At One Buccaneer Place, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' headquarters, there are first-floor meeting rooms for each individual position, and they are loosely grouped together into offensive and defensive halves. If one thinks of it as a large boarding house, then the quarterbacks live next door to the running backs and the DL, LB and DB bedrooms are all in a row.
There was work done in all of those rooms during the 2018 offseason, as there is every year between one campaign and the next. But it wasn't exactly an equal amount of work. If the offensive side of the house mostly got a little interior decorating, the defensive side was given a massive remodeling. That is perhaps not surprising given that the 2017 Buccaneers ranked ninth in the NFL in offense and 32nd in defense.
Tampa Bay also ranked last in the league in sacks, with 22, which is why the defensive line room got the most extensive rebuild. The Buccaneers used just about every method to add players to that group short of building one in a lab from spare parts. They signed two unrestricted free agents, pounced on another veteran when he was released by his team in cap maneuver, traded for a proven edge rusher, drafted an enormous interior linemen in the first round and even attracted some undrafted rookies to Tampa.
"There's always change in the NFL," said Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. "Sometimes it's focused on one position, sometimes it's focused on multiple positions. Obviously our focus has been the defensive line and I think we've done a very nice job by adding free agents, three players, and then adding a fourth in a trade that got the ball rolling in terms of what we wanted to get done on our defensive line. Of course we added in the draft as well. We're excited about that group. It's a big group of men and I truly believe this: the game of football is always going to be won on the line of scrimmage. We didn't win on the line of scrimmage as much as we needed to last year and I think this is going to be a great competition with the new guys that we're adding in. They bring an edge."
All told there are seven new players bunking up in that D-Line room, and potentially as many as three new starters on the four-man line. Accordingly, there are six members of last year's defensive line group who are no longer in Tampa. In other words, we have a lot to discuss below.
As Tampa Bay's offseason workout program nears its completion, we are taking a new position-by-position look at how the 90-man roster will stack up for the start of training camp in late July. With free agency essentially over and the draft in the rear-view mirror, that roster is essentially set, though there could be a few changes on the back end before camp opens. Over the past two weeks we've looked at all of the offensive units: quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and offensive line. Now it's time to turn our attention to the defense.
Today's position: Defensive Line
Addition(s): Beau Allen (unrestricted free agent), Vinny Curry (free agent), Demone Harris (undrafted free agent), Evan Perrizo (undrafted free agent), Jason Pierre-Paul (trade, N.Y. Giants), Mitch Unrein (unrestricted free agent), Vita Vea (first-round draft pick)
Subtraction(s): Robert Ayers, Chris Baker, Clinton McDonald, Ryan Russell, Sealver Siliga, Justin Trattou
Returning Players: Will Clarke, Will Gholston, DaVonte Lambert, Gerald McCoy, Patrick O'Connor, Noah Spence, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, Channing Ward
The first move the Bucs made on their defensive line in 2018 was to release Baker, one of their 2017 unrestricted free agent additions who had a disappointing single season in Tampa. The Buccaneers also parted ways with Ayers, who had fought hard through some injuries in his two seasons with the team, with some stretches of productive play. McDonald completed the four-year deal he signed with the Bucs in 2014 and was allowed to walk (to Denver) in free agency, but not before he generated a lot of admirers at One Buc Place with his play and his leadership.
The Ayers released happened at roughly the same time that Curry was let go by the Super Bowl-champion Eagles, and quickly snapped up by the Bucs, who were starved for productive edge-rushers. A few days before Curry hit the market, the Buccaneers shored up their interior line with unrestricted free agents Allen and Unrein, and about a week after Curry's arrival, the team swung its trade for the Giants' Pierre-Paul. Talk about a rapid makeover.
Before any of those changes took place, however, the Buccaneers brought one more key figure into One Buccaneer Place. On February 20, the team announced that it had hired former Arizona Cardinals staffer Brentson Buckner as their new defensive line coach, replacing Jay Hayes. It didn't take Buckner long to make his presence felt; Curry noted that it was Buckner's presentation to him that convinced him to choose Tampa as his new home.
Obviously, Buckner will have a continuing impact on Curry and his new teammates as he helps mold them into what is hopefully a much more productive unit. Buckner said it is up to the front line of defense to make things easier for everybody else behind them.
"We're the big brothers; we're the foundation," said Buckner of the defensive line. "If you build a house on a shaky foundation, I don't care how many bells and whistles you put on it, it's going to collapse. So we come in and we're laying the foundation so that Smitty can do whatever he wants to on this defensive line. That's what we're working for."
Tampa Bay put another big piece – literally – into that foundation when they used the 12th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Washington's Vea. The 347-pound defensive tackle is extremely strong and can occupy multiple blockers, but he is also surprising light on his feet. The extent of his impact on the pass rush is yet to be known but he's likely to create more one-on-one opportunities for all the defenders around him.
"What Vita can help us do is be the best Vita he can be," said Buckner. "If he's got 'B' gap, be in that 'B' gap whether there's two or three people on him, you go in that 'B' gap. That's what we're asking him to do, nothing more, nothing less. What I love about him is that he wants to be good because he wants trust from all his veteran teammates and even his rookie teammates. So that's the good thing about him. He's humble, wants to work and wants to be a part of it."
Curry and Pierre-Paul could step right into starting jobs at the two end spots, though the Buccaneers will try to utilize a rotation along the line that runs eight or nine deep. The defensive tackle position that was split last year between Baker and McDonald will likely be filled by either Allen or Vea, though it may not be that important which one is technically labeled the starter. That leaves the one incumbent starter as Gerald McCoy.
McCoy, of course, is as entrenched as any of the Buccaneers' defenders could be after being selected to each of the last six Pro Bowls. He has averaged about 7.5 sacks per season over that six-year span, and while his six sacks last year were his lowest total since 2012, he also had a team-high 24 quarterback hits, which ranked among the NFL's leaders at the defensive tackle position. As Buckner told McCoy upon his arrival, he doesn't need the all-star lineman to be a lone Superman up front. Buckner also said McCoy has nothing left to prove physically, but that he could still improve his game even further by mastering the mental side of it.
McCoy isn't the only holdover from last year's group, even after all that remodeling. Will Gholston and Noah Spence are a pair of defensive ends who could factor prominently into the edge rotation, though their respective games are quite different from one another. Gholston was one of the team's best run-stoppers in 2016 and he got a lucrative new contract the following spring, but his 2017 season wasn't as productive. Spence is a smaller and quicker pass-rushing specialist who has struggled to stay on the field due to shoulder injuries. He showed quite a bit of promise with 5.5 sacks as a rookie.
Gholston has used this offseason to shed some weight and regain some quickness, while Spence has added muscle to his frame and is up to a very solid 257 pounds. Those transformations should help both players.
Lambert and Ward played quite a bit as undrafted rookies in 2016, in part because the line was hit by a rash of injuries. They didn't see much time last year – Lambert spent the season on I.R. and Ward was on the practice squad for most of the year – but they are back for a third season and obviously know the defense well. Tu'ikolovatu spent his rookie campaign on injured reserve, too, after arriving as a seventh-round draft pick. He'll get another shot to fight for a roster spot, as will midseason acquisition Patrick O'Connor.
Notable 2017 Numbers: We already noted the most significant number produced by this group, the one that prompted all the maneuvers: 22 sacks. That was a drop from 38 the season before, which actually ranked ninth in the NFL. Team sack totals can sometimes be a little misleading, as even steady pressure on the quarterback without actual sacks can have the same effect, but in this case it was clearly a problem throughout last season.
"It has to go hand-in-hand, in terms of putting pressure on the quarterback," said Smith. "Obviously the statistics say that we were not a very good pass rushing team last year. We're going to have to get pressure on the quarterback to help our secondary and our linebackers be able to cover more efficiently. It's an issue that was a big issue for us last season and it's something that we have addressed and now we have to go out and do it. The guys that we've added, I think are highly competitive guys and it's going to be really fun to see them out there competing because they're going to get after some people."
The Buccaneers were also not nearly as effective against the run as they had hoped to be after adding some bulk to the middle of their defense. The Baker signing didn't work out, Tu'ikolovatu was unavailable and rookie linebacker Kendell Beckwith had to be used in a variety of different roles. The result was 117.5 rushing yards allowed per game, 23rd-worst in the league, and 4.27 yards allowed per carry, 24th-worst.
The Buccaneers have made a concerted effort to deepen their D-Line rotation, which is usually discussed in terms of keeping pass-rushers fresh. It can have just as much of an impact on run defense, though, because the basics of that boil down to knowing your gap and beating your opponent. Fresh legs will make that easier and the Bucs have a pretty impressive top three to rotate inside in McCoy, Allen and Vea.
"Now it's just about, whoop the man in front of you," said Buckner. "I've told them before, 'If you can do that, I'm going to be happy.' You're going to win some and you're going to lose some; just make sure you win more than you lose. Then we'll come back, we'll look at it and we'll go over it again. But we're not going to make it something bigger than what it is."
Key Question: Sixty snaps or 35?
In other words, how deep and how egalitarian is this D-Line rotation going to be?
In speaking about the potential value of a deeper rotation, like the one that Allen and Curry were a part of on the Eagles' championship run last year, Buckner noted how a great player could potentially be even more productive with less playing time because he can go all-out on a greater percentage of his snaps.
It doesn't make much sense to reduce one of your best player's snaps by 40 or 50% if he is far better than any other person who could pick up that playing time. However, if the next man in is also quite productive, a more equal rotation can benefit everyone.
Now, even with a deeper rotation, it's hard to imagine McCoy in a significantly reduced role. Likewise, Pierre-Paul is used to being on the field on most plays – he led all NFL defensive ends in snaps played last year – and Curry arrived in Tampa hoping to have a larger share of the action than he did in Philly, where he mostly played on first and second downs.
All of this is contingent on health, as well. A deep rotation can get shallow quick if a couple players are out due to injuries. But if things go according to plan, the Buccaneers will have more defensive linemen getting 25-40 snaps this year and fewer of them getting 60 or 70.
"Don't count your plays, just make your plays count," said Buckner. "We don't even talk about tiring because we work, each one of my guys works to the point where they could play a hundred plays straight. But now you cut those down, look at the energy you're going to have. Because the end goal, it doesn't matter if I have 1,000 tackles and we're 3-13. The end goal is to win the game. I want the guys on the field who are fresh and give us the opportunity to be the best we can be as a defensive line every snap."