Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Burning Camp Question #2: DL Depth?

With training camp opening next week, Buccaneers.com is examining five important questions that may be answered in the coming weeks, including one about some much-needed D-line depth.

View some select shots of the Buccaneer's defensive tackles.

Tampa Bay Buccaneer players report for training camp next week, and on July 30 they will hold their first open-to-the-public practice. Over the three weeks or so that follows, plus the overlapping month of preseason games, Buccaneer fans will have an opportunity to watch the 2016 team take shape right before their eyes.
READ: 2016 TRAINING CAMP SCHEDULE

They will also bear witness to the resolution of some very important questions for this Buccaneer team. In our last full week before the start of camp, we're taking a closer look at five of those questions. Yesterday we examined the receiving corps, which is full of uncertainty behind the two clear starters. Today, we turn our attention to the defensive line, which has some key new pieces but plenty of roles still to be defined.

2. Is there sufficient depth on the defensive line?

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Jameis Winston's continued development might be the most critical element in a successful 2016 for the Buccaneers, but this issue isn't far behind.

The Buccaneers' obviously felt that they needed an infusion of front-line defensive talent during the offseason, particularly on the edges. They made former Giants defensive end Robert Ayers one of their primary targets in free agency, then used the 39th overall draft pick on pass-rush talent Noah Spence. There's little doubt that those two will see extensive playing time, but the exact shape of their roles is still being defined.

What the Bucs are left with is six D-Linemen – Ayers, Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald, Jacquies Smith, George Johnson and Howard Jones – who in 2014 and 2015 combined for nine individual seasons with between 5.0 and 9.5 sacks, but none that have hit double digits. Add to that Spence, who many considered the best pure edge-rusher in the draft, plus a group of solid run defenders with occasional pass-rush juice that includes William Gholston and Akeem Spence.

Collectively, that seems like a group that should improve upon last year's total of 38 sacks. While that number did put the Bucs right in the middle of the pack in 2015, the 70% completion rate the team allowed is a clear indication that opposing passers were not harassed nearly enough. Whether or not the defense breaks its decade-long drought of double-digit sack-masters – Simeon Rice last crossed 10 sacks in 2005 – the hope is that a varied and deep pass-rush will collectively get the job done.

View which players had the most tackles in Buccaneers history.

Training camp and the preseason will be a good indication of whether or not that group really is as deep as the Buccaneers need it to be. On paper, the interior line is lacking in experienced players, with the trio of McCoy, McDonald and Akeem Spence backed up by rookies and low-profile veterans. Buccaneer coaches don't necessarily view this as a problem, however, because they believe that several of their ends can move into the middle in certain situations. Ayers, who did just that on occasion in New York, is the prime candidate for that type of role, but Gholston, Johnson and Kourtnei Brown will likely get a shot to prove they can do it, too.

The end position is deeper on paper, thanks to the additions of Ayers and Noah Spence, but less clear in terms of which players will get the majority of the playing time. Spence may play primarily in rushing downs, but Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith has indicated that he will move the rookie around the defensive front, occasionally rushing him from a standing position. Smith has been a starter for the bulk of the last season-and-a-half but was limited by injuries in 2015. His ratio of 13.5 sacks in 18 career starts would seem to make it hard to keep him off the field, but that doesn't mean he is guaranteed a starting role. Gholston, who doesn't have the pass-rushing credentials of those above, played well at left end last year, particularly against the run, and could warrant a high percentage of snaps in base formations.

When it comes to obvious passing situations, the Buccaneers are likely to put what they consider their four best pass-rushers on the field. That could lead to a lineup of Ayers, McCoy, Spence and Smith, in some order along the front. If any of those pass-rushers fails to live up to expectations in 2016, that could lead to more double-teams for McCoy, who has seen more than his share of that strategy in recent years. The Buccaneers obviously want to create more one-on-one opportunities for one of the NFL's elite interior pass-rushers.

One must also consider the possibility of injuries when assessing the depth of the defensive line. Last year, McCoy, McDonald, Smith, Johnson and Akeem Spence combined to miss 28 games due to injury, and McCoy saw his effectiveness reduced in several other contests by a broken hand. Particularly at defensive tackle, is the Bucs' current depth sufficient to weather an injury or two to the front-line players. The answer will be yes if the team finds a useful contributor from among the likes of A.J. Francis, Cliff Matthews, Travis Britz and Davonte Lambert, or if a player like Gholston or Johnson proves capable of playing more than just sparingly on the inside.

Having added two much-needed pieces to the mix in Ayers and Spence, the Buccaneers will spend the next six weeks figuring out how to make them all fit. Ideally, Mike Smith will be able to liberally rotate among eight or nine D-Linemen in order to keep everyone as fresh as possible for an entire game. During training camp and the preseason, we'll get an idea if they actually have the depth on hand to do just that.

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