By the time the 2019 NFL Draft and its cortege of undrafted rookie signings had wrapped up, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 90-man roster for training camp was mostly set. Free agency had mostly done its important business in March and then the draft filled in the blanks. Just about every position on the Buccaneers' depth chart looked essentially like it would in two months' time.
The exception is today's order of business: the defensive line. The Buccaneers made a very significant change in that depth chart with a pair of moves last week, releasing Gerald McCoy, long a core player for the team, and signing his replacement in three-time All-Pro Ndamukong Suh. There were some positive salary-cap ramifications to those moves in tandem, but there are many more intriguing elements to that switch, beginning with the fact that Suh and McCoy were drafted back to back nine years ago. Suh went second to Detroit, the Buccaneers followed with McCoy at number three. They have achieved similar numbers and accolades in the seasons since, but what matters to the Bucs is what Suh can bring to the defensive front in 2019.
So the timing is good to hit the defensive line in our Roster Reset run through the depth chart. That's doubly true because of another May development: Bruce Arians and the new coaching staff has clarified how the front-seven players will be classified within Todd Bowles' defensive scheme. Some of the players we would have included among the defensive linemen last year, such as Noah Spence and Carl Nassib, are now identified as outside linebackers. We'll look at that position later in the week.
For now, the spotlight is on those players who would have a hand on the ground when the team is in a 3-4 alignment, men such as 2018 first-round draft pick Vita Vea and the aforementioned Suh. As we've done with all the positions, we'll provide an overview of the assets at the position, discuss what some of the numbers from last season indicate about its strengths and weaknesses and then finish with one burning question for 2019.
Last week, we finished our run through the offensive side of the depth chart, hitting, in order, quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive tackles and interior linemen. Now comes the switch to defense and we start up front: Defensive Linemen.
Addition(s): Terry Beckner (seventh-round draft pick), Dare Odeyingbo (undrafted rookie), Ndamukong Suh (unrestricted free agent – agreed to terms)
Subtraction(s): Vinny Curry (released), Gerald McCoy (released), Mitch Unrein* (released/failed physical)
Returning Players: Beau Allen, Will Gholston, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu*, Vita Vea
(* Tu'ikolovatu and Unrein were on injured reserve at the end of the 2018 season.)
As alluded to above, the Buccaneers' front seven players are now separated into three groups on the depth chart: defensive linemen, outside linebackers and inside linebackers. There still may be some overlap in those groups in terms of what they are doing on the field in certain packages. While a player like Spence might be strictly a stand-up edge rusher based on his size and skills, some of the other OLBs may occasionally slide inside or put a hand in the dirt in what are essentially 4-3 fronts. This would seem more likely to apply to the bigger players like Nassib, Jason Pierre-Paul and rookie Anthony Nelson. So they're potentially part of the D-Line equation but, again, we're focusing here on the players who are actually listed as defensive linemen on the roster.
"It’s a 3-4 and a 4-3," said Bowles. "A lot of the league is played in sub-personnel anyways, so we’ll have four down quite a bit."
The Bucs might just have drafted a perfect anchor for the middle of their new defense a year early, as the massive but nimble Vea can certainly handle nose tackle-type duties in a 3-4 front. However, his new coaches have made it clear that Vea can handle multiple assignments and is more than just a block-eater.
"Well, he can play three positions for sure," said Arians. "He can play five-technique, he can play three-techniques and he can play nose. He’s a very, very talented young man and does lots of things."
With that description, Arians is essentially saying that Vea can start from anywhere along the line, from outside the offensive tackle to right over the center. How much he does either of those things, or tries to get quickly through the A or B gaps to the quarterback will likely depend on how much juice he shows the coaching staff as a pass-rusher. That won't be easy to truly see until training camp and the preseason, but Vea definitely spent more time in the backfield late last season as he finished his rookie campaign strong.
"Well, he can play across the line right now, until we get pads and I can really see it," said Bowles. "It has yet to be determined."
Still, if one starts with the notion of the nimbly massive Vea in the middle of a three-man line, the top candidates for the two end positions would appear to be Beau Allen, Will Gholston and their new teammate, Suh. Allen was signed in free agency in 2018 to be a top run-stuffer in the Bucs' 4-3 defense but he has previous experience in the 3-4 with the Philadelphia Eagles. Suh played in the Los Angeles Rams' 3-4 last year and saw action at nose and three-technique, so he too could probably move all over the line. Gholston is going into his seventh season with the Buccaneers and has seen his role and playing time fluctuate through the years, but he might find a good home in the new scheme.
"He’s in a natural position for him," said Arians of Gholston. "He can gain a little weight now and use his length. But he’s as steady and consistent as we have."
Gholston has apparently already made progress in reshaping himself once again, and Defensive Line Coach Kacy Rodgers has been pleased with the results on the field.
"With the scheme change, it kind of let him eat more, gain more weight," said Rodgers. "I think he dropped weight to fit in the 4-3 where, like I told him, he needs some rocks in his pocket to help us in the 3-4. I really like the way he's moving around."
Rookie Terry Beckner could be the wild card in the D-Line rotation. Formerly a top recruit who landed at Missouri, Beckner overcame some significant injury misfortune early in his college career but was a productive player for the Tigers at the end. He didn't go early in the draft due perhaps to that injury history and to an unimpressive 40-yard dash time but he's strong and athletic and could provide some push up the middle. General Manager Jason Licht said, after the draft, that Beckner had a real chance to make it if he can continue to play like he did last year at Mizzou.
Arians' last team in Arizona, in 2017, had seven players listed at the three DL positions on the Cardinals' depth chart to open the season. If Arians' Buccaneers go with the same number or something similar that would certainly seem to indicate real opportunities for the likes of not only Beckner but holdovers Jeremiah Ledbetter, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, as well as undrafted rookie Dare Odeyingbo. Tu'ikolovatu is another big and strong man who could conceivably hold up multiple blockers in the middle – he was a very good run-stopper in his last year at USC in 2016 – but he's now somewhat of a mystery after spending his first two NFL seasons on injured reserve.
All of those players would improve their chances if they can successfully show some ability at multiple positions during training camp.
"They’re working their tails off," said Arians. "Each guy is showing his position flexibility, so if you can play two or three spots, that helps you make the team. So they’re all growing and Kacy is doing a great job teaching them."
View the best photos from the sixth day of Bucs OTAs.
Notable 2018 Numbers: Tampa Bay's defensive line, such as it was defined at the time, generated the bulk of the team's 38 sacks, which ranked 19th in the NFL. The Buccaneers were also 19th in sacks per pass play. That was essentially a league-average pass-rush, as 12 teams finished with between 37 and 43 sacks.
Of course, 19 of those 38 sacks were recorded by Pierre-Paul (12.5) and Nassib, both of whom are now classified as outside linebackers. Tampa Bay's defensive tackles combined for 10 sacks last year, six of them belonging to the departed McCoy. His ostensible replacement, Suh, had 4.5 sacks and 19 quarterback hits.
The Buccaneers' defense needed to apply pressure in order to slow down opposing passing attacks last year. On passes on which the quarterback was pressured (hit, hurried and/or knocked down), Tampa Bay's defense allowed a composite passer rating of 43.8, which was sixth-best in the NFL. On all other passes, the Buccaneers were last with an opponent passer rating of 122.5; the second-worst team stood at 113.2. Tampa Bay's secondary was an issue in 2018 and the team has put a lot of resources into attempting to improve it, but getting a better pass rush would make for a better situation overall.
The Buccaneers' run defense wasn't a disaster in 2018 but it wasn't among the league's best, ranking 24th in yards allowed per game and 20th in yards allowed per carry. The Buccaneer defenders did come up with 52 run stuffs (running plays for zero or negative yards), which ranked fifth in the NFL, and Tampa Bay was actually second in the NFL in run stuff percentage on first-down carries. On the flip side, and of a greater concern, the Buccaneers allowed the third-most rushing plays of 10 or more yards, with 71.
Key Question: Will the defense be able to generate more pressure up the middle in 2019?
As noted above, the Buccaneers recorded 38 sacks last season, which was a definite improvement over the league-low 22 they had in 2017. That still didn't put Tampa Bay's pass rush into the upper echelon, however. And the push up the middle mostly belonged to McCoy, though the rookie Vea provided a good amount of pressure as he hit his stride down the stretch.
Vea could be the key to whether or not Tampa Bay is able to get more of a push into the backfield from the middle of the line this year. Suh has a long history of doing so but was actually better against the run last year with the Rams and is probably more likely to help Vea and others get favorable rush situations than put up huge sack numbers himself. Neither Gholston nor Allen have ever been highly-productive pass-rushers and the rest of the D-Line depth chart is unproven.
And again, the Buccaneers envision Vea being able to move all over the line in search of mismatches and offensive confusion.
"He's a very, very talented individual that can kind of do a lot of jobs," said Rodgers. "He has the size, the strength, he uses his hands well, [he's] extremely athletic."
Vea is listed at 347 pounds, which is about where he was when the Buccaneers drafted him a year ago, but he's slimmed down some this offseason and that might increase his stamina. His issue early last year was a leg injury, not fatigue, but the Buccaneers would like to have their young talent on the field as much as possible.
“No, he should be able to go the whole time," said Arians, responding to the idea of Vea being more of a rotational player. "He’s young, he’ll have his weight where it needs to be where he can play every down."
Vea's success at getting pressure up the gut won't necessarily be measured in his own sack totals, even if he does get closer to double digits in his second season. If he proves to be a one-on-one mismatch for interior blockers and frequently commands extra blockers – and if he still gets push despite that attention – his up-front teammates would find more favorable rush situations. One thing is certain: Bowles' defense will be aggressive, so the answer to the question above will significantly impact his play-calling.
"If we’re getting there with the interior guys we won’t blitz," said Bowles. "If we aren’t getting there with the interior guys, we’ll blitz a little bit."