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Free Agency Focus: Defensive Tackles

Posted Mar 2, 2016

As our position-by-position survey of the potential free agent market continues, we look at the interior D-Line, where free agency may offer a wide variety of options this offseason.

Will the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have a Pro Bowler and two team captains within their defensive tackle group, choose to add to that apparent position of strength in free agency this year. They'll be bucking a trend if they do not.

READ: FREE AGENCY FOCUS - DEFENSIVE ENDS

When we surveyed the free agent linebacker market last month, we noted that more often than not and regardless of how the depth chart looks, the Buccaneers add to that position in free agency. The same is true at defensive tackle, but even more so. For five years running now, Tampa Bay has signed at least one unrestricted free agent (UFA) defensive tackle during the offseason.

Sometimes, that has been an issue of building rotational depth (a la Gary Gibson in 2012). Sometimes it has meant adding a new starter (Clinton McDonald in 2014). Occasionally it's been a flyer on a once-promising player that didn't pan out (John McCargo in 2011). All of those things are possible again in 2016, and this year's field of (potentially) available interior linemen is deep if not exactly top-heavy.

In fact, defensive tackle depth could be an issue for the Buccaneers as the 2016 NFL year begins, as three players who took snaps at that position last year are due to become free agents. That list includes Henry Melton, who signed with the team as a UFA just last year and ended up playing both tackle and end last fall. The other two are Tony McDaniel, who started the last three games of 2015, and Da'Quan Bowers, who was only on the roster for those same three weeks.

READ: FREE AGENCY FOCUS - WIDE RECEIVERS

On the other hand, the team is looking forward to the return of Clinton McDonald, one of those aforementioned captains along with four-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy. McDonald missed the last 11 games of the 2015 campaign due to a chest injury and his absence was keenly felt. It would have been worse if not for the return, at roughly the same point, of Akeem Spence, who opened the season on the reserve/PUP list. McCoy, McDonald and Spence all return in 2016 and should form the core of the Bucs' interior D-Line. Still, the Bucs will likely be looking for additional depth at that spot, and they could favor a veteran addition or two over what's available in this year's draft pool.

In the weeks leading up to the start of free agency on March 9, Buccaneers.com is taking a position-by-position look at the players who may be available when the market opens, hoping to determine the ones who could be good fits for the Buccaneers. The usual caveat applies: This is not meant to reflect the opinions or strategies of Tampa Bay General Manager Jason Licht, Head Coach Dirk Koetter or any of their assistants. In fact, since the players mentioned below are still under contract until the start of the new league year, Licht and company could not comment on them specifically even if they wished to do so, lest they be guilty of tampering.

READ: FREE AGENCY FOCUS - GUARDS & CENTERS

So, after previously checking out what the market has to offer at defensive end, wide receiver, guards/centers, linebacker and running backs we now turn our attention to…

Defensive Tackles

The trick here is in the definition of the position. By some measures, Denver's Malik Jackson and the Jets' Muhammad Wilkerson would be the top interior pass-rushers available but both are officially listed as ends in 3-4 defenses. That position is somewhat analogous to a 4-3 under tackle, however, and both Jackson and Wilkerson have the size to play inside in a 3-4. Both are 6-4, with Wilkerson listed at 305 pounds and Jackson at 285.

READ: FREE AGENCY FOCUS - LINEBACKERS

Ah, but the issue has already been rendered moot on at least one of those prized free agents, as the Jets chose to use their franchise tag on Wilkerson shortly before Tuesday's deadline. Meanwhile, Denver had to save its tag for Von Miller but is likely to work hard to keep Jackson off the market, as well. Since the latter is still technically a possibility, we'll note that he had 5.5 sacks during the 2015 regular season and then showed up as a dominant force during the Broncos' postseason run to the title.

Beyond those two, there are plenty of traditional interior-line pluggers available, assuming they last one more week without re-signing with their current teams. As we've found at a number of other positions during this series of free agency previews, there are two type of options. In one free agency aisle you find established veteran standouts who most likely represent a short-term fix, such as Haloti Ngata and Terrance Knighton. In the next aisle over you have the younger players hitting free agency for the first time, the type of player who carries hope that his level of play may still be on the rise, such as the Jets' Damon Harrison and the 49ers' Ian Williams.

READ: FAREWELL FROM CHEERLEADER MEGAN

Not surprisingly, there are more players in the former group, as teams are generally motivated to get second contracts done with young and talented defensive tackles. Both Ngata (age 32) and Knighton (29) changed teams last year after being dominant in their previous locations. Ngata, of course, was a long-time star and five-time Pro Bowler in Baltimore before his one relatively successful year in Detroit. The enormous Knighton emerged as a force against the run in two years in Denver and then moved on to Washington. Neither was as dominant in 2015, but Ngata can likely still help against the pass while Knighton would be stronger against the run.

Others in this group include Seattle's Brandon Mebane, Green Bay's B.J. Raji and Kansas City's Mike DeVito, all of whom are 29 or older. All three have had very strong stretches of play at some point in their career but are unlikely to get back to that peak; still, they will surely offer some teams some valuable rotational depth, at the very least.

As for Harrison and Williams, both appear to be entering the primes of their careers, and both were very good at stopping the run last year. The Buccaneers have gotten very good pass-rush numbers from their interior linemen in recent years – mostly due to McCoy's presence – but there's always room for a DT who can plug the middle and occupy multiple blockers. Of the two, Williams seems to have more pass-rushing potential. In four years in Philadelphia, Cedric Thornton developed from an undrafted free agent into a pretty stout run defender, though he has not shown much pass-rushing ability. Like Harrison and Williams, he's now getting his first crack at free agency.

READ: BUCCANEERS MOCK DRAFT ROUNDUP, 3.0

Jaye Howard
of the Chiefs and Akiem Hicks of the Patriots are interesting cases, perhaps falling somewhere in between the two aisles mentioned above. Howard was a waiver claim a few years back while Hicks went to New England last year in a trade for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. Both played well in 2016 and are still just 27 and 26, respectively, so they may find some suitors who think their best days are still ahead. At the very least, they are also good bets to provide positive rotational depth. Nick Fairley could be even more. He was drafted in the first round by Detroit in 2011 and at times looked the part while paired with Ndamukong Suh. He left last year via free agency but only signed a one-year deal with the Rams, after which he played well but ended the season injured reserve.

Bucs' Overall Interest Level at the Position: Moderate to High

If none of Tampa Bay's three pending free agent linemen return, the team would appear to have a need at defensive tackle just by the sheer numbers on the depth chart. A front-line duo of Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald, with Akeem Spence also in the mix, is a very good start, but the 2015 season underscored the need for depth at that position. This could be addressed in the draft or the post-draft haul of rookie free agents, but there does appear to be a reasonably good opportunity to do so before then. While the star defensive tackles at the top of the list are unlikely to get away from their existing teams, the position should still have plenty of depth on the market. Whether the Bucs want a veteran short-term option or a player potentially entering his prime, and whether they primarily want help against the run or the pass, there should be a few free agency options this year. Recent history suggests that defensive tackle is a position to which the Buccaneers pay attention at this time of year.