S.S. Mailbag: Defensive Evolution

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' mandatory mini-camp is over, which means the offseason program is over, which means the days of seeing players and coaches roaming the halls of the AdventHealth Training Center are over…at least for a while.

That doesn't mean, however, that the Buccaneers or the NFL are going to drop out of the public consciousness for the next six or seven weeks. The NFL is a year-around concern these days, which is good, and even without players on the field there are plenty of topics to discuss regarding how this team is going to shape up in the first year of the Bruce Arians era.

So, this week, let's skip the usual preamble and get straight to your questions. A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

I have and never get responses. Would love to know his 3-4 prediction of starters.

- cammobaby, via Instragram

Well, cammobaby, you can never say never again, because here we are. My apologies if I failed to pick your questions in the past, but I've got you this time. Friends?

I assume that your question means, "who will be the seven players starting in the Bucs' new 3-4 base alignment when the season starts?" I hope that's right because that's the question I'm going to answer. And let's also emphasize that you are asking me for my predictions, which is what the following will be. It is not meant to represent the decisions of Arians or any of his staff.

Okay, when the Buccaneers are in their base alignment, they will have three down linemen, two outside linebackers at the edges of the line and two inside linebackers off the ball. That's the front seven. Let's take those three positions one at a time.

I would expect there to be at least a four-man rotation among the down linemen, with Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, Will Gholston and Beau Allen in the mix. The Bucs could keep another down linemen or two or use a couple of the bigger outside linebackers as down linemen in certain packages. But you want first-down starters and I'll begin with Vea and the newly-signed Suh. That's a tough call for the third one between Gholston and Allen (and it might just be semantics in the long run if they play similar amounts) but I'll go with Gholston.

As for the outside linebackers, we're again talking about a rotation, and I think it will be most of training camp before the coaching staff decides which two it would want on the field for the first few snaps. In this case, I'm going to assume that Jason Pierre-Paul's neck injury will make him unavailable when the season starts. I think Carl Nassib is a good bet for one of these two spots, with Noah Spence, Anthony Nelson and Shaq Barrett strong options for the other one. Nelson might end up playing more snaps, but I'll rather tenuously pick Spence for the start. He'll have to have a very good training camp and preseason, though.

That leaves us with the easy part. Kevin Minter and Deone Bucannon, in particular, offer good depth at the inside linebacker spots, but I fully expect the starting duo to be Lavonte David and Devin White.

Is the secondary "totally fixed" like Arians said?

- soltow30, via Instagram

No, but…

Of all our weak areas last season, where do you think we've improved the most up until now?

- carlgalloway17, via Instagram

I do think the secondary is the answer to this question.

To begin with soltow30's question, let's take a look at exactly what Coach Arians said on May 31, when he was prompted by the question of whether there was any area of the team with which he had been pleasantly surprised.

"Probably secondary," he said. "I think we’re really, really good. With Carlton [Davis] and Vernon [Hargreaves], we knew we had two solid corners, now we’ve got five solid corners. I think Ryan [Smith] came a long way. So, yeah, I think – earmark this as a problem spot back in January, that’s totally fixed. Let’s knock on wood they stay healthy."

Here's what I think Arians really meant with that comment. With the roster he inherited, particularly given how poor the pass-defense results were last year, it looked at the beginning of the year like cornerback depth was a significant problem. As several coaches have mentioned this offseason, in their film review of last year they thought a big problem for the defense was that it did not have adequate cornerback depth when injuries hit. Now, with a couple of key additions (Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean); the improved health status of Vernon Hargreaves; the good scheme fit for Hargreaves and Carlton Davis; and, from what Arians says above, the pleasantly surprising work of fourth-year man Ryan Smith, cornerback depth does not appear to be a problem. That issue has been fixed.

No, I'm not trying to twist the coach's words here. He is definitely saying he feels good about the secondary, and I find that very encouraging. But I think if you asked him right now if he thinks the Buccaneers' secondary is completely ready to go and produce much better results, he would say, 'Not yet.' There is a lot of work still to be done, especially when you consider that there is a new scheme being learned and a lot of young and inexperienced players doing that learning. I think Arians' thoughts on the matter would be closer to what he said about the team as a whole after the final practice on Thursday: "Are we there? No, but I like where we’re at right now."

Now, my answer to carlgalloway17's question obviously means that, while I don't think we're at the "totally fixed" stage right now, the Bucs are in position to do much better in the secondary than they did a year ago. I think that will be the greatest area of improvement, because the offense was already pretty darn good last year and the pass-rush was about middle of the pack. The Buccaneers finished 26th in pass defense last year, which isn't great, but there are more troubling secondary numbers. For instance, the Bucs allowed an opponent completion percentage of 72.0% and an opponent passer rating of 110.9. Both of those were league-worst and the worst the Bucs have ever allowed.

I do like the added talent of Murphy-Bunting, Dean and rookie safety Mike Edwards, all drafted within the first three rounds, but I also have to admit that they are still unproven. That's even still somewhat true of the incumbents in the secondary like Hargreaves and Davis and young safeties Justin Evans and Jordan Whitehead. Adding a lot of talent to one position in a short period of time is very exciting, but it also is no guarantee that everything will fall into place. The Buccaneers appeared to have one of the NFL's most improved secondaries heading into the 2013 season after they traded for Darrelle Revis, signed Dashon Goldson and drafted Johnthan Banks – all of that added to the 2012 first-round pick of Mark Barron – but that was a short-lived grouping.

However, what adds to my level of confidence here is the import of a new scheme under Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. The Arians-Bowles combination produced great results in Arizona, and they got good very fast. The one compliment that all of the other coaches constantly bestow on Bowles is that his greatest gift as a defensive architect is pinpointing his players' greatest strengths and putting them in a position to use them. If he can do that to any degree in Tampa, the Buccaneers could actually get the great results they're expecting from their new-look secondary.

Hey, Scott…

Gerald McCoy played nine seasons for the Bucs but didn't get to 10 because he was let go. I guess he could come back at some point, like Warrick Dunn and a couple other guys, but for now he's at nine. How many guys actually make it to 10 seasons with the Buccaneers, I wonder? You can answer that if you want but its not my real question. What I'm asking you is, who's the best bet on the team right now to still be on the roster in 10 years?

Thanks if you decide to answer this… Braden in St. Pete (via email to *tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)*

I'll answer both questions, Braden, because I like to be thorough and because I want you to get good bang for your buck after taking the extra time to send a longer question via email. That is to say, I'll answer your first question in a definitive manner and you're second one in a speculative manner, which is the only way that one can be answered.

First, the easy one. There have been only 10 players who have played in 10 or more regular seasons for the Buccaneers. They are, in alphabetical order (with their seasons played listed): Mike Alstott (11), Ronde Barber (16), Derrick Brooks (14), Paul Gruber (12), Brian Kelly (10), John Lynch (11), Tony Mayberry (10), Dave Moore (13), Shelton Quarles (10), Steve Wilson (10).

Now, there are a couple more players that were (or are) with the team for at least 10 years but didn't (or haven't) played in 10 seasons yet. Those are Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon and current right tackle Demar Dotson. Selmon played nine seasons (1976-84) and then spent 1985 on injured reserve before retiring. Dotson has been with the Bucs since 2009 but he spent all of 2010 on injured reserve, so he has only played in nine seasons. Of course, he should get to 10 seasons played this fall.

You might be surprised at some of the names not on that list, such as Warren Sapp. He played nine seasons as a Buccaneer (1995-2003), as have some others including a bunch of cornerstone players from the era of the first great Bucs defense. For instance, Cedric Brown, Mark Cotney, Cecil Johnson, Mike Washington and Richard Wood all played nine seasons in that era. Others who just missed by one include Chidi Ahanotu, John Cannon, Jimmie Giles and James Wilder. Recognizable names for Bucs fans, all of them.

Now, keep in mind that we're talking about 10 players out of 1,175 who have appeared on a Buccaneer regular-season roster at some point. (That includes 84 players who were on the 53-man roster at some point but never actually played in a game.) So, the percentage of players who actually make it through 10 seasons with the team is low, and that's due in part to the fact that even long-term NFL players often switch teams at some point.

So I'll answer your second question as best I can but, just by the historical numbers, my chances of hitting on one are pretty low. Those 12 10-year players listed above (including Selmon and Dotson) started their Buccaneer careers in the following years (some years had more than one): 1976, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2009. That means there have been 33 of the previous 43 years in which, had I tried to answer this question there would have (eventually) been no correct answer.

Okay, so with that caveat I'll start with what is probably the most obvious answer: Devin White. Sure, any draft pick can disappoint, but if you're taking a guy with the fifth-overall pick you clearly expect him to be a star player. White is only 21 years old, which means he'd be only 30 at the end of the decade, so age shouldn't be an issue. If he is as good as the Buccaneers hope, he would surely make it through his first five-year contract, so the key will be getting that second deal, how long it is and if he makes it through that whole second deal. Lavonte David started with a four-year contract because he was a second-round pick, then signed a new five-year deal, of which he is going into the fourth season. That's a pretty close blueprint.

A couple clarifications. First, I'm counting this upcoming 2019 as the first of 10, so the last season in question is 2028, not 2029. Second, I'm talking about guys who are on the roster now and will still be in 2028, not anybody who might get to a 10th year in the interim. David certainly has a shot, because his 10th year would be 2021. I'm not betting on him still playing in 2028, though, as that would be his 17th season.

Other options? Well, I understand that Jameis Winston is going into a season that will probably determine if he remains around long-term, but if he doesimpress in 2019 his could end up being a very long-term relationship. If he turns into one of the league's elite quarterbacks, he could have a chance to stick around for a long time, like the 2003 draft trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. And Winston is still only 25. I'd certainly liketo see Mike Evans playing his 15th season in a Buccaneer uniform, but that's a tougher projection for a receiver. O.J. Howard has been in the league two years less than Evans but is the same age, so again, a tough projection.

I'll end with one longer shot: Ali Marpet. Marpet is already on his second contract, and it only goes through 2023, so at least one more long-term deal would be necessary. But he's a rising star and he's still only 26. Stud offensive linemen can definitely play into their mid-30s with no problem. Plus, look at that list above – there are three O-Linemen on it. I'd feel really good about this pick if I were making it at the very beginning of Marpet's career, but it would have been pretty risky to bet that a third-round pick from a Division III school would become a long-term franchise pillar.

There are certainly plenty of young and promising players on the roster, and a couple of them may look like 10-year-vets-in-the-making in a couple years, but I don't feel comfortable picking one out from the bunch just yet. So I'll stick with my original answer of Devin White. Let's cross our fingers that I'm right, and that there is actually a right answer to this question.

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