Retaining Doug Martin and bolstering the offensive line were priorities for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the free agent market opened on Wednesday, but eventually their attention was going to turn to a defense that struggled for much of 2015.
Eventually turned out to be Friday. Just hours after inking former Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes, the Buccaneers addressed perhaps their top overall need by landing former Giants defensive end Robert Ayers. Ayers, who agreed to a three-year deal, is coming off a career year as a pass-rusher in New York and will provide an immediate boost for Tampa Bay in that department.
Pictures from Ayers' 2015 season with the New York Giants
A former first-round pick by Denver in 2009, Ayers had a career-high 9.5 sacks for the Giants in 2015, a total that would have led Tampa Bay's defense last season. Overall, the 6-3, 273-pound Ayers, has played in 96 games with 39 starts over seven seasons in Denver and New York. He had produced 210 tackles, 26 sacks, six forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries (one returned for a touchdown) and 12 passes defensed. Of his 26 sacks, 19.5 have been logged over the last three seasons.
Tampa Bay tied for 14th in the NFL last year with 38 sacks but was in need of more pressure off the edge to pair with Pro Bowl interior lineman Gerald McCoy. Promising second-year man Jacquies Smith recorded seven sacks during an injury-plagued season but undrafted free agent Howard Jones was the only other end to record at least five QB takedowns. Ayers blossomed in his two seasons with the Giants, recording 14 sacks, three forced fumbles and five passes defensed in 24 games.
Cornerback and defensive end were arguably the Buccaneers' two biggest needs heading into the 2016 offseason. Grimes gives the Bucs a playmaker in the secondary with his 26 career interceptions, including 13 over the last three years. Ayers was one of the most sought-after pass-rushers on the open market, and he even visited the Jacksonville Jaguars after meeting with Buccaneer officials on Monday. While it's likely that the Bucs will continue to seek defensive help during the 2016 offseason, perhaps even in the early rounds of the upcoming draft, the signings of Ayers and Grimes provide some flexibility to their approach.
Though the Buccaneers' 2015 defense featured two Pro Bowlers in key positions in McCoy and David, the unit as a whole struggled to pressure the passer and slow down opposing passing attacks. Tampa Bay did rank 10th in yards allowed but more significantly found itself at 26th in points allowed. Opposing quarterbacks completed 70.0% of their passes against the Buccaneers, the highest mark in the NFL. With Dirk Koetter replacing Lovie Smith as head coach following the season, the team brought in former Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith to coordinate the defense and produce better results to complement a young and promising offense. The Buccaneers clearly needed some additional defensive talent to go along with a scheme change, and Friday's signings of Ayers and Grimes represent a very good start.