When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers conducted their first 11-on-11 drill of training camp on Thursday, Gerald McCoy found himself surrounded by three new starters on the defensive line. Jason Pierre-Paul, a trade acquisition from the Giants, lined up at right end and Vinny Curry, a free agent pickup after his release by the Eagles, was at left end, next to McCoy in his usual three-technique DT spot. Occupying the space next to McCoy in the middle was Beau Allen, another former Eagle who was a top Buccaneer target in free agency.
There's a good chance that's how the starting line will look when the regular-season kicks off on September 9. However, the Bucs still have to work in first-round draft pick Vita Vea, a block-eating defensive tackle; Mitch Unrein, another free agent addition who can play inside or outside; Noah Spence, the third-year edge rusher now healthy after persistent shoulder problems; and William Gholston, a good run-stopping end, among others.
"How they work together and how that group meshes, that's going to take a little bit of time," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "And we've really got good depth, so different combinations of guys, that's going to take a little bit of time. But just talent-wise, depth-wise, skill-wise, we've got a good group right there.
There have been hints at some of the possible combinations already. During one team period, the defense went into a nickel package and Pierre-Paul slid into the middle next to McCoy. That allowed the team to bring in Spence, a pass-rush specialist, in an obvious passing down. Gholston, who manned the left end spot on the second-team line, also later took snaps inside with a different group of reserves. With the versatility of such players as Pierre-Paul, Gholston, Curry and Unrein, the possible combinations are endless.
"Well we brought in four new guys that have all played in a Super Bowl, and three of them have won it," said McCoy, who has not played in a Super Bowl but has been invited to the last six Pro Bowls. "That's a lot of experience. Guys who know what to do and how to do it; do it the right way. We have a new D-Line Coach who played in three I believe, and had numerous opportunities to go back as a coach. Just the room overall is different, a lot of experience, and a lot of knowledge. Guys bouncing ideas off of each other, things you've never heard before, I'm helping him, they're helping me. Its only just going to make us great in the long run. But we've got a lot of work to do."
Beyond the various alignments the coaches can dream up with a fully healthy group of linemen, as they have now, the Bucs' additions up front should also make it easier to weather the inevitable injuries. When health misfortune struck the defensive line at various points in 2016 and 2017, the depth wasn't sufficient to keep that unit at peak production. That contributed to the team's NFL-low 22 sacks last year and was a driving force in the Bucs' obvious focus in free agency this past spring.
As an example, Allen limped off the field and missed a few plays during the final 11-on-11 period of Friday's practice. The Bucs were able to plug Unrein right in and the line didn't miss a beat. Obviously, Vea would have been a fine choice for that assignment as well. The Buccaneers haven't put on the pads yet – they'll don shoulder pads on Saturday and then full gear on Sunday – so the defensive line hasn't really been able to show off yet. There's a long way to go, there are inevitable injuries to navigate and there is work to do to find the most productive combinations up front. Still, it's already clear that the Buccaneers have a lot to work with on the defensive line this season.
Additional observations from training camp practice:
- On Thursday, during a short punt period using the Jugs gun, three veterans took turns fielding the simulated kicks: Adam Humphries, Bernard Reedy and DeSean Jackson. Bernard and Humphries split last season as the team's primary punt returner and Jackson has occasionally taken on that role during his career, sometimes with spectacular results. On Friday, a fourth player was in the mix when the punts were flying: rookie RB Shaun Wilson. Wilson has top-notch speed and generated a lot of big plays at Duke but his size (5-9, 185) probably kept him from being drafted. If he can find a role on special teams it will improve his chances of making the 53-man roster.
- The Bucs also used a handful of different "gunner" candidates while punting on Friday. Two of those were the incumbents in that role from last year: Josh Robinson and Ryan Smith. The Robinson-Smith combo was quite effective covering punts last year and the Bucs allowed only 5.7 yards per runback. Other players who got a look in that role on Friday included a quartet of wide receivers: Bobo Wilson, Chris Godwin, Freddie Martino and rookie Justin Watson.
- The Buccaneers devoted one period of practice to "run-pass option" (RPO) concepts, though the plays were run at half-speed and without helmets. It appeared to be aimed at helping the defense recognize and defend RPOS, and Koetter lent credence to that assessment with his comments after practice: "Yeah, I think RPOs will be a bigger part of the league this year. Whether it is in our offense or not remains to be seen."
- The Bucs' first idea of how the starting offensive line will be arranged seems clear after two days: LT Donovan Smith, LG Ali Marpet, C Ryan Jenson, RG Caleb Benenoch and RT Demar Dotson. Dotson might have been the biggest question mark before the start of camp, as he finished last season on injured reserve then had an additional procedure on his knee in the spring, causing him to miss all of the offseason workouts. Fortunately, Dotson was ready to go when camp began, though it will be a bit longer before he is giving a full practice workload.
"Dot's been cleared to practice," said Koetter. "Right now we're holding him out of 11-on-11, just as he eases back in – he missed OTAs – as he's easing back into on-the-field work. When we go 11-on-11, even though we're trying to stay on our feet there's bodies on the ground. Part of coming back from an injury is just getting your confidence back. We expect everything to be fine with Dot, if there's no surprises."