then last year, the attention shifted to the edges of the line and the Bucs nabbed defensive ends Adrian Clayborn in the first round and Da’Quan Bowers in the second round.  Health permitting, that is likely to be the team’s starting four heading into the 2012 season.

 

Is the top of this year’s draft another opportunity for the Buccaneers to beef up the defensive line.  In this case, one has to consider both the state of the draft class and the intersection of need and opportunity for Tampa Bay.  Simply put, Tampa Bay has some other significant needs on the depth chart to which one would expect them to be more likely to devote picks #5 and #36.  Given that the very top of the draft this year, if one believes the mocks so far, is not heavy on linemen, this doesn’t seem like the year the Bucs would use their first-round pick on that position.

 

That said, surprise picks happen in the draft when teams stick closely to the best-available-player model.  In the Bucs’ case, this is more likely to play into their second and third-round picks, since the defensive line field is more deep than top heavy.

 

After a 2011 draft absolutely loaded with edge pass-rushers (some of whom ended up as 3-4 linebackers), the 2012 class looks much weaker in that regard.  North Carolina’s Quentin Coples has the best shot of landing in the top 10, but that’s no guarantee.  South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram made a good impression at the Combine but some teams may think of him as a 3-4 linebacker due to his height.  Clemson’s Andre Branch and Illinois’ Whitney Mercilus are conversion candidates, too, and not names that are showing up in many first-round mocks.  After seven defensive ends (not including pass-rushing LB Von Miller) went in the first round last year, that number may drop to two or three this year.  It’s likely the position will see more action in the second and third rounds, which means the Bucs may be able to tap into that depth, if they think an available down lineman is better value than a player at a more needy position.

 

The defensive tackle position similarly has only one player who commonly is predicted to go in or around the top 10, and that’s LSU’s Michael Brockers.  However, a run on defensive tackles could develop towards the end of the opening round and the start of the second, much as it did last year with Phil Taylor, Muhammad Wilkerson and Jarvis Jenkins.

 

Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox was commonly seen as the second DT off the board coming into the combine but he may now have competition from Dontari Poe.  Others that are drawing first-round attention – and a quality defensive tackle is always going to draw attention on draft weekend – are Penn State’s Devon Still, Connecticut’s Kendall Reyes and Michigan State’s Jerel Worthy.

 

So might the Buccaneers be better off looking to the draft than to free agency to address their defensive front?  The more salient question is how motivated is the team to devote any of its best resources to the position.  On paper, the team would appear to be more set at that spot, at least in terms of potential standouts, than most places on the depth chart.  Again, however, the importance of defensive line depth can’t be overstated, so a Day Two investment in the line isn’t out of the question for the Buccaneers.

 

- Tampa Bay’s free agent history

 

The biggest swing the Buccaneers ever took in free agency at the defensive line position produced a home run.

 

The Buccaneers’ defense was already dominant before the free agent arrival of Simeon Rice in 2001, but the pairing of the former Arizona Cardinal with interior demolition man Warren Sapp took it to another level.  Rice was an immediate hit with 11.0 sacks in his first year with the Buccaneers, but in 2002 he exploded for 15.5 sacks for what proved to be one of the best defensive units in league history.  The Bucs rode that defense to the Super Bowl XXXVII title, a win in which Rice sacked league MVP Rich Gannon twice.  Rice stayed on a roll for three more seasons, and over his first five years as a Buccaneer posted 67.5 sacks in 79 games.

 

Other than that, the franchise has spent much effort trying to address the defensive line through free agency.  A much lower-profile signing in 2002 worked out marvelously well when the team signed Greg Spires away from New England.  Spires had started just eight games over his first four NFL seasons in Cleveland and New England, but he quickly won the starting job on the left end opposite Rice and became one of the team’s steadiest defenders for the next six years.  Spires had 26 sacks over that span but was also a standout against the run.

 

The Bucs succeeded with another under-the-radar signing with Jimmy Wilkerson in 2008.  Like Spires, he was a role player for his former team (Kansas City) who became a starter in Tampa and produced well (6.0 sacks in 2009) due largely to maximum effort.  The move to acquire former Viking defensive tackle Chris Hovan worked out as well in 2005.  Hovan started the next five seasons for the Bucs, and while he was never much of a sack producer he was a steady force in the middle for much of that time.

 

The Bucs signed UFA Marques Douglas away from San Francisco in 2008, but he never played a down with the team.  Of course, they were able to flip Douglas to Baltimore for a pair of draft picks before the season, so the signing wasn’t a loss. 

 

Unless one faults the team for rolling the dice on some short-lived attempted reclamation projects like Lamar King and Darrell Russell, Tampa Bay’s history of shopping for defensive ends on the free agent market, while not extensive, has been marked mostly by success.

 

- 2011 Performance

 

The only fair grade for the Buccaneers’ defensive line in 2011 would be I, for incomplete.

 

McCoy appeared to be having a breakout season before landing on injured reserve with a biceps tear after Game Six.  Price, his fellow starting defensive tackle, made an impressive comeback from a pair of serious leg injuries during the offseason but still struggled to stay healthy at times.  Bowers, the rookie who would eventually take over at left end, was brought along very slowly as the team took a cautious approach to his comeback from offseason knee surgery.  Michael Bennett started out strong but was slowed by leg injuries down the stretch.  And so on.

 

The Bucs were forced into a series of moves to have enough functioning bodies along the defensive line in 2011, especially in the middle.  That included the Haynesworth and Haye signings, obviously, as well as that of defensive tackle John McCargo.  Even the preseason injury to the lesser-known E.J. Wilson proved significant, as Wilson was coming on strong and camp and looked like he would provide solid depth at defensive tackle.  First-year defensive end George Johnson lasted just a few weeks after being promoted from the practice squad before he too suffered a season-ending injury.

 

Clayborn, the 2011 first-rounder, was an enormous bright spot, leading the team with 7.5 sacks and displaying the type of non-stop effort that had been promised on draft weekend.  With a stronger supporting cast, Clayborn looks capable of becoming the team’s best pass-rushing force in some time, a piece of the defense that has been sorely lacking for years.  Bowers, too, looked very promising down the stretch as the Bucs began to take the governor off and let him play a larger percentage of snaps.

 

The Bucs have plainly tried to pump up their pass-rush over the last two years, but the sack totals have flat-lined (or even decreased), from 28 in 2009 to 26 in 2010 and 23 in 2011.  The team believes that is a function of not having its intended defensive line on the field together for many snaps and hopes the pressure will increase dramatically in 2012.

 

**

 

Summary: The Bucs have not yet received the results they’re looking for from the front line, particularly in terms of pressuring the opposing quarterback, despite devoting a huge amount of draft-weekend resources to the position.  Because all of the players the Bucs have drafted high in the last two years are still on hand and, if healthy, poised to potentially break out together this fall, the position does not feel like a priority heading into either free agency or the draft.  If anything, one might expect the team to work on building more acceptable front-line depth, in case another rash of injuries occurs, and in that regard this year’s class of free agents might actually be better suited.  It is likely a number of the more attracting pending free agents on the D-Line will be locked up before March 13 arrives, but the remaining players should offer some attractive options to those who wish to go shopping on the open market.

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