The release of Gerald McCoy on Monday theoretically opens up a significant hole on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive depth chart and frees up a large number of reps that will have to be distributed to other linemen. In reality, though, the Buccaneers' defensive front was already very much in transition before Monday's transaction, and there is an endless number of possible combinations of how the players still on hand will be arranged.
In fact, the Buccaneers are working through those combinations right now. The team is in the second week of its four-week run of OTA practices and the coaches are working to determine where each lineman fits best. Sometimes there's more than one answer to that question. The release of McCoy and the neck injury recently suffered by Jason Pierre-Paul certainly impact the process, but the Buccaneers were already going to be experimenting under creative Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles.
Beau Allen, the sixth-year veteran lineman who arrived as an unrestricted free agent last year, was already ticketed for a big role in the new front, even before McCoy's departure. Allen originally signed on to play defensive tackle in the Bucs' previous 4-3 defense but missed some time early in 2018 due to injury and then saw his reps diminished a bit down the stretch with the emergence of rookie Vita Vea. Now it seems likely that Vea will be the primary nose tackle in a 3-4 alignment with Allen getting a lot of work as a 3-4 end, but again, it won't be as simple as that.
"We're cross-training all over on the defensive line right now and that's what's fun," said Allen after Tuesday's practice. "We've got guys in positions that they haven't played in a while, learning a lot of new stuff. I think we're all really eager to kind of get uncomfortable like that and do things, whether it's guys that never played in a 3-4 or guys that are lining up a little wider out on offensive tackles and things like that."
Head Coach Bruce Arians was pleased with the fast start his new team got off to in the first week of OTAs, and then he deemed Tuesday's workout as the best one yet. OTA practices, in which contact is prohibited by league rules, aren't as good of a measure for the players in the trenches as it is for, say, a receiver or a defensive back, but Arians can still see how enthusiastically the linemen are adopting the idea of moving all over the front.
"They’re working their tails off right now," said Arians. "Each guy has shown his position flexibility. So, if you can play two or three spots that helps you make a team. I’m really pleased with where Vita is. I think he’s making extremely good progress as a three-technique and a nose; he’s played some five[-technique]. So, they’re all growing and [Defensive Line Coach] Kacy [Rodgers] is doing a great job teaching them."
Bowles has traditionally had a lot of variety in his play-calling and the personnel packages he employs. He wants to create confusion as to where pressure might be coming from and, like all coaches, he wants to find mismatches for his players based on their specific strengths. Mixing things up in OTAs allows him identify those strengths and it gives the players a base of knowledge of different positions before the more demanding and physical work of training camp begins.
"This is where you need to get those reps," said Allen. "I can't tell you how valuable it is, whether it's me or a guy that's a rookie just to kind of, in a new scheme, play a bunch of different positions, work on a bunch of different techniques. That's the best part about this time of the year, that you can kind of focus on yourself rather than have to game-prep for a specific game each week. You kind of slow it down and really work on honing your craft."
Some of the Bucs' linemen, Allen included, have previous experience in a 3-4 scheme, and that obviously helps. Allen noted that Rakeem Nunez-Roches played in that system in Kansas City and some others, like Will Gholston, have college experience in a 3-4. But all of the players in that mix are learning new assignments, plural. Some are getting their first opportunities to show they can handle a different job or two.
"We have a lot of versatile guys," said Allen. "I've worked in 3-4 schemes; I did it in Philly for two years. I did it in college. We kind of pride ourselves in being a versatile group and we think we're going to take advantage of that during OTAs."
Allen had just one year of overlap with McCoy in Tampa but that was enough to give him an appreciation for the long-time Buccaneer standout. Allen said he is looking forward to the opportunity to express his admiration to his former teammate in person. But Allen still sees plenty of talent around him on the Bucs' defensive front, and he sees a lot of fellow players working hard to increase their value to the team through versatility.
"We don’t really look at it like that," said Allen of trying to replace McCoy's contributions. "We've got the guys here that we have here, that's all you can really worry about," said Allen. "Whoever we have today in practice, that's who we've got and that's who you're going to roll with."