Maybe it will be Adrian Clayborn, the 20th overall pick in the 2011 draft and the likely starter at right defensive end, a premium pass-rushing position. Or perhaps it will be Da'Quan Bowers, who led the nation in sacks as a junior at Clemson last fall. It might be Gerald McCoy, the 2009 first-rounder who could give the Bucs the inside push they haven't seen since the days of Warren Sapp. It could even be a surprise candidate, such as third-year man Kyle Moore, who needs his first healthy NFL season to unlock his skills.
It might not be any of those players, but sooner or later a Tampa Bay Buccaneers player is going to hit double digits in sacks again. Team management is definitely hoping for "sooner."
The Buccaneers last had a player get 10 or more sacks in a single season in 2005, when Simeon Rice collected 14 of them. The only teams in the NFL that have gone longer without enjoying a double-digit sack season from one of their defenders are the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers. Bertrand Berry last pulled off the feat for the Cardinals in 2004, with 14.5; San Francisco's drought stretches back to Andre Carter's 12.5-sack campaign in 2002.
Now, this has not been a crippling deficit for the Buccaneers. The team still won the NFC South in 2007 and narrowly missed another playoff berth last year despite a 10-win season. Tampa Bay's defense still managed to rank first in 2007 and fourth in 2008, and last year the Bucs allowed the ninth-lowest point total in the league. The New York Jets have shared the Bucs' individual 10-sack drought since 2005, and they made it to the AFC Championship Game each of the last two years, largely on the strength of a great defense.
Nevertheless, it was relatively obvious that a strong pass rush was the main element missing from an otherwise very productive team in 2010. The Bucs tied for 30th in the NFL in sacks and their individual leader, Stylez G. White, topped out at 4.5. That has also been an area of concern for some time. Since Rice's incredible run from 2001-05, the Bucs have not had a single player top 8.0 sacks in a season, and as a team they have ranked 30th, 16th, 20th, 26th and 30th in the five seasons since 2005.
"We were ninth in scoring last year but we had a chance to get better," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "It's all about [Josh Freeman]; if we've got a chance to get the ball back faster, quicker, or score on defense, that's just the bottom line. There's no secret – it starts up front. We've always talked about that. If those guys up front play well you can give everybody else pink slips. We can watch them as a defensive back crew as we go out there and have fun as we get the ball back for Free."
The Bucs current five-year run without a 10-sack man is already the second-longest in team history. From 1984 through 1990, the team went seven years without a double-digit sacker. Broderick Thomas hit 11.0 in 1991 and Santana Dotson notched 10.0 as a rookie in 1992, but essentially the first such drought lasted from the Lee Roy Selmon era to the Warren Sapp-Simeon Rice era. Now the team is hoping it has bridged the most recent game from Sapp-Rice to Clayborn-Bowers-McCoy-Brian Price-etc.
There is certainly reason for the team to believe it is on the verge of another strong pass-rushing defense. Rarely has the team devoted so many high-draft resources to the defensive front as it has the last several years, but that approach has worked when it has been used.
The most successful pass-rushing defense in team history was the 2000 team, which featured three first-round draft picks among its four D-Line starters: Sapp, Anthony McFarland and Marcus Jones. With Sapp and Jones both topping double digits, that team racked up a franchise-record 55 sacks. The 2001 defense added Rice through free agency, putting another first-round talent in the mix, and got 42 sacks to tie for sixth in team annals. Six of the top seven single-season team sack totals in Buccaneer history fell between 1997 and 2004, and from 1995-2003 the Buccaneers used four first-round picks and one second-round pick on the defensive line.
In the three years that General Manager Mark Dominik has conducted the Buccaneers' draft, he has spent two first-round picks (McCoy and Clayborn), two second-round picks (Price and Bowers), a third-round pick (Roy Miller) and a fourth-round pick (Moore) on that same front line. The Bucs even beefed up the coaching staff in that area this offseason, hiring not one but two new defensive line coaches, Keith Millard and Grady Stretz.
"That's also part of the reason why you go out and get two D-Line coaches," said Morris. "You talk about the investment you make on defensive line, you also talk about the investment you make in coaches. You should have seen the chest-bumps and the high-fives when the [Clayborn and Bowers] selections were made amongst our scouts and the coaches in the hallway."
Like those productive lines of the late '90s and early '00s, the Bucs could field a group almost exclusively of high-round picks. Of course, nobody will be handed a job on that line, and the sheer number of investments the team has made in that group means there will be a serious battle for playing time.
"Everything's based on competition," reminded Morris. "We're all competitive people here. Let's go to work."
Compared to the team's success in the Sapp-Rice era, the low win totals during Thomas' and Dotson's big sack years point to a fairly obvious fact: The Bucs' defense doesn't need one prolific sack artist as much as it does concerted pressure from the entire front. The effort to create that began with last year's McCoy-Price drafting, but it didn't pay particularly big dividends in 2010 for two reasons. One, Price was injured for a majority of the season (and McCoy was for the last month, as well). Two, there wasn't much pressure from the edges of the line to take attention away from the two rookies.
Adding Clayborn and Bowers will hopefully resolve that. Even before the Clemson end fell into their laps in the second round, the Buccaneers believed they had gotten the rest of the line the help it needed with the addition of Clayborn.
"He creates havoc on the football field," said Dominik of the former Iowa pass-rusher. "He helps other players around him become productive players. That's what we want him to do with Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, Roy Miller. He's going to do for our football team. He's going to continue to generate the push and the pressure that we want to apply to quarterbacks."
The Buccaneers believe that chain reaction will start as soon as this fall. If so, there's a good chance somebody in red and pewter will get to 10.