The Bucs' defense returns almost intact from 2005, when it ranked first in the NFL in yards allowed
In 2006, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense will shoot for 10/10 – an even decade of consecutive seasons in the NFL's top 10 defensive rankings – and its greatest asset in that quest is continuity.
The Buccaneers have already achieved a top-10 ranking for an astounding nine straight years, beginning in 1997. Only one other team, Pittsburgh, has an active streak of even six such seasons heading into 2006. If Tampa Bay can make it 10 in a row, they'll tie the post-merger mark set by the Dallas Cowboys from 1970-79.
Working greatly in its favor is the fact that, in effect, the entire starting defense from 2005 is returning in 2006, healthy and ready to reprise its role as the league's number-one squad. The only projected new starter is Will Allen, at free safety, and even Allen opened eight games last season.
That means the top of the Bucs' depth chart will be no great mystery when training camp starts at the end of this month. That does not mean there will be no intrigue on the defensive side of the ball during camp. Competition is a necessary part of the camp process, no matter how experienced or entrenched the starters appear to be. And even if the starting 11 emerges healthy and intact from the month of August, there are still numerous reserve and specialty jobs to be filled.
Years and years of sustained success tends to give Monte Kiffin's defense a bit of swagger as camp begins, and the three-week battle with the Bucs' offense is taken to heart by both sides. But more important is the competition within the ranks at each position. That's what we're going to look at today.
Earlier in the week we examined the roster at each of the offensive positions. Now it's the defense's turn. At each position, the competitors are listed alphabetically.
Defensive End: Charles Bennett, Jordan Hicks, Julian Jenkins, Simeon Rice, Greg Spires, Dewayne White, Andrew Williams, Ellis Wyms
This is one of the most experienced positions on the roster, though the Bucs balanced it out with some draft-produced youth this offseason.
The presumptive starters, the team's starting tandem since 2002, are Rice and Spires. Both Rice and Spires will be 32 by the time the season starts, but neither appears to have lost a step and the Bucs expect the same level of production out of those two as they've gotten throughout the 2000s.
Rice, of course, is one of the most prolific sack men in the NFL; in fact, he leads the entire league in QB takedowns since the start of 2002 (55.5) and is first among active players in average sacks per season. Spires set his career high with eight sacks in 2004 but has value far beyond that one stat column; he is considered one of the league's better all-around ends, equally adept at stopping the run or pressuring the passer.
As productive as those two are, they may see increased competition for playing time this year. Given White's strong finish to the 2005 season, this might be the year he starts pushing that starting tandem for a bigger chunk of the action. Of course, most good defenses like to employ at least three good ends in order to rotate their pass-rushers and keep everyone fresh, so White should have no problem finding opportunities to build on his breakout year.
Wyms has carved a niche as an oft-used end/tackle swingman over the first half of this decade, but he concentrated much more on the interior line last year and is likely to do the same in 2006. After this four, the Bucs' potential defensive end depth is very young: third-year man Andrew Williams, first-year player Jordan Hicks and rookies Julian Jenkins and Charles Bennett.
Williams spent all of last season on the Bucs' practice squad after being claimed off waivers from San Francisco at the start of the campaign. The Tampa native played in 10 games for the 49ers in 2003-04 and has an intriguing mix of size (6-2, 280) and speed. Hicks is a recent signee from the NFL Europe League who will also get a look at long-snapper. Jenkins and Bennett were chosen in the fifth and seventh rounds, respectively, of the 2006 draft and are raw but interesting commodities. Jenkins could end up as a swingman, like Wyms.
The Buccaneers usually keep either four or five defensive ends on the 53-man roster, though that depth often includes players who can work inside or outside. The team commonly keeps just three DEs active on game day.
Defensive Tackle: Jon Bradley, Anthony Bryant, Chris Hovan, Julian Jenkins, Anthony McFarland, Lynn McGruder, Keith Wright, Ellis Wyms
This year's defensive tackle crop is almost identical to the one the team took to training camp last year. Simply add Jenkins, the potential swingman described above, and remove long shots Delbert Cowsette, Damian Gregory and Bryan Save and you've got the 2006 hopefuls.
The big change in this group came last offseason, when the team lured Hovan, the Minnesota Vikings castoff, to Tampa. The move resuscitated both Hovan's career and the Bucs' run defense, which improved from 19th in the league in 2004 to sixth last fall. Similar to the situation at end, the Bucs appear to be set with the starters at defensive tackle, as under tackle McFarland returns for his eighth year with the team. After playing five seasons at nose tackle alongside Warren Sapp, McFarland has settled in well at his new position, which involves more pass-rushing demands. Hovan didn't rack up any sacks in his first season as a Buccaneer but he was absolutely invaluable in stopping the run.
Wyms, as mentioned above, was the primary backup at the two tackle positions last year. He is a dangerous pass-rusher from the inside and can play virtually anywhere along the line. That versatility continues to make him a strong candidate for a spot among the final 53.
Bradley and Bryant split time as the fourth tackle for most of 2005. The massive Bryant was a sixth-round pick by the Bucs in the spring of '05 while Bradley came over in 2004 after being drafted by the Eagles that year. Bryant is much more of the traditional nose-tackle type of interior linemen, big and strong and capable of plugging running lanes.
The 6-2, 290-pound Wright may not be well-known, but he's been working within the Bucs' system since 2004 and has appeared on the active roster for both Tampa Bay and Indianapolis. Lynn McGruder was a college free agent signee a year ago from Oklahoma who is back for a second Buccaneer camp.
The Bucs' depth at defensive tackle sometimes runs as many as five or six players deep, often depending upon the depth at end and how one classifies a swingman like Wyms.
Linebacker: Derrick Brooks, Antoine Cash, Marquis Cooper, Wesly Mallard, Ryan Nece, Shelton Quarles, Barrett Ruud, Jermaine Taylor, Anthony Trucks, Jamie Winborn
The Buccaneers have worked hard in recent years to rebuild their linebacker depth, most notably with the drafting of Cooper and Ruud and this year's signing of Winborn. Of course, the front end of that crew has been one of the league's best for some time.
Brooks and Quarles are Pro Bowl performers on the weak side and in the middle, respectively, and Nece is coming off a very good season on the strong side. Jeff Gooch was originally slated to start with Brooks and Quarles but was sidelined by a preseason injury and is no longer with the team.
The Bucs' depth is more unit-wide than concentrated at one position or another, mainly because there are a number of versatile linebackers on the above list. Quarles, for instance, was the team's starter on the strong side before moving into the middle in 2002. Ruud is projected as a middle linebacker but has the skills and speed to play on the outside if needed. Cooper could play on the strong or weak side. Winborn, the former 49er standout and a second-round draft pick in 2001, has the speed to excel in the Bucs' system.
Ruud is considered a big part of the Bucs' defensive future, though he was mostly relegated to special teams last year thanks to Quarles' continued excellence. Cooper, a third-round choice in 2004, also remains a bright prospect.
Cash and Mallard joined the team midseason last fall, Cash performing on the practice squad and Mallard immediately adding his veteran services to the Bucs' special teams. Mallard is an ace in that regard, but his first Buccaneer training camp, after three years in New York and New England, will give him a shot to earn playing time on defense, as well.
Taylor was an undrafted signee out of tiny Bridgewater College with the Packers in 2004, and he joined the Bucs last offseason. Obviously raw, Taylor has great speed and is coming off a fine spring season in the NFLEL. Trucks is the only rookie in the bunch, and he was an undrafted player as well, but he is definitely an intriguing prospect. Oregon coaches used him to great effect by employing him all over the field, as a linebacker/safety tweener who simply made plays. He hits as his surname would suggest.
As always, the team's depth at linebacker on the active roster will depend somewhat on special teams concerns. Linebackers often make up the core of a team's coverage squads, and young linebackers generally make their mark in that area before getting a shot on defense. How the kicking game sorts out could make the difference between keeping six, seven or eight linebackers.
Cornerbacks: Blue Adams, Ronde Barber, Juran Bolden, Torrie Cox, Dwight Ellick, Reuben Houston, Brian Kelly, James Patrick, Justin Phinisee, Alan Zemaitis
This could develop into one of the Bucs' most loaded positions if everything develops as hoped.
Barber and Kelly are as strong of a starting pair of corners as one will find in the NFL and a big reason why the team's pass defense has ranked among the league's top five in six of the last seven seasons. Actually, Tampa Bay's defensive scheme calls for the corners to help out quite a bit against the run, too, so give credit to Barber and Kelly for the Bucs' improvement in that category last year, too.
This year, the Bucs also have the advantage of returning their nickel back from the prior campaign, and Bolden just got better and better in that role as the season progressed. Even with some cap difficulties, the team made sure to re-sign Bolden this past offseason, so the Bucs may be even stronger on the corners this year than in 2005.
That would be even more evident if the team's fourth-round draft pick, Penn State's Zemaitis, is as well-suited for the Bucs' scheme as all the scouts predict he will be. Big (6-2, 202) and instinctive, Zemaitis will almost certainly make an impact on special teams and is expected to be part of the team's defensive future. The Bucs also drafted Oregon's Phinisee in the seventh round, and he could gain an additional foothold by proving to be an option in the return game.
Cox is back for a fourth season with the Buccaneers and is at the very least another strong special-teamer. He could still be more, and has experience as the team's nickel back, as well as in the primary kickoff return role. Adams, too, is an excellent special-teamer and might add some versatility to the unit with an ability to play safety.
There are three youngsters in the bunch, and it's not wise to write them off: Ellick, Houston and Patrick. Patrick, in particular, has caught the Bucs' eye with his rapid progress last year after being signed as an undrafted free agent out of Stillman. He spent all of last year on the Bucs' practice squad and is extremely fast.
Ellick and Houston are new to the system. Ellick is a Tampa native who signed with the team in January, while Houston is an undrafted rookie. Both were very productive college players in big-time programs, at Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, respectively.
The Bucs commonly keep five cornerbacks on the 53-man roster, though that number can swing to four or six depending upon special teams concerns and the depth at safety.
Safety: Jahmile Addae, Will Allen, Steve Cargile, Donte Nicholson, Kalvin Pearson, Jermaine Phillips
Looking for a little change on a defense that returns almost intact in 2006? Try safety.
It is only a little change, though. Phillips returns as one of the starters and Allen, who opened eight games last year during injury absences by Phillips and Dexter Jackson, is the obvious front-runner for the other spot. Jackson departed for Cincinnati via free agency and Allen, a ball-hawking playmaker, should help the team move on without a glitch.
This is the youngest unit on the Bucs' defense, too. Behind Allen and Phillips, who are only third and fifth-year players, respectively, the Bucs have four men who have had two seasons in the league or fewer.
One is a 2005 draft pick, Oklahoma's Donte Nicholson. A hard-hitter, Nicholson played almost exclusively on special teams as a rookie but has had a year to develop in the Bucs' system now. Pearson, a second-year player who originally went undrafted, actually saw a good chunk of action on defense during the Bucs' injury struggles at safety last year and even started one game. Like Adams, he is also an outstanding special teams player.
Cargile is a first-year player with modest collegiate roots: He played at Columbia and did not switch from receiver to safety until his senior year. However, he spent all of 2004 on Dallas' practice squad and is a big (6-1, 201) and solid safety prospect. Addae is the lone rookie in the bunch, another undrafted free agent who stood out on West Virginia's defense.
The Buccaneers often keep four safeties among their 53 players during the regular season. However, that number can expand if it suits the special teams or if one of the safeties is versatile enough to play like a cornerback in nickel packages.