DE Jimmy Wilkerson could improve on his breakout five-sack campaign of 2008 with more playing time
As July began, we introduced a short pre-training camp series on Buccaneers.com called "Hot Spots," in which we will look at a handful of positions on the depth chart that will find new starting names in 2009.
These aren't bold predictions of lineup overhaul but rather statements of fact. When Jeff Garcia departed via free agency this past spring, it didn't necessarily mean that there would be a quarterback battle in Tampa, but it did mean there would be a new starter under center in 2009.
There are no shortage of such positions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season, thanks to a series of conspicuous roster moves made earlier this year. For the purposes of this series, we counted 28 starting and high-impact non-starting positions (the 22 offensive and defensive starters plus the two kicker spots, two kick return spots, third wide receiver and nickel back) and found that at least nine would definitely have new occupants in 2009.
Over the past two weeks, we've examined the following positions: left cornerback and nickel back, third receiver and weakside linebacker and strong safety. Now we take a look at a position that epitomizes the franchise's eagerness to start fresh in 2009: left defensive end.
Kevin Carter started at left defensive end in 2008, and the Buccaneers were happy to have him. But Carter will not be back in 2009, and the list of players who could potentially replace him are long on promise and short on experience.
Hot Spots: Left Defensive End
Carter, who first entered the league as a first-round draft pick in 1995, was one of the better defensive linemen of his generation, wonderfully versatile and at his peak an outstanding pass-rusher. During his two years with the Buccaneers (2007-08), he was rock solid, productive and a very good presence in the locker room. His sack numbers weren't overwhelming – a total of 7.0 QB takedowns in 32 Buc games – but he was good against the run and able to move inside to defensive tackle when the situation called for it.
Whether or not he could have maintained a high level of play in a 15th NFL season is anybody's guess, but the Buccaneers made a decision to give their younger players a chance when Carter became an unrestricted free agent this past spring. Among those who could take over at left defensive end are a relative veteran coming off a strong 2008 campaign (Jimmy Wilkerson), a rookie (Kyle Moore), a productive reserve (Stylez G. White) and a number of unproven youngsters.
In the end, the answer may be some combination of the above.
The 6-2, 270-pound Wilkerson is apparently the leading candidate to take the opening snap on game day, thanks in part to his breakout performance in 2008. The Buccaneers signed Wilkerson as an unrestricted free agent on the first day they could 16 months ago, impressed by his versatility and work ethic in Kansas City. Wilkerson had been a valuable reserve for five seasons for the Chiefs, though he had just one sack during that time.
With the Buccaneers, seeing spot time as a backup at both end and tackle, Wilkerson racked up five sacks in 2008, just 1.5 off the team lead even though he started only one game. Wilkerson proved to be strong against the run, too, and Tampa Bay's new management is eager to see what he can do with a larger chunk of playing time. Depending upon how the rest of the defensive line corps is shaped at the end of the preseason, Wilkerson could end up in a role similar to what Carter handled the past two years, starting on the end but frequently helping out on the interior of the line.
Moore, the team's fourth-round pick out of USC, might be a long shot to start at left defensive end, but it's clear that the team would like him to be part of the rotation, at least. Eager to keep the pressure ratcheted up on opposing quarterbacks, the Buccaneers will probably shuttle linemen on and off the field frequently, making good use of all the pass-rushers they keep active on game day. It would not be surprising to see Moore get 20-40 snaps a game even if he doesn't win the starting job. Like Wilkerson, Moore is also versatile enough to play on the inside, which will increase his likelihood of making the D-Line rotation.
White didn't start any games in 2008 but he did finish with five sacks, giving him 13.0 over the past two years, tops among Buc linemen. He has most commonly rushed from the right end spot during those two seasons, usually in passing downs, but is capable of lining up on either side. If Gaines Adams emerges as a premier quarterback-hunter in 2009, as some expect, the coaching staff may be reluctant to keep him off the field on any downs. That could lead to a pass-rushing specialist like White getting more looks from the opposite end of the line.
There are other young players on the Bucs' training camp roster who hope to make their marks, and given the out-of-the-blue rise of White in 2007, one can't discount those hopes. Among the lesser-known candidates for the D-line rotation are Louis Holmes, a first-year player out of Arizona who was in San Francisco's camp last year, and Jarriett Buie, a rookie free agent who played his college ball next door at the University of South Florida. Third-year man Greg Peterson appears to be concentrating on defensive tackle in 2009 but has a history of working both inside and outside.
Carter gave the Bucs' defensive line two very strong years, not surprising given the quality of his NFL career as a whole. His spot will be filled by somebody new in 2009; whether or not that player – or group of players – can be as productive remains to be seen.