Strength on the defensive line didn't stop the Bucs from drafting Anthony McFarland in 1999, and the move has paid off well
In the weeks before each spring's NFL draft, a time-honored tradition unfolds in just about every team's front office: assistant coach lobbying.
General managers and personnel men are using this last week to finalize their evaluations and build their rankings across positions. Is this quarterback better than that safety? Can this linebacker help us more than that running back? Who is the best player overall?
The focus in an assistant coach's mind, however, is much more narrow. Just about every offensive line coach in the league believes his unit needs one more ringer. Most defensive backs coaches have identified a graduating player they simply can't live without.
Some coaches get a little farther with their lobbying than others. Some, it would seem, shouldn't even bother.
Into that latter group falls Rod Marinelli. The defensive line coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Marinelli has an embarrassment of riches. At any time he pleases, he can field a starting lineup of all first-round draft picks (Marcus Jones, Warren Sapp, Anthony McFarland and Simeon Rice). He can put three players on the field together who have each tallied at least one 13-sack season (Jones, Sapp and Rice). He can bring in a reserve at defensive end that has previously excelled as a starter (Steve White).
Marinelli, in fact, believes his unit played quite well in 2000, and that was before the arrival of Rice through free agency.
"I thought we were a high B, a strong B performance," said Marinelli of a crew that propelled the Bucs to a team-record 55 sacks. "There are some things we have to get better at, still, and move on, but overall, I thought we did a pretty good job.
"We could use some more overall consistency in the run game. Actually, we played it pretty well, but there are just some things that we need to clean up a little bit in terms of the run, taking care of our gaps and so forth. But those things will get cleaned up and taken care of this year. We just need more consistency throughout the year."
So, one would think, Marinelli should just find a quiet film room this weekend, forget about the draft and work on his preparations for the fall.
But we shouldn't be so hasty. The Bucs have proven in the past that they will draft to a strength, as when they selected McFarland 15th overall in 1999. McFarland, the standout LSU defensive tackle, was simply the best player remaining on the team's draft board, a talent they felt they could not pass up. That move has worked out very well.
And, one must not forget that defensive linemen are by far the most common first-round choice for the Buccaneers in the team's 25-year drafting history. Get beyond the first round, and Marinelli's chances of adding a new weapon grow even greater; only three times in team history have the Bucs gone an entire draft without picking at least one defensive lineman, and one of those was last year. Hey, Marinelli might have a case after all.
Let's take a closer look at the numbers.
Defensive Linemen Under Contract: 10 Pending Free Agents: 2 (UFA Tyoka Jackson, RFA James Cannida) Typical Training Camp Defensive Linemen Total: 14 NFL Rushing Defense Ranking: 9 NFL Passing Defense Ranking: 13 NFL Sacks Per Pass Play Ranking: 6 Bucs Among NFC Leaders: Warren Sapp, 2nd in sacks, Marcus Jones, 4th in sacks 2000 Sacks Leader: Sapp, 16.5 2000 Tackles Leader (among DL): Sapp, 76 First-Round Picks Spent on Defensive Linemen, 1976-2000: 7 (Lee Roy Selmon, 1976, Ron Holmes, 1985, Eric Curry, 1993, Warren Sapp, 1995, Regan Upshaw, 1996, Marcus Jones, 1996, Anthony McFarland, 1999) Total Picks Spent on Defensive Linemen, 1996-2000: 8
Since Dungy took over in 1996, the Bucs have drafted nearly two defensive linemen per year over five seasons. That includes high-round commitments like Jones in 1996 and lower-level payoffs like James Cannida in 1998. In fact, having Cannida aboard and ready to step up his involvement last summer helped the Bucs make the surprise decision to cut Brad Culpepper.
The lesson may be that, when evaluating the Bucs' need at any given position this weekend, it would be instructive to look not only at the current roster makeup but at the constant turnover caused by NFL free agency. In that light, the best-player-available strategy that led to McFarland's arrival in 1999 makes even more sense.
Still, it is helpful to look at what the Bucs already have in the cupboard for 2001. Below are Marinelli's thoughts on each of the possible members of this fall's defensive line unit, including Cannida and Tyoka Jackson, who have not yet re-signed.
Chidi Ahanotu: "He has always been a high-motor guy, a heck of a run player for us. A lot of times his numbers may not be as high as some others, but he keeps coming. He keeps the pressure on. He brings a good motor, leadership and good all-around play."
Marcus Jones: "He had a great year. I was really pleased with him. He just had an exceptional year – played the run, pass, everything. He's turned into a force.
"Last year we asked him to flip both sides, right end and left end. Hopefully, this year we can keep him on just one side, and I think that's really going to help him. He's got a chance to be a dominant left end. I feel very good about him in 2001."
Matt Sweeney: "I can't tell you much about Matt Sweeney yet. We did have a chance a year ago at this time to get to know him a little bit, when he was at (the University of) Miami. He's a strong guy, a smart guy, highly competitive. He's got a chance to be good. He's got good skills. We'll get him here in camp and see what he can do with them."
Chartric Darby: "Just from what we've seen, from the preseason work and the team work against our offensive line, the one-on-one drills, we think he's got a chance to really be good. He's got the quickness and power, all of those things. He's got great work habits. We're excited about him. We're really looking forward to see what he can do with a whole year under his belt."
Anthony McFarland: "He made a great step forward last year. Big time. He was really a dominant run player last year. He played very hard, and his pass rush is coming. He's probably a little bit better in his overall game right now, but now he's getting the one-on-one rush down. He's really ready to make that next step."
Ron Warner: "He seems to really have speed, great speed. He seems to have the body type that fits what we do, so I'm really anxious to see what he's going to do in camp. We'll get him going and see if he can take advantage of his quickness and speed, in terms of the pass rush."
Steve White: "The last two years he's been banged up, his ankles have been hurt. But when he's healthy, he's really a solid guy, extremely solid. He's a guy you can count on, a bright guy, and he's got a lot of experience now, going into his sixth year. He's just a guy you can always count on, always know where he's going to be, and he plays extremely hard. I'm looking forward to seeing him healthy this year."
John McLaughlin: "It's time for him to step up…the third year, right about now. And I think he will step up. Hopefully, this third year is his chance to get better against both the run and the pass. I think he'll do it."
Tyoka Jackson: "Ty is just a quality player. You don't get many guys that can play that many positions, and play them very well. He's a heck of a pass rusher, with a heck of a motor, and just a quality team football player."
Simeon Rice: "He's a load of a talent. We're excited about him, and I think he's going to do a nice job in the run game, as well as the rush. There's no question in my mind that he'll fit what we do in the run game very well, with his quickness and speed. Now it's just a matter of getting all the fine points down of how we play the run. I think he'll be excellent."
James Cannida: "Oh, he played a lot – 180, 200 snaps last year. He's a good nose tackle, very athletic, and he'll keep pushing for more and more snaps this coming year. He's becoming a pretty good pass rusher, too. He's a good athlete, a big man, a hard worker, so I feel great about him."
Warren Sapp: "He had just a dominating pass rush year. I still think, looking through all the cutups from last year, he could have had four or five more sacks. He was right there, right there.
"He's going to get better. He will improve. He wants to make himself a better player, and Mac getting better is going to help him a lot. Mac helped him last year by taking some doubles off him. Rice is going to help him, in terms of pass rush, as is Marcus Jones going over to the left end. Marcus is starting to become a dominant rusher, and the protection has to slide his way. The biggest thing Warren's going to get is more one-on-ones. He's just gotten better and better every year, and I expect his best year (in 2001)."
That's a long and varied list of pass-rushers and run-stuffers for Marinelli to deploy this fall, but one can never have enough solid players in the trenches. If the Bucs dip into the defensive line pool early this weekend, they will not be alone. This position, perhaps more so than any other, is always pivotal on day one of the draft.
In each of the last five seasons, at least five defensive linemen have been taken in the first round, including seven in 1999 and 1997. Moreover, at least two of the top 10 picks have been d-linemen in each of those five years except 1999, which was the notable quarterback-heavy draft.
Most pre-draft observations see that trend continuing. Among the linemen expected to hear their names in the first few hours of Saturday's draft are Florida's Gerard Warren, Missouri's Justin Smith, California's Andre Carter, Florida State's Jamal Reynolds and David Warren, Georgia's Richard Seymour and Marcus Stroud, Texas' Shaun Rogers and Southern Miss' Cedric Scott.
Will the Buccaneers feel the need to add one of these players to what may be the strongest position on their team, perhaps in the entire NFL? Well, the best you can say is, you never know.