The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have made some reasonably big investments in their offensive in recent years, in terms of draft picks, free agents and new contracts for rising young players. On the other side of the line, the Buccaneers' new three-man front is anchored by Vita Vea, the 12th-overall pick in the 2018 draft, and Ndamukong, the team's priciest addition of the 2019 offseason.
The Ali Marpet-led O-Line is (mostly) young and promising, and it contributed heavily to a record-setting Buccaneer attack in 2018. What the Vea-Suh pairing lacks in back-of-the-jersey letters it makes up for in strength and agility; those two could anchor a core that is difficult for opposing blockers to move. In other words, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the Bucs' starters in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
What is a little less clear in the early days of August is how the depth stacks up behind the established starters on both lines, and building that depth is critical. That's particularly true on the defensive line, which usually operates in some sort of rotation in order to keep pass-rushers fresh. The Buccaneers are working through the candidates for that rotation – and those for the backup spots behind the starting offensive line – in training camp and, soon, the preseason games.
One name to keep in mind as the Bucs attempt to build that D-Line depth: Jeremiah Ledbetter. Head Coach Bruce Arians has mentioned the second-year player several times without any specific prompting since the start of training camp, including on Monday after a morning practice. The question that led to that most recent mention, in fact, was about the very topic above: finding depth.
"I think we could use some more," said Arians. "There are some young guys, like Jeremiah Ledbetter, some of those guys are getting better. That’s one of the things we will look for in the preseason – both lines of scrimmage depth."
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Ledbetter's name may not be terribly familiar to Buccaneer fans yet, but it is not a new one to the franchise. Jeremiah is the son of Weldon Ledbetter, a former Oklahoma running back whom Tampa Bay drafted in the seventh round back in 1983. The elder Ledbetter did not make the team and thus never appeared in a game for the Buccaneers. His son has already taken care of that, getting into the Bucs' season finale last year after a late promotion to the active roster. Now the goal is to stick around for a lot more games and reestablish a career that saw him play in all 16 games for the Detroit Lions as a rookie two years ago.
"I feel like I'm starting to get a little confidence," said Ledbetter of his chances to stick on the roster and get meaningful playing time. "But I'm still just trying to take it day by day. I want to show up in that first preseason game."
This is Ledbetter's first training camp in Tampa and, of course, his first shot at impressing Arians and this particular coaching staff. A sixth-round pick by the Lions in 2017, he made the roster in Detroit that fall and contributed 14 tackles, four quarterback hits and a half-sack. He wasn't just a down-the-bench guy that year either. A'Shawn Robinson and former Buc Akeem Spence were the primary starters and the Lions also had Haloti Ngata for five games before he was injured, but Ledbetter still got 349 defensive snaps, or about 32% of the total.
However, the Lions released Ledbetter in the cutdown to 53 the following September and the Bucs swooped in just a day later to sign him to their practice squad. While most of the spots on that 10-man unit are like a revolving door during the 17-week season, Ledbetter stayed on it the entire season until his December call-up. The former coaching staff obviously saw promise in him, and it appears the new one does, too.
"I feel like it's going good," said Ledbetter of his first Bucs camp. "I'm just taking it day by day, trying to get better each and every day. That's what I can do – learn the playbook and just play fast. I'm getting to know the playbook better and recognizing things faster. I'm just trying to be as fast as possible and winning my one-on-ones."
The Buccaneers' roster currently lists Ledbetter at 6-3 and 295 pounds but he says he has shed some weight this year in order to be quicker off the ball. That's important in terms of both invading the gaps as a pass-rusher but also winning the leverage battle against offensive blockers in the run game.
"That's what they wanted," said Ledbetter of the coaching staff's directive to drop a few pounds. "I think they just wanted me to be fast, play the run and be an every-down player. That's something I'm trying to work on."
In 2017, Arians' last season at the helm in Arizona, the Cardinals had seven different players take snaps on the three-man line. Frostee Rucker got the biggest chunk of playing time but each of the other six pulled in at least 250 snaps. In addition to Vea and Suh, the 2019 Buccaneers have William Gholston, Beau Allen, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Terry Beckner, Patrick O'Connor and Ledbetter listed as defensive linemen. Even if both Gholston and Allen, the most experienced of the bunch, continue to figure into the mix, there still should be room for someone – perhaps Ledbetter – to be an important part of the rotation.
And if Bruce Arians is saying your name, that's usually a good thing.
"Yeah, he's had some ups and downs," said Arians of Ledbetter last Friday evening. "Today was an up. He played the run a little tougher, but as a pass-rusher he's done a heck of a job."