DT Chris Hovan has started 48 straight games and become a force against the run since signing with the Buccaneers
In the weeks prior to the 2008 NFL Draft, Buccaneers.com will analyze each position on the team in regards to the draft, looking at depth, selection history and available players. As usual, this look at the draft, free agency and the Bucs' roster is not intended to reflect the intentions or strategies of the team's personnel decision-makers. Today we focus on the defensive tackle position, where last year's rotation returns fully intact, with a few swingman-type additions.
The most important move the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have ever made regarding the defensive tackle position, quite obviously, is draft Miami Hurricanes star Warren Sapp in the first round in 1995.
Sapp quickly emerged as one of the best players in franchise history, and in the process he may have had an impact on the way every team in the NFL now approaches the draft. Whether or not his success in Tampa – Sapp was the 1999 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, a sack force in the middle of the line and one of the pillars upon which the great Buccaneers defense was built – had anything to do with it, this much appears clear: Teams pay more attention to the defensive tackle position early in the draft these days.
That is particularly true this decade. In the 20 drafts from 1980 to 1999, NFL teams selected a total of 38 defensive tackles in the first round, including 21 in the top 10 picks of each draft. In the eight drafts of this decade so far (2000-07), the NFL's draft gurus have combined to take 27 defensive tackles in the first round, including 17 in the top 10.
Whether it's an anchor for a 3-4 defense (think Casey Hampton in Pittsburgh) or a penetrating, Sapp-like under tackle for a 4-3 scheme (think Tommie Harris in Chicago), premier defensive tackles have become a coveted commodity that almost demands an early draft pick. And, once teams have gained such a commodity, they are loathe to let them go; most of the league's star defensive tackles are home-grown products who have been kept away from free agency.
Witness the eight defensive tackles who were chosen for the Pro Bowl last year (six original choices plus two injury replacements): Hampton, Harris, Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, Darnell Dockett, Albert Haynesworth, Vince Wilfork and Jamal Williams. Of those eight, seven are playing with the teams that drafted them; the exception is Pat Williams, who was an undrafted free agent with Buffalo way back in 1997. Furthermore, five of the other seven players were first-round draft picks.
All of which makes the Buccaneers' crew – which was undeniably successful in 2007 – an unusual bunch. Tampa Bay has definitely invested high draft picks in the position in the not-too-distant past – e.g. Sapp, Anthony McFarland, Marcus Jones – but at the moment it is succeeding with men who were recently not highly coveted.
Tampa Bay's starting duo is Chris Hovan and Jovan Haye. The former was a one-time first-round pick and high-profile performer who had fallen out of favor in Minnesota; the latter was a sixth-round pick of the Panthers in 2005 who was languishing on Cleveland's practice squad when the Bucs came calling. The rest of the rotation in 2007 included a fifth-round pick from a small school (Greg Peterson) and another former first-round pick whom the Bucs had acquired from Kansas City in a negligible trade (Ryan Sims).
Haye was among the Bucs' sack leaders in '07 with six and the hard-working Hovan was one of the key components in a strong run defense. Peterson showed promise as a rookie and Sims proved to be quite valuable as a run-stuffing reserve. That group of four was supported by veteran lineman Kevin Carter who, while a starter at left end, often played in the middle on passing downs.
The Bucs will almost certainly return that same group of defensive tackles in 2008, and recent history suggests they will have to pay heavily on draft day if they want to add any more top-notch talent at the position. The team's mannered spending spree in free agency this offseason did not include any full-fledged defensive tackles – though versatile ends Marques Douglas and Jimmy Wilkerson can both play inside – and indeed that position was largely barren on the open market this year.
Here's a look at the state of the Bucs' defensive tackle position as the 2008 offseason begins.
|**Defensive Tackles Currently Under Contract**|
|**Player**||**Exp.**||**2007 (Tackles-Sacks)**||**Career (Tackles-Sacks)**|
Unlike in most recent offseasons, the Buccaneers did not have a long list of their own free agents that they targeted for re-signing before looking to the open market. There wasn't much to accomplish at the defensive tackle position, where only one player earned any measure of free agency.
|**Free Agent Defensive Tackles from the 2007 Buccaneers**|
|**Player**||**Exp.**||**2007 (Tackles-INTs-PDs)**||**Career (Tackles-INTs-PDs)**|
|Jovan Haye (RFA)||3||97-6.0||122-6.0|
In this table, and for future reference in this series, the notations in parentheses refer to the type of free agent the player has become. In this case, Haye is a restricted free agent, which means he gained the right to negotiate with other teams on February 29. However, since the Buccaneers extended the necessary tender offer prior to that, the team retained a right-of-first-refusal on any contract offer Haye might attract. Haye's window for speaking to other teams ended last Friday, April 18, so it is highly likely that he will now re-sign with the Buccaneers.
The expected return of Haye means, as mentioned above, that the team's rotation at defensive tackle will be intact heading into this year's training camp. Of course, Douglas and Wilkerson could factor into those rotational plans, as well, and Carter remains a factor after being waived and then re-signing with Tampa Bay late last month.
Still, the position could get a boost this coming weekend. The Bucs follow a best-available-player approach in the draft, particularly in the later rounds when a highly-ranked player can really stick out on a draft board that has been largely cleaned out. Tampa Bay used a fifth-rounder on Peterson, the North Carolina Central product, last year because their scouts had determined that the little-known prospect had the raw skills to potentially succeed in the Bucs' style of defense. Three years ago, the Bucs drafted Alabama's Anthony Bryant in the sixth round thinking the big-bodied tackle could develop into the type of two-gap plugger the team has usually lacked.
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