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Burning Questions: Defensive Line

Posted Feb 26, 2018

Will Gerald McCoy reach a statistical milestone? What's in store for 2016 draft pick Stevie Tu'ikolovatu after a year on IR? One question for every current Bucs' D-Lineman

When Kwon Alexander was named to the 2018 Pro Bowl as a late addition, Gerald McCoy was happy to be sharing the experience with a Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammate. Now what McCoy needs is somebody to share snaps with him in the middle of the Buccaneers' defensive line.

There is nothing more certain on Tampa Bay's roster than McCoy, the defensive tackle with the ridiculously quick first step and six straight Pro Bowl trips. That said, the defensive tackle position as a whole is very much in flux for the Buccaneers. Clinton McDonald is a pending unrestricted free agent. Chris Baker has been released. Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, a 2017 draft pick, hasn't played a down yet. There are many questions to be answered on the Bucs' interior line before the first regular-season game is played next September.

Actually, at this time of the year, there are questions at every position. Some appear to be more set than others, but every depth chart changes from season to season. In anticipation of that, we're going through the depth chart, position by position, and asking one Burning Question for each player. Today, we turn our attention to the defensive line.

As will be the case at every position, we are only including players who are currently under contract for 2018, or will likely have tender offers as restricted and exclusive rights free agents. For the pending unrestricted free agents, obviously, the burning question that must be answered first is, 'Will they be back?'

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One Burning Question for Each Buccaneer: Defensive Linemen


(Potential unrestricted free agents: DE Will Clarke, DT Clinton McDonald, DT Sealver Siliga, DE Justin Trattou.)

DE Robert Ayers: How many snaps will he play in 2018?

Ayers has been a productive player for the Buccaneers since signing as an unrestricted free agent in the spring of 2016. In the two seasons since, he has recorded 8.5 sacks and 35 quarterback pressures, despite missing four games in each campaign. Only McCoy has had more pressures for the Buccaneers in that span, with 38. Ayers has also given the Bucs some flexibility by occasionally taking snaps on the inside in pass-rushing situations.

Of course, those eight missed games can't be ignored, and Ayers also sat out exactly four games in each of his two years with the Giants before coming to Tampa. If he encounters better injury fortune in 2018, the 10th-year veteran could easily be part of the solution as the Bucs look for every possible way to improve on their league-low 2017 sack total of 22.

Despite the missed games, Ayers has played 72% of the Buccaneers' defensive snaps in each of the last two years. In both cases, that was second only to the snaps absorbed by McCoy among defensive linemen. It's clear that when Ayers is active for a game, the coaching staff wants him on the field as much as possible.

DE William Gholston: Will the size of his role in the D-Line rotation be more like 2016 or 2017?

In 2016, Gholston was on the field for 64% of the Buccaneers' defensive snaps despite missing the last two games of the season. He was considered an excellent run-stopping end that season, and Tampa Bay's run defense clearly suffered when he was out the last two weeks. That played a part in him getting a lucrative new contract just before the start of free agency in 2017.

Last year, Gholston played 48% of the snaps even though he played in all 16 contests. Tampa Bay's run defense was poor all around, so it's reasonable to assume that he wasn't as dominant in that regard as he was in 2017. In the same regard, the Bucs had difficulty rushing the passer all year and Gholston was credited with one quarterback hit, six fewer than the year before.

Gholston will turn 27 right around the time the Bucs start training camp this summer, so he's still in his prime as a player. A hard-worker, he will surely be motivated to regain a bigger portion of the team's DE rotation.

DL DaVonte Lambert: Will he return from a season spent on injured reserve to contribute again in 2018?

Lambert was one of five undrafted rookies who made the Bucs' active roster to start the 2016 season. He saw action early in the season when the team faced a rash of injuries up front, and then again at the end of the campaign for the same reason. Lambert even started five games and proved strong at the point of attack, if not a dynamic pass-rush threat.

Unfortunately for the former Auburn standout, while he looked like a good bet to make the roster again in 2018, he suffered a wrist injury during the preseason and was placed on injured reserve. That robbed Lambert of an opportunity to build on his rookie campaign and strengthen his foothold in the NFL. Now that becomes his goal for 2018.

DT Gerald McCoy: Will he finally get that double-digit sack season?

At this point, a 10-sack season is hardly a necessity in terms of how McCoy's career is eventually judged. He's clearly one of the best defensive tackles of the decade and one of the top performers in Buccaneers franchise history, period. He will almost certainly see his name in the Bucs' Ring of Honor at some point after his career is over. Still, he is so consistent at getting pressure on the quarterback, and he's been so close to double-digit sacks on multiple occasions that it almost seems ludicrous that he doesn't have one yet. Recording a 10-sack campaign wouldn't really change McCoy's legacy, but it would just be nice to see him get it.

Our own Casey Phillips thinks he'll get it this year (and he won't be alone!), based on the idea that there will be more talent around him on the D-Line this year, leading to more one-on-one opportunities. It's a good point, though actually achieving that is easier said than done. The Bucs thought they were headed into 2017 with a better situation up front but it didn't come together, thanks in part to injuries.

That said, McCoy probably should have ended up with more than the team-leading 6.0 sacks with which he finished. That was his lowest total since 2012, but his 24 quarterback hits were actually a career high. In both 2015 and 2016, exactly half of McCoy's QB hits led to sacks; last year, only a quarter of them did. That looks simply like bad luck. McCoy was one of 13 players in the NFL to have at least 24 quarterback hits in 2017, and all but one of the other 12 ended up with more than his six sacks. McCoy might not need a bunch more talent around him to hit double digits (though it wouldn't hurt); he probably just needs better luck.

DE Patrick O'Connor: Will he spend his second NFL season with a single team?

O'Connor's first year in the NFL was pretty typical for a late draft pick. The fourth-to-last player selected in 2017 (by Detroit), the former Eastern Michigan defensive end showed enough in the Lions' training camp to earn a spot on the practice squad to start the season, but he was waived about a week in. Tryouts with four different teams followed, the last being the Buccaneers, who then signed him to their practice squad. A promotion followed in late November and O'Connor got into three games before the season ended.

Now he heads into his first full NFL offseason, this time in Tampa. Obviously, he'll be battling to stay in the same place come September when the rosters are trimmed down.

DE Ryan Russell (restricted free agent): Will he be part of the solution to the Bucs' edge-rushing needs?

Russell came to Tampa in 2016 after a quiet first NFL season in Dallas, which had originally drafted him in the fifth round. He started out on the Buccaneers' practice squad but got a midseason promotion to the active roster and appeared in eight games.

Russell would end up with just one sack for the Buccaneers, but he had a four-game stretch in which he got four quarterback pressures despite only playing about 20 snaps per game. Again, it was quiet – and Russell himself is known to be a man of few words – but it did suggest some promise for 2017. And, indeed, he made the 53-man roster to start the season, played in all 16 games and even made seven starts.

Russell did contribute two sacks and five quarterback hits in 2017, but the Bucs only had 22 as a whole, as we've noted a few times earlier. The Bucs want much more out of their pass-rush in 2018 and will probably have a new piece or two in the mix. But increased production from Russell could also be part of the solution.

DE Noah Spence: Will he emerge as a much-needed force off the edge?

Spence's teammates thought he was ready to break out in 2017, his second NFL season. Ayers even predicted that his young coworker would crack double digits in sacks, and Spence started off right with a strip-sack of the Bears' Mike Glennon in the Buccaneers (delayed) season opener. Unfortunately, Spence ran into shoulder problems for the second year in a row and that sack would prove to be his only one of the season.

Spence impressed Koetter and his staff in 2016 by playing the rest of the season after suffering his first shoulder injury early on and nearly landing on injured reserve. He wore a harness to prevent further dislocations and adjusted to it well, contributing 5.5 sacks and better-than-expected run defense. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to do so again in 2017 and was lost to IR after just six games.

So, this is really a two-part question for Spence: Will he have better luck on the injury front and, if so, will he indeed be the backfield presence Ayers predicted. The Buccaneers are likely to add to their D-Line group in the offseason, through free agency, the draft or both, but the biggest boost to the pass rush could end up being the emergence of Spence in his third year.

DT Stevie Tu'ikolovatu: Will his run-stopping abilities give him a significant spot in the defensive tackle rotation?

The Bucs thought enough of Tu'ikolovatu, a 26-year-old who had just played one season at USC after previously playing at Utah, that they traded up 14 spots in the seventh round to make sure he didn't slip out of his grasp. The 320-pound plugger had a particular skill they thought could help the middle of their defense: He was good against the run, one of the best in the nation in that category in 2016.

Tu'ikolovatu appeared to be in a battle with veteran Sealver Siliga for a spot in the D-Line rotation as primarily a run-down player. The spot went to Siliga by default when Tu'ikolovatu ended up on injured reserve before the season began. As it turned, Siliga saw very limited playing time and was only active for half of the Bucs' games, so there's no guarantee that Tu'ikolovatu would have played much as a rookie.

Still, the Bucs should have the same motivation regarding Tu'ikolovatu as they did a year ago. Their run defense didn't show appreciable improvement in 2017, so it is once again an area of concern. If a healthy Tu'ikolovatu can prove that he's actually a difference-maker in that regard, and if he makes the active roster, perhaps he could carve out a somewhat larger role than Siliga did.

DL Channing Ward: Can he find more regular-season playing time in Year Three?

Like Lambert, Ward was on the Bucs' active roster to start the 2016 season despite arriving as an undrafted rookie. Ward hasn't left his One Buccaneer Place home base since, but he's also only played in six regular-season games.

Ward had two stints on the active roster as a rookie sandwiched around a six-week run on the practice squad. He got into five games with one start that year and contributed five tackles. Last year, Ward spent almost the whole season on the practice squad before getting called up to play the season finale.

Quite a few defensive linemen came and went from both the practice squad and the active roster over those two years, including Darryl Tapp, Larry Webster, Justin Trattou, Sterling Bailey, Patrick Gamble, Kourtnei Brown, Rodney Coe, Deonte Gibson, John Hughes and George Johnson. The fact that the Bucs kept Ward around in some capacity for those entire two seasons indicates an appreciation of his talents. Ward will try to turn that into a larger role in 2018.