Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Depth Check: Defensive Ends

In the weeks leading up to the hugely important 2010 NFL Draft, Buccaneers.com will take a position-by-position look at the team's current roster, analyzing depth, free agency issues and the potential in this year's draft class...In this edition: defensive ends

Returning DE Stylez G. White led to Buccaneers with 6.5 sacks in 2009 *

 

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of pre-draft articles analyzing the Buccaneers' roster position by position. Each position analysis will include a look at the team's current depth at that spot, its history in stocking the position and the potential additions available in the draft and free agency. Today, defensive ends. On deck: Running backs.

The 2009 season was one of transition in Tampa, and no position on the roster underwent more wire-to-wire change than defensive end. Only one player currently under contract at that position was also on the roster one year ago.

Still, it's fair to say that defensive end is still very much in transition as the Buccaneers head into the next campaign.

The Bucs two starting ends on opening day of 2009 were Gaines Adams on the right edge and Jimmy Wilkerson on the left. Adams would be traded to the Chicago Bears in October (and would then tragically pass away of a heart condition in January) and Wilkerson would finish the season on injured reserve, victim of a knee injury that will need most of the offseason to heal. Wilkerson is also currently an unrestricted free agent.

The Bucs' starters for the season finale were Tim Crowder, who was a Denver Bronco at the beginning of September, and Stylez G. White, who had started a total of two games over the previous two seasons. The other two players to see action at defensive end for Tampa Bay in 2009 were a pair of rookies, fourth-rounder Kyle Moore and waiver-wire pickup Michael Bennett. As of March, former USC standout Moore was the only end on the roster who was drafted by the team; with 11 picks in the upcoming draft, there seems to be a decent chance that will change, and the transition will continue.

One thing didn't change in 2009, however, and remains the same in 2010: The Bucs are still trying to re-establish the sort of game-changing pass-rush the team enjoyed during its peak seasons of 1997-2004. Tampa Bay's defense averaged 43.1 sacks per season over that eight-year span. In the five years since, that average has dropped a damaging 30 percent to 30.2 sacks per season. The Bucs had 28 sacks last year, one less than in 2008.

Obviously, a team's defensive ends are not solely responsible for the pass rush. However, the franchise that employed backfield dynamo Simeon Rice from 2001-06 certainly understands how much a feared edge rusher can change everything that happens on defense.

The Bucs were pleased with the work of White (6.5 sacks) and Wilkerson (6.0) and hope for more out of both in 2010 if Wilkerson re-signs with the team. They also believe that Moore will have more of an impact in his second season after coming on strong at season's end, and considered Crowder a very pleasant find on the waiver wire. Despite all of that, the search will continue for more pressure off the edge.

Before we take a look at what's still available in free agency or what might be added via draft, here is a list of the players currently under contract at the position:

Defensive Ends Currently Under Contract
Player Exp. 2009 (Tackles-Sacks) Career (Tackles-Sacks)
Michael Bennett * 2 5-1.0 5-1.0
Tim Crowder 4 47-3.5 73-7.5
Maurice Evans ^ 1 N/A N/A
Kyle Moore * 2 14-0.0 14-0.0
Stylez G. White 4 54-6.5 144-19.5

* - Bennett and Moore are considered potential "swing" linemen, capable of playing either end or tackle; however, both played more at end as rookies and will be considered with that group.

^ - Spent brief portions of the 2009 season on the Bucs' active roster and practice squad.

Of the 28 sacks the Buccaneers recorded in 2009, 12 came in just two games, a Week Nine win over Green Bay and a narrow Week 12 loss at Atlanta. The Bucs' competitiveness in those two games was no coincidence; over the last five games, the team is 15-6 in games in which its defense drops the opposing quarterback three or more times. Interestingly, those two games marked the first time since 2004 that the D had been able to produce a half-dozen sacks in a game.

That it happened twice suggests that the pass-rushers the Bucs have on hand are capable of big things, collectively. However, the Bucs produced one or zero sacks in 11 of their other 14 outings last year, so a consistent pass rush is obviously not yet a reality.

One manner in which the franchise generally tries to improve portions of the depth chart is to first lock up those players already on hand who are proven producers. In terms of the defensive end position, the only free agent the Bucs have to worry about re-signing is Wilkerson; of course, Wilkerson was the Bucs' second-leading sack-man in 2009 and he has 11 QB takedowns in the last two years after arriving in Tampa with one in his first five seasons.

Free Agent Defensive Ends from the 2009 Buccaneers
Player Exp. 2009 (Tackles-Sacks) Career (Tackles-Sacks)
Jimmy Wilkerson (UFA) 8 66-6.0 191-12.0

The midseason trade of Adams and the acquisition of such players as Crowder allowed the Buccaneers to try out some different defensive end combinations last year and make some critical evaluations. Still, just as the team appreciated much of Jeff Garcia's play in 2007-08 but were eager to locate a long-term franchise quarterback like (hopefully) Josh Freeman, a more lasting solution at defensive end is also being sought.

From 2002-06, Rice and Greg Spires combined to make 147 of a possible 160 starts for Tampa Bay at the two end spots, and every start those two missed was taken up by third-man-in-the-rotation Dewayne White. Over the last three seasons, White, Spires, Adams, Kevin Carter, Crowder and Wilkerson have been a part of something of a revolving door at the two end positions.

Here's a look at some other relevant numbers regarding the Bucs' defensive end position this year and in recent years:

Defensive End Position Numbers:

  • Starting spots/Returning starters (currently under contract): 2/1 (Returning: White)
  • Total players under contract (as of 3/31/10): 5 (Bennett, Crowder, Evans, Moore, White)
  • Unrestricted/Restricted free agents: 1/0 (UFA: Wilkerson)
  • 2009 Pro Bowlers: 0
  • 2009 AP All-Pros: 0
  • Relevant 2009 NFL Rankings: Tampa Bay ranked 27th in the NFL in total defense, 10th against the pass and 32nd against the run; Tampa Bay notched 28 sacks in 2009, ranking 24th in the NFL in sacks per pass play.
  • Defensive Ends Taken to Training Camp in 2009: 7 (Adams, Jarriett Buie, Louis Holmes, Moore, White, Wilkerson)
  • Defensive Ends Carried During the 2009 Regular Season: 5 (Bennett, Crowder, Moore, White, Wilkerson)
  • Defensive Ends Drafted by Tampa Bay, 1976-2009, Rounds 1-3: 12...Lee Roy Selmon (1, 1976), Charley Hannah (3, 1977), Reggie Lewis (3, 1979), Booker Reese (2, 1982), John Cannon (3, 1982), Ron Holmes (1, 1985), Dan Sileo (3, 1987), Mark Wheeler (3, 1992), Eric Curry (1, 1993), Regan Upshaw (1, 1996), Dewayne White (2, 2003), Adams (1, 2007)

Though an improved edge rush is clearly something the Buccaneers need, many analysts expect the team to focus on the interior line with the third overall pick instead. No matter; the 2010 draft is considered deep enough at several defensive positions, including end, that valuable additions can be made well beyond the first round. The Bucs also own two of the first 10 picks in the second round of the draft and the third pick of the third round, or a total of four of the first 67 selections.

Here's a look at some of the top defensive ends available in the 2010 NFL Draft, with an attempt to identify primarily 4-3 ends rather than those players considered better fits as 3-4 outside linebackers, such as Sergio Kindle of Texas:

  • Jason Pierre-Paul, USF... South Florida's own rising star, Pierre-Paul was a darling of the early mock drafts, sometimes slotted as high as third (yes, to the Bucs)...The former Bull will be drafted largely on what is considered deep, untapped potential, since he essentially just emerged as a star last year...Tall, fast and very quick off the edge, he might struggle against the run early.
  • Derrick Morgan, Georgia Tech... Like Pierre-Paul, considered a better fit as a 4-3 end for his size, instincts and burst off the edge...Perhaps a more varied stable of moves than his USF counterpart, and considered an intelligent and well-prepared player.
  • Everson Griffen, USC... Unlike Pierre-Paul and Morgan, Griffen appears to be more polished against the run than in the pass-rushing phase of the game leaving college...Does possess good speed and quickness of the snap, however, so could develop into a sack artist...Has had his competitiveness questioned.
  • Brandon Graham, Michigan... Graham is shorter than the above players, at 6-1, but is still considered a better fit as a 4-3 end...Very hard worker with a non-stop motor in the Jimmy Wilkerson mold...Also holds up well against the run and has good football instincts.
  • Carlos Dunlap, Florida... Off-field concerns may have hurt his draft stock, but he has a huge frame and very surprising speed for his size...Proved outstanding against the run as a collegian and has developing pass-rush moves.
  • Tyson Alualu, California... At 6-3, 295, is thicker than the above ends and might be a swingman in the pros, able to go inside or outside...Wouldn't be a huge DT, but is stronger and sturdier against the run than his size would indicate and has the pass-rush potential to play on the edge.

The Bucs obviously invested heavily in the end position two years ago when they used the fourth overall choice on Adams. However, that marked the first time in 11 years that Tampa Bay had taken a defensive end in the first round, and only the second time during that span (also Dewayne White, second round, 2003) that they had used a first-day pick at that spot. The only defensive end the Bucs have added from among the 22 picks they've made since taking Adams to start the '07 draft is USC's Moore, a fourth-rounder last year.

Overall, these are the defensive ends the Bucs have taken at any spot in the draft over the last five years.

Defensive Ends Drafted in the Last Five Years
Year Round Player School Still on Team?
2006 5th Julian Jenkins Stanford No
2006 7th Charles Bennett Clemson No
2007 1st Gaines Adams Clemson No
2009 4th Kyle Moore USC Yes

Historically, the Bucs have had varied success drafting defensive ends. The team hit a home run with the first end it ever selected in Lee Roy Selmon but obviously chose to part ways with Adams midway through his third year, believing a second-round pick in the 2010 draft was too valuable to pass up.

In between, the returns have been middling - Eric Curry was a bust, Regan Upshaw had a decent, but not great career as a Buccaneer, and Ron Holmes, who had the unfortunate onus of being Selmon's replacement, didn't really live up to that hope in four unremarkable years in Tampa.

Here's the full list of defensive ends drafted by the Buccaneers in the first three rounds:

Defensive Ends Drafted by Tampa Bay in Rounds 1-3

  • Lee Roy Selmon (1st), 1976...So far, the only player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who played the majority of his career with the Buccaneers...The first overall pick in '76, he was an immediate star, a six-time Pro Bowler and a pillar in the Bay area community, which he remains to this day...With 78.5 sacks in nine seasons, he is the team's all-time leader in that category.
  • Charley Hannah (3rd), 1977...A cornerstone of the original Bucs team that went to playoffs in '79, '81 and '82...Started on defensive line in 1978, then switched to offense and started at right tackle for division-championship team...Overall, started 61 games and played 77.
  • Reggie Lewis (3rd), 1979...Lasted just two years in Tampa, playing in 22 games with no starts.
  • Booker Reese (2nd), 1982...Bucs traded first-round pick in 1983 to Chicago to draft Reese, who would play in just 24 games with seven starts from 1982-84...Called a 'rare combination of height, speed and strength' but finished with just two career sacks.
  • John Cannon (3rd), 1982...Ninth on Bucs' all-time sack list, with 22...Played in 121 games from 1982-90, tied with Lee Roy Selmon for most by a Buccaneer defensive lineman...Bucs starting left defensive end for most of 1984-87.
  • Ron Holmes (1st), 1985...A solid end who had little chance of living up to Selmon's standards...Played four seasons in Tampa, starting 45 games, and did lead the team in sacks in 1987 with 8.0...Also led the team in sacks in 1988 with 4.0, though he missed the last six games of the season...Was subsequently traded to Denver.
  • Dan Sileo (3rd), 1987 (supplemental draft, counted as a 1988 pick)...Played only season (1987) with the Bucs and in the NFL, getting into 10 games and making 14 tackles.
  • Eric Curry (1st), 1993...Had five sacks as a rookie after coming in as the sixth overall pick in 1993, but totaled only seven more over the next four seasons and left as an unrestricted free agent in 1998...Famously started all 16 games in 1995 without getting a single sack until the season finale.
  • Regan Upshaw (1st), 1996...Part of a first-round double-dip into the D-line in '96 (also DT Marcus Jones), Upshaw was a starter for three years before an October trade to Jacksonville in 1999...Posted a respectable 18.5 sacks during that time and later had some productive seasons in Oakland and Washington.
  • Dewayne White (2nd), 2003...Stuck behind Simeon Rice and Greg Spires during his four years in Tampa, but gradually saw more playing time and produced increasing tackle and sack numbers...Had 14 sacks from 2004-06, including five in '06 as he replaced an injured Rice in the lineup...Left for Detroit as an unrestricted free agent in 2007.
  • Gaines Adams (1st), 2007...Debut campaign saw him lead all NFL rookies with six sacks...Started the second half of the season at right end after Spires suffered a lasting injury...Followed with 6.5 sacks in 2008 but was sent to Chicago at the trade deadline in 2009 in exchange for a second-round pick...Came to tragic end with unexpected death in January due to cardiac arrest caused by an enlarged heart.

Note: Two other players the Buccaneers drafted in the first round - LB Keith McCants (1990) and DT Marcus Jones (1996) - were eventually tried at defensive end. The experiment didn't work very well in McCants' case, but Jones was able to put together a few good seasons at defensive end.

Through the years, the Bucs have looked more to the draft than free agency to add defensive ends, but there have been some notable exceptions over the last decade.

It started with Rice and Spires in the early part of the decade. Rice, signed out of Arizona in 2001, and Spires, signed out of Cleveland the following year, went on to bookend the Bucs' defensive line for five years and helped lead the team to a Super Bowl title in 2002.

Recently, Carter arrived in 2007 and was the primary starter at right end during two very solid years in Tampa. Still, the bulk of Carter's career was spent before he arrived in Tampa, whereas Rice and Spires each had their best years as Buccaneers. The same could eventually be true of Crowder, who had been used sparingly in Denver in 2008 after a relatively strong rookie year (four sacks) in 2007. Bennett, a rookie who signed as an undrafted free agent with Seattle last spring, could also prove to be a find.

It wouldn't be the first time. The Bucs have had success with such waiver-wire pickups in the past, most notably with Steve White and Tyoka Jackson in the 1990s. Both turned out to be solid contributors. In addition, Ray Seals was signed out of a semi-pro league in 1989 and emerged as a legitimate NFL pass-rusher.

And, of course, there's Wilkerson, who arrived as an unrestricted free agent to little fanfare in 2008 but who was obviously well-scouted. Wilkerson was a hard-working reserve for five years in Kansas City, helping out on special teams and only occasionally getting any extended time on defense. The Bucs thought he had promise, however, and the work ethic to unlock it, and that belief has certainly borne out over the past two season.

Still, the Bucs have typically addressed the defensive end position through the draft. Should the Bucs look to further bolster the defensive end group via free agency, it may simply be to add depth, as many of the big names that were thought to be available have already been snapped up by their former teams or signed elsewhere.

The biggest name belonged to former Carolina Panther Julius Peppers, who moved to Chicago on the first day of free agency. The Detroit Lions also acted fast to snare former Tennessee Titan end Kyle Vanden Bosch and former Green Bay Packer Aaron Kampman moved down to Jacksonville a few days later. Among those re-signing with their original clubs were Carolina's Tyler Brayton, Washington's Phillip Daniels and St. Louis' James Hall.

Because the 2010 league year is operating under modified free agency rules in the final season of the current CBA, many fifth and sixth-year players who would have normally become unrestricted free agents found themselves in the restricted category instead. These players can still move teams, but because the signing team has to provide the original team with draft pick compensation - sometimes as much as first and third-round picks - very few will actually do so. Among the restricted free agents some team might make a play for are Chicago's Mark Anderson, Dallas' Stephen Bowen and Marcus Spears, Green Bay's Johnny Jolly, Minnesota's Ray Edwards, San Diego's Travis Johnson and Seattle's Darryl Tapp. Spears, Jolly, Johnson and Edwards would all require first-round picks as compensation while Anderson, Bowen and Tapp would cost signing teams a second-rounder.

Although many of the top defensive ends are no longer on the market or are tied up by restricted tags, here's a look at some who are still available:

  • Ryan Denney (UFA, Buffalo) - A second-round pick in 2002, Denney was a starter for basically only two of his eight seasons with the Bills, topping out at 6.0 sacks in 2006.
  • Alfonso Boone (UFA, San Diego) - A part-time starter for 10 seasons in Chicago, Kansas City and San Diego...Started four games last year and pitched in with three sacks in San Diego.
  • Greg Ellis (UFA, Oakland) - At age 34, has already played a dozen NFL seasons, but has been productive in almost every one of those, including his seven-sack campaign in Oakland last year...Has at least 7.0 sacks and two forced fumbles in four of his last five seasons.
  • Charles Grant (Released, New Orleans) - Grant started every game at right end for the Super Bowl champion Saints but was let go after the season...Had 5.5 sacks last season, his best total in three years...After racking up 27.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons (2002-04), has just 19.5 in the last five.
  • Adewale Ogunleye (UFA, Chicago) - Since 2002, has recorded at least 5.0 sacks in every season, the last six with the Bears...Started 14 games last year and contributed 38 tackles and 6.5 sacks.
  • Kenny Peterson (Released, Denver) - Started for the Broncos last year, his first season out of seven in the NFL as a starter...Contributed 40 tackles and one sack.

In building a new long-term foundation for the team, Buccaneers' management is trying to emulate the development that began in the mid-90s and culminated in the team's first league title, as well as a long run of playoff berths. That team built largely through the draft, and that is the plan again as another cycle of success begins. When it came to forming an edge rush, however, that previous team took advantage of free agency (Rice, Spires, etc.) as much as it did the draft (White, Upshaw, Jones, etc.). The upcoming 2010 draft promises to be a rich source of defensive talent, including pass-rushers, but expect the franchise to leave no stone unturned in finding men who can invade the opposing backfield.

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