The Buccaneers' 53-Man roster.
On Wednesday, we took a fresh look at the Buccaneers' potential 2016 depth chart following the team's moves in the first month of free agency. We started with the offense; now it's time to see how the defense and special teams shape up after some very important free agent additions.
One of the Bucs' most important acquisitions during the first wave of free agency was former Giants defensive end Robert Ayers. Ayers, who had nine sacks last year and 19.5 over the last three years in New York and Denver, gives the Bucs a much-needed pass-rushing boost. His arrival could also have quite a ripple effect on Tampa Bay's D-Line depth chart, and that ripple would only grow larger if the team also uses a high pick on another edge rusher in the upcoming draft.
Head Coach Dirk Koetter and his staff won't release a full official depth chart until the first week of the preseason. And while Koetter surely has such a chart in his office already, it will necessarily remain a work in progress over the next five months. Exactly how Ayers is going to be deployed along the defensive front – and that answer could be different depending upon down and distance – is one of the things Buccaneer coaches will figure out during OTAs, mini-camps and training camp.
Here's one idea, though: Ayers could ultimately be used as the starting right end, providing both pass-rush skills and run-stopping ability on early downs. General Manager Jason Licht has mentioned that the Bucs' newest front-line piece is also capable of shifting inside and making an impact in the middle. Ayers might eventually be asked to do just that on obvious passing downs, making room for another pass-rushing specialist like Jacquies Smith to work off the edge.
Pictures from Ayers' 2015 season with the New York Giants
Of course, the Bucs are not going to be looking to minimize Smith, who has been the team's best edge rusher the past two seasons on a down-by-down basis. He didn't start playing the majority of the team's defensive snaps in 2014 until about midseason but still had 6.5 sacks in, eventually, about 40% of the season's available reps. Last year, Smith was the opening day starter at right end but injuries kept him out of four games. He still had another seven sacks in 66% of the team's snaps.
If the Bucs want to pair Ayers or Smith with a left end who is particularly strong against the run, they might choose to start Will Gholston, as they did for 11 games last year. George Johnson and Howard Jones will also be competing for snaps, and Jones had five sacks last year after being promoted from the practice squad in October.
The Buccaneers did not bring any new defensive tackles aboard in March, but the depth chart still gets a lift at that spot this offseason with the return of veteran Clinton McDonald from injured reserve. McDonald was a team captain last year and an underrated presence in the middle of the line; the Bucs had good depth at defensive tackle to start the 2015 season but McDonald still played nearly two-thirds of the defensive snaps in the first five games before suffering his season-ending injury in Game Six at Washington. Three players who saw action at defensive tackle for the Bucs last season – Tony McDaniel, Henry Melton and Da'Quan Bowers – are unrestricted free agents who have not been re-signed – but with Ayers, Gholston and Johnson the team has a lot of versatile big men who can play inside and outside. They also still have Akeem Spence, a strong presence at the point of attack who started seven games last year between a pair of injuries.
](http://www.buccaneers.com/news/article-1/Daniel-Jeremiah-Mocks-Kevin-Dodd-to-Bucs/72d0b556-9a26-42aa-a7de-5667b741d3d4)And, of course, the Buccaneers still have one of the NFL's elite interior defenders in Gerald McCoy, who has been
named to the last four Pro Bowls. He plays the three-technique defensive tackle position, which is clearly the one spot on the defensive line depth chart that is rock solid. Even with Ayers and the potential of another edge rusher or interior lineman joining the team via the draft, McCoy is the key to the Buccaneers' pass-rush in 2016.
Ayers was exactly what Tampa Bay needed to find in free agency (along with a cornerback or two, which we'll discuss below) but he's not necessarily all the team needs before the start of training camp. Given some free agency departures and the relatively disappointing amount of pressure the Bucs were able to apply to quarterbacks last season, more D-Line additions would be welcome. At this point, the depth chart remains a bit unpredictable up front on defense.
A couple decisions made just before the start of free agency created an obvious hole on the Bucs' depth chart, but a signing several weeks later provided the filler.
Pictures of newly signed linebacker Daryl Smith.
The only veteran player under contract the Bucs chose to release before the 2016 league year began was linebacker Bruce Carter. The team also elected not to give a qualifying offer to potential restricted free agent Danny Lansanah, making Lansanah in effect an unrestricted free agent. Had they stayed, Carter and Lansanah would have been the two most obvious candidates to fill out the Bucs' starting linebacker corps next to Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander.
David and Alexander are clearly entrenched as the Bucs' starting weakside (or WILL) and middle (or MIKE linebackers); the hole was on the strong side (or SAM). That job will presumably now go to Daryl Smith, the ultra-productive 13th-year veteran who signed with the Buccaneers on March 17.
Behind those three, the depth chart is currently filled with young players with limited NFL experience: Jeremiah George, Josh Keyes, Adarius Glanton, Darius Eubanks and Jermauria Rasco. That's not particularly unusual, however; reserve linebackers often make up the core of a club's special teams crew, and indeed George and Keyes were heavily involved in the kicking game last season. That said, given that Smith is probably a short-term option, it would not be a surprise to see the Bucs add some more young talent at that position in the draft.
Unlike the defensive line, the linebacking corps doesn't have much mystery as to how the starting lineup will shake out in the regular season, following the addition of Smith.
The Buccaneers let two cornerbacks go as unrestricted free agents but signed two UFAs from other teams. They also retained all three safeties on their list of unrestricted and free agent safeties, one way or another.
The cornerback position was one of constant upheaval and suboptimal results in 2015, so it's not unusual to see that amount of turnover. Veterans Mike Jenkins and Sterling Moore were allowed to hit the free agent market, though the team still has Johnthan Banks and Alterraun Verner on hand and there is hope they will be able to thrive in the system brought in by new defensive coordinator Mike Smith. No matter how well those two do in 2016, however, there was still a clear need for more talent at that position and the Bucs found it in former Dolphin Brent Grimes and former Viking Josh Robinson.
Grimes got a two-year deal while Robinson signed a one-year contract, and the former is surely expected to step right into the starting lineup. Grimes has played in each of the last three Pro Bowls while in Miami, and his 13 interceptions from 2013-15 are just one behind the league lead in that span. Tampa Bay got just two interceptions from cornerbacks in 2015.
Robinson started 21 games for the Vikings from 2012-14 before missing much of last season due to injury, so he would certainly seem to be strong competition for a starting spot with Banks and Verner. Since defenses generally find themselves in nickel packages for 40-50% of a game's snaps, they essentially need at least three starting-caliber cornerbacks, so there is reason to believe all three of those players could carve out significant roles over the course of the season. Second-year man Jude Adjei-Barimah, a pleasant surprise as an undrafted rookie last year, remains in the mix, as well.
Of course, that also indicates a relative amount of uncertainty, and that's the reason that mock drafts continue to match the Buccaneers up with Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves even after the signings of Grimes and Robinson. Whether it's Hargreaves or another young prospect, an addition to the cornerback position seems quite possible, so that is a depth chart still very much under construction.
The three safeties the Buccaneers made an effort to keep around were Bradley McDougald, Keith Tandy and Chris Conte. McDougald got a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent, making his return almost certain. Tandy signed a new deal with the team before the start of free agency, while Conte hit the market but eventually re-signed on a second consecutive one-year pact.
McDougald, Conte and Tandy combined to make 30 of the 32 possible starts at safety for the Buccaneers in 2015, and the team's most common starting tandem was McDougald and Conte. Both are still relatively young players who have shown flashes of playmaking ability, so it's fair to consider them at the top of the depth chart again as 2016 begins. Tandy, a sixth-round pick back in 2012, has proved valuable over four seasons by providing steady, reliable production, mostly on special teams but occasionally on defense.
Major Wright also remains on the roster and has six years of NFL experience under his belt, including 51 career starts. He had the other two safety starts for the Bucs last year. Inexperienced young players Kimario McFadden and Gerod Holliman round out the safety group as 2016 begins. In terms of straight depth and potential starters, the Buccaneers already have the numbers at safety. However, they've been searching for several seasons for more big plays out of the back end of the defense, so another addition wouldn't be a surprise there. If the Bucs were to draft a safety in the first three or four rounds in April, that young player would presumably step right into direct competition for a starting job.
The Buccaneers even made a significant free agent addition in the kicking game in March, signing former Jaguars punter Bryan Anger. As we discussed last week on Buccaneers.com, the team now heads into 2016 with a two-man competition at both kicker spots.
Pictures from Anger's career with the Jaguars.
That's because Anger and placekicker Patrick Murray, who returns from a 2015 campaign spent on injured reserve, join a team with returning "starters" at those spots in punter Jacob Schum and placekicker Patrick Murray. Murray won the Bucs' job in 2014 as an undrafted rookie and had a fine NFL debut season. Schum got his first crack at a regular-season gig last year after several NFL offseasons with the Bucs, Browns and Jets, and also performed well in many aspects.
If one ranks the contenders by NFL experience, Schum and Murray would be the underdogs, as Anger has been one of the league's busiest punters the last four years and Barth has attempted 164 field goals at an 85% success rate over the past eight years. Of course, it was Murray who prevailed over Barth in a competition in 2014, with the latter player returning from a year lost to an Achilles tendon tear.
The return jobs, meanwhile, are wide open with the departure of Bobby Rainey. Koetter recently mentioned Grimes and wide receiver Adam Humphries as possible options on punts, also suggesting that wide receiver Kenny Bell and running back Charles Sims could be considered on kickoffs. Here, though, there is not much form at all to the depth chart, particularly since the eventual return man/men may not even be on the roster yet.