Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Buc Mailbag: Future Optimism

Could the Buccaneers field one of the NFL's most destructive defensive lines this year? We discuss that and other fan-submitted questions in this week's mailbag.

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*Each week during the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from  Buccaneer fans. This week, we look at the possibilities of a Tampa Bay defensive line that has a couple new and returning parts. We also go over the crowded running back situation and look at the Bucs' history with European practice squad players.

Fans can submit questions for upcoming mailbags via Twitter to @ScottSBucs (#BucsMailbag), through a message on the Buccaneers Official Facebook Page or via email at tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.  The One Buc Mailbag runs every Thursday and is not necessarily meant to reflect the opinions of the team's management or coaching staff.

*1. Deep D-Line?


Well, you put that one on a tee for me, Jimenez Family. Bucs' writer, very optimistic about the 2017 season, all I have to do is agree with you…and yet my reaction would be, let's pump the breaks a little bit.

Can we say that the Bucs' defensive line has the potential to be one of the league's best? I'd like to think so. That's not an outrageous claim and it's still optimistic without making us sounding like total homers. And what do we mean by one of the league's best? Top five? And in what categories? Sacks, sacks per pass play, rushing yards allowed, yards allowed per carry, quarterback hits?

Let's start with last year's group and look at the numbers objectively. It's obvious and fair to say that the defensive line on any defense deserves neither all the credit nor all the blame for the results in these categories. Still, these are some of the more common criteria on which a defensive line is judged.

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The first couple lines would seem to say that the Buccaneers were already a top-10 pass-rushing team in 2016, but of course it's not all about sacks. The Bucs hit opposing quarterbacks 83 times, which ranked in the league's bottom half. The NFL per-team average in that category was 88.7, and the mean was 87, so the Bucs were a little below average in both of those measurements. The run defense – and again this is not all on the defensive line – was below average and has been a stated area of concern by the team's brain trust this offseason.

I'd say that paints a picture of a line that had good promise but is still a work in progress. Now, to be fair, those numbers were produced by a group that lost a lot of starts by key players over the course of the season. Robert Ayers missed four games and big parts of several others; Clinton McDonald missed four games. Gerald McCoy missed one and played through several injuries; William Gholston was out for the last two. Meanwhile, George Johnson never suited up and Jacquies Smith played one defensive snap before being lost to injury. Rookie Noah Spence gutted out all 16 games but played most of the season with a shoulder harness and an injury that required postseason attention.

Okay, so where has the team gone from there? Well, Smith is expected back at full strength, which would be a major boost to the edge rush in passing situations. Spence's shoulder has been repaired and he's considered a prime breakout candidate, maybe a guy who can push double digits in sacks. The Bucs also re-signed Gholston to a big contract, grabbed defensive tackle Chris Baker away from Washington and used a seventh-round pick on massive run-stopper Stevie Tu'ikolovatu.

Reading all of that on paper, I can see why the Jimenez family is so optimistic. Baker, who was a strong interior force for the Redskins, seems to be the perfect complement to McCoy, one who can hopefully ease the double teams for the five-time Pro Bowler. Smith's return gives the D-end rotation depth it didn't have for much of 2016, and if Spence breaks out the pressure on third downs might be oppressive on opposing quarterbacks. A full season of a healthy Robert Ayers would make a difference, at least incrementally. In the middle, Tu'ikolovatu and Baker will hopefully help improve on those run defense numbers.

A deep and talented rotation of linemen is what the Bucs have sought. Their defensive coordinator, Mike Smith, and defensive line coach, Jay Hayes, have track records of using such a rotation to great effect. And the Bucs' front line, along with the rest of the defense, should be much more comfortable in Smith's system after last year's second-half turnaround.

Of course, it's not like the other 31 teams in the NFL stood pat during the offseason and let the Buccaneers catch up or pull away. There's probably this sort of optimism about the defensive lines in a lot of NFL cities. Still, we can only worry about the Buccaneers, and yes, I do see a group with the potential to be one of the league's best. That's something the team hasn't had in a while, though, so they're going to have to prove it this fall before we can truly make that claim.

2. Backfield in Motion? Dear scott,

How do you think our running back situation will play out in the 1st 3 games. I conclude that the Buccaneers believe that Doug Martin will return to his pro bowl form this season. I really had hoped they would draft Marlon Mack because he appears to be an every down back and a hometown player. I believe Jeremy Mcnichols will beat out Charles Sims as the pass catcher or 3rd down back, but with a 4.49 40 and over 3000yrds the last 2 seasons at Boise State do you think he can be an every down back in the NFL. I think Jaquez Rogers may be able to carry the load till Martin's return. But with that kind of speed of Mcnichols can he break the home run. I wonder if he is about the size of Emmitt Smith or Warrick Dunn. It's just I wonder also if Doug will ever return to his pro bowl form. what's your thought on our running back situation?

Sincerely,

*John Benenati *

Well, there's a lot to unpack here, John. Your opening question seems to be about the first three games of the season in particular, when Doug Martin will be unavailable. But there are a lot of sub-points to discuss. Let's take them one at a time and then get back to the main question.

Do the Bucs think Martin is going to return to his Pro Bowl form?

That's obviously the hope, although I don't think Martin has to make it all the way back to the Pro Bowl in order for a comeback season to be deemed a success. Martin has looked very good on the practice field in the spring and summer, much as he did before his 2015 Pro Bowl season, but you can't really get a true feeling about running backs until they're competing against live defenses. Head Coach Dirk Koetter has repeatedly said that there is no rush to decide exactly how the Martin situation will pan out this season, but at least for now the signs are positive.

Should the Bucs have drafted Marlon Mack?

Mack, the exciting University of South Florida product, went 143rd overall to the Indianapolis Colts. He was the 15th running back off the board. Boise State's Jeremy McNichols was the 17th running back selected, at number 162 overall. We'll never really know if the Buccaneers liked Mack as much or more than McNichols, but it's basically a moot point. What we do know is that the team had other needs in mind with their first four picks, which were used on a tight end, a safety, a wide receiver and a linebacker. It appears that Tampa Bay was trusting the incredible depth of this year's tailback class, and perhaps even specifically believing they could get McNichols a little later. So they never really had a shot at Mack in the area in which they might have gone after him.

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Pictures of the Buccaneers' running backs during OTA practices.

Can McNichols be an every-down back in the NFL?*

There's no reason to think it's impossible. Don't worry about his fifth-round status; teams find starters in later rounds fairly frequently. It happened just last year in Chicago in the fifth round with Jordan Howard, who ended up being the league's second-leading rusher. Jay Ajayi, who like McNichols was a fifth-round pick out of Boise State (in 2015) is obviously blossoming into a star in Miami. Latavius Murray was a sixth-round pick, as was Alfred Williams. I'm not trying to claim all or even a high percentage of third-day draft picks turn into NFL starters, but it's no surprise when it does happens. I believe the Buccaneers think McNichols has a shot at being an every-down NFL back, but he can also make an impact in a smaller role right away because of his well-developed pass-catching and pass-protection skills.

Is McNichols the size of Emmitt Smith or Warrick Dunn?

That's kind of a strange pairing. According to their listed playing heights and weights, Smith was (during his playing days) pretty much the same size as Doug Martin (about 5-9, 225). Neither guy would be described as "small," even though they weren't particularly tall. Dunn was indeed small by starting NFL tailback standards, at about 5-9, 180 according to the listings. McNichols is currently listed at 5-9 and 214 pounds, though we probably won't get an official Buccaneers measurement until training camp. That's a lot closer to Martin than Dunn. Just from the eyeball test now that McNichols is here, he looks very much like a Doug Martin type and size of back.

Okay, now to get back to the main question: What will the running back picture look like during Martin's three-game absence to start the season? This is going to sound like a copout, but I truly believe the team is not close to answering that question yet. Here's my guess: Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims, Jeremy McNichols and Peyton Barber are all on the roster. Rodgers is on the field for the first snap of the first game. Sims gets some first and second-down work but is used primarily to his strengths as a pass-catcher on third downs. McNichols spells both of them. If Rodgers plays as well as he did filling in for Martin last year, there will be no reason to lighten his load. However, if there is any room for McNichols to grab some extra snaps, he'll do so and make the most of them, giving a glimpse as to what he might be able to do as an every-down back.

The real tough question is: What do the Buccaneers do after Martin's suspension ends? You hear it a lot but it's true: Sounds like a good problem to have.

3. European Influence?

Not exactly, Ken, but you're correct in the origins of the program and the fact that it was more widespread.

In 2005, the NFL was in the second year of trying out its NFL International Development Practice Squad program, which was indeed connected to the now-defunct NFL Europe. That year, each team in the NFC South and the AFC West had an NFLE player placed on its practice squad for the year…but not just any NFLE player. It had to be one of the "national" players on an NFL Europe squad; that is, someone from Europe, not a player allocated to the league from an NFL team. The Bucs were given Claudius Osei, a safety who had been playing for the Hamburg Sea Devils.

(Man, there were some great team names in the old NFLE, or the World League of American Football, as it was first known. I always liked the Frankfurt Galaxy, and their purple helmets with the orange swirl of a Milky Way on the helmet.)

Osei's story was interesting in that he started playing football after he came to the United States as a foreign exchange student. He helped lead a small school in Tallahassee to a state championship, which got him recruited to Florida State. He played four seasons for the Seminoles, so he was probably pretty pleased to end up back in Florida in the NFL.

As far as I can tell, that original international practice squad program went through 2008. In fact, when I tweeted about Osei and drew Ken's attention, I forgot that the Bucs did the same thing in '08 with a safety from Russia named Sergey Ivanov. Ivanov had previously played in the NFL Europe for three years and just happened to be a big Bucs fan. He was particularly fond of John Lynch, for obvious reasons, and Jon Gruden was his favorite coach. His teammates in Tampa quickly nicknamed him "Drago," after Ivan Drago of Rocky IV fame. In a preseason game that summer, Ivanov made what was believed to be the first tackle ever by a Russian-born player in NFL history.

Anyway, the new program that has brought German linebacker Eric Nzeocha to the Buccaneers is called the International Player Pathway, which sounds a little more beatific than the old one. Come, stroll with us down this pathway towards your American football dreams! There's no NFL Europe around to be the seeder for this one, but there are still foreign-born players participating in college football who make up a good pool of candidates. In fact, Eric's older brother, Mark Nzeocha, actually plays for the Houston Texans. Both Nzeocha brothers went to the University of Wyoming.

The point of the program is, at its base, the same as that of the old international practice squad effort, which was the same as that of NFL Europe: to expand the league's talent pool and, hopefully, to expand the NFL's reach around the world. For guys like Nzeocha, though, it's a chance to live a dream.

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