Pictures of the Buccaneers' defensive linemen.
The Buccaneers have been working to build D-Line depth and a relentless pass-rush rotation for years, and it appears to be coming together nicely for the 2017 season. The latest addition is former Washington defensive tackle Chris Baker, whom General Manager Jason Licht referred to as an "elite defensive interior" player in terms of making plays in the backfield.
Licht made that assessment during a press conference to introduce Baker and wide receiver Dexter Jackson, the two new players the team locked up during the busy first hour of free agency on March 9. A few days prior to that, the team had kept defensive end Will Gholston from joining that free agent market with a new five-year contract for the fifth-year player.
"You can see we're really building great depth on our defensive line," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Our inside three, [Baker] joining Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald, what we've got coming back on the outside with Robert Ayers, signing Will Gholston back, Noah Spence, Jacquies Smith coming back off an injury…we're really excited about the group we're putting together."
Ayers and Spence were the big additions a year ago, the former via free agency and the latter as a high second-round pick that may end up looking like a steal. They turned in 6.5 and 5.5 sacks, respectively, in their first years as Buccaneers and are likely capable of more. Ayers was held back a bit by injuries while Spence finished his rookie campaign quietly after a big surge at midseason. They were part of a group effort that produced 38 sacks – good for ninth in the league – without any one player having more than 7.0.
Those team-leading seven sacks belonged to McCoy, unsurprisingly. He went to his fifth straight Pro Bowl after the 2016 season and has turned into one of the most consistently dominant linemen in the entire NFL. The Buccaneers specifically wanted a penetrating interior linemen to pair next to McCoy, hoping to force defenses to pick their poison and perhaps decrease the number of double-teams McCoy sees. Those two plus the veteran McDonald give the Bucs a pass-rushing interior trio, and the team also re-signed space-eating defensive tackle Sealver Siliga in the early days of free agency. With Gholston and Ayers able to play on the on the inside in certain situations, the team should have a healthy rotation at that spot.
The edge-rushing rotation will be strong, too, if Spence takes a step forward and Smith returns in good form from the knee injury that cost him almost the entire 2016 season. In the two previous years, Smith had contributed a total of 13.5 sacks. Gholston, already an elite run defender on the edge, is determined to provide more of a pass rush; if so, a foursome of him, Ayers, Spence and Smith could be formidable. At the moment, Smith is a restricted free agent (RFA) but the vast majority of RFAs eventually return to their original teams.
Defensive tackle Akeem Spence departed for the Lions in free agency and the team has not re-signed defensive tackle John Hughes, a midseason addition in 2016. Still, there is a reasonable amount of depth behind the players listed above, including some intriguing talents. Ryan Russell, a former fifth-round pick in Dallas, got into eight games with the Bucs last year and showed some pass-rush potential. DaVonte Lambert and Channing Ward were two undrafted free agents who surprisingly made the opening-day roster last September and then proved to be rep-eating lifesavers when the D-Line was hit by a wide swath of injuries. Defensive end George Johnson spent all of last season on injured reserve but his six-sack season for Detroit in 2014 prompted the Bucs to trade for him in the spring of 2015.
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