Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Free Agency Focus: DEs/Pass-Rushers

Prior to the start of free agency on March 9, Buccaneers.com will take a position-by-position look at the players who may hit the open market and become potential targets of the team.

Check out part two of some of the best photos shot by the photographers of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the 2015 season.

The start of the National Football League's new year – and with it another free agency market – is just three weeks away. Teams may begin negotiating with pending free agents from other teams on March 7 and can officially put pen to paper on March 9.

Even in that short period of time, however, the pool of available free agents will change significantly. Some of the most accomplished players with expiring contracts – say, Von Miller or Josh Norman – will sign new deals with their current teams before March 9, others will be locked down with franchise tags. Plenty of others, however, will make it through to the open market, and will thus be potential additions to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2016 roster.

Between now and March 9, we will take a position-by-position look at the players who may be available when free agency begins, hoping to determine the ones who could be good fits for the Buccaneers. The usual caveat applies: This is not meant to reflect the opinions or strategies of Tampa Bay General Manager Jason Licht, Head Coach Dirk Koetter or any of their assistants. In fact, since the players mentioned below are still under contract until the start of the new league year, Licht and company could not comment on them specifically even if they wished to do so, lest they be guilty of tampering.

We'll start with what is widely considered a position of need for the Buccaneers…

Defensive Ends/Edge Rushers

As of mid-February, this group includes the best available player among this year's free agents at all positions, Super Bowl MVP Von Miller. However, it is a virtual certainty that the Denver Broncos will either re-sign Miller in the next few weeks or use the franchise tag to prevent their star pass-rusher from leaving.

NFL.com Around the NFL Editor Gregg Rosenthal named his top 20 unrestricted free agents of 2016.

So we'll be skipping right past Miller and looking farther down the list. Fortunately, there are other intriguing pass-rush options who have a better chance of hitting the open market.

Jets' defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson is also a pending free agent and he's coming off a Pro Bowl season. On the other hand, he's a prime franchise tag candidate and he's a 3-4 end, which might not make him a strong fit for the Buccaneers. There's another pass-rusher from the AFC East that could attract Tampa Bay's attention, however: Miami defensive end Olivier Vernon.

Vernon, a third-round pick in 2011, has been productive in his four Miami seasons, racking up a total of 29 sacks, including 7.5 last year and a career-best 11.0 in 2012. He has played in a 4-3 defensive front alongside a dominant defensive tackle (Ndamukong Suh), a situation that would be duplicated in Tampa with Gerald McCoy. Vernon was seen as something of a project coming out of the University of Miami, and he spent his first two years as a (highly productive) situational rusher but he has been on the field for 80% of the Dolphins' defensive snaps the last two years. Even at 6-2 and 275 pounds, Vernon has the versatility to move around the line and even drop into pass coverage, but his biggest value for the Buccaneers would be with his hand in the dirt on the end of the line.

The New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul played his college home games at Raymond James Stadium as a South Florida standout. A homecoming of sorts might be interesting, but a Fourth of July accident that badly injured Pierre-Paul's right hand has to be factored into the analysis. He played the last eight games of the season and had one sack but put consistent pressure on the quarterback and also knocked down six passes.

Pierre-Paul's teammate, Robert Ayers, has already turned 30 but has been productive as a pass-rusher in his two years with the Giants, including a career-high nine sacks last fall. William Hayes is also north of 30 but has been a good part of a very effective D-line rotation for the Rams the last four years. They could be candidates for the Bucs if the team wanted to try to get a couple helpful years out of an established veteran. Alternately, Tampa Bay could focus on young players who did well in expanded roles last year, hoping to catch a player on the rise. Miami's Derrick Shelby and Kansas City's Jaye Howard could fall into that category.

Greg Hardy, Aldon Smith and Junior Galette are all due to hit the market, too. All three have histories as outstanding pass-rushers but also have significant off-the-field issues that must be weighed into any decision to sign them.

Bucs' Overall Interest Level at the Position: High

NFL.com Draft Analyst Chad Reuter shares his first round Mock Draft.

Tampa Bay is likely to address the defensive end position through the draft or free agency, or possibly both depending upon the opportunity. The Buccaneers' pass rush wasn't totally absent in 2015; the team finished 14th in the NFL in sacks per pass play on defense. But their best sack artist (McCoy) is a defensive tackle and their top ends in 2015 in terms of QB takedowns – Jacquies Smith and Howard Jones – are both waiver-wire pick-ups. That's no knock on Smith or Jones, both of whom have showed an intriguing amount of potential, but the Bucs would love to add talent to the position.

The opportunity level will probably be higher in the draft, however. The Buccaneers pick ninth overall and if they can find a small handful of pass-rushers they covet, they should be able to find one at that spot. The same is not necessarily true of free agency. As usual, and as will be underscored this year at some point when Miller returns to Denver, prime pass-rushers don't find their way to the open market in high numbers. Those who do, like Vernon, should have plenty of suitors.

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