Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Buc Mailbag: Line Additions

This week's mailbag centers around the defensive line, both in terms of a recent addition and a hypothetical draft scenario

Check out photos from George Johnson's breakout season with the Lions.

*Each week during the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from  Buccaneer fans.  This week, we tackle two semi-related topics: the addition of George Johnson to the D-Line and what the Bucs would do on draft day if quarterback wasn't an option.

*1. A Worthwhile Trade?

You're getting a lot of play out of this tweet, Nikki. We discussed it on the latest Pewter Panel, which will be posted in the next few days, but I thought I would look at it in more detail here in the mailbag.

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ICYMI, the Buccaneers and Lions swung a trade on Wednesday that sent defensive end George Johnson – he of the six sacks for Detroit last year – back to Tampa, where his NFL career began. The Bucs gave up the last non-compensatory pick in the fifth round (#168) in the deal and got back a seventh-round pick (#231) in the process. It's this deal to which Nikki is referring.

There's a bit more to the story. Johnson was a restricted free agent, getting the necessary tender offer from the Lions to give them a right-of-first-refusal on any contract offer he might get from another team. The tender offer was not at a high enough monetary level, however, to give the Lions the right to draft-pick compensation from any team that signed him away. That's why Johnson was one of those rare RFAs actually to get an outside offer; the Bucs signed him to a three-year deal and waited to see if the Lions would match by Monday.

But the initial Monday deadline came and went, thanks to a challenge leveled by the Lions at one of the clauses in the contract. That sent the whole matter to NFL arbitration, which could have taken up to 10 days to resolve. Instead, the Bucs and Lions skipped that process by working out a trade; the offer was rescinded and the Lions signed Johnson to the same deal before completing the swap.

Which brings us back to Nikki's succinct query: "Is he [Johnson] worth a fifth-round pick?" I'll give you a little Pewter Panel spoiler by telling you that former Buccaneers tight end and frequent Buccaneers.com contributor Anthony Becht answered yes to that question. I firmly agree.

Honestly, if Johnson can give the Bucs six sacks next season – or even two-thirds of that production – I think it's a no-brainer. You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody in the draft at the end of round five that you thought was a good bet to give you a half-dozen sacks as a rookie. Johnson is not exactly a proven commodity – he had minimal playing time and productivity over the previous three seasons before his 2014 breakout – but he's a safer projection than a rookie fifth-rounder.

Look at the Bucs' draft history. Over the years, the team has used a fifth-round pick on a defensive lineman seven times, and only once has it worked out. That was actually a defensive tackle, Santana Dotson, who was picked 132nd overall in 1992 and immediately produced a 10-sack season as a rookie. Dotson had 23 sacks over four seasons in Tampa before jumping to Green Bay as a free agent in 1996 and continuing a productive 10-year NFL career.

The others: Steven Means (#147 in 2013), Greg Peterson (#141 in 2007), Julian Jenkins (#156 in 2006), John McLaughlin (#150 in 1999), Jason Maniecki (#140 in 1996) and Tony Chickillo (#131 in 1983). McLaughlin returned some value on special teams and Maniecki stuck around for three seasons as a reserve, but none did much as a pass-rusher. In fact, those six players combined for 2.5 career sacks in the NFL.

Now, I will concede that it's not impossible to find a defensive end of some value in the fifth round. The 49ers drafted South Florida's Aaron Lynch  at pick #150 last year and he gave them six sacks as a rookie. USC's Devon Kennard went 24 picks later to the Giants (it was a compensatory pick) and had 4.5 sacks in his first NFL go-around. Good work by the 49ers and Giants, but it's not easy. There have been 30 defensive ends drafted in the fifth round in the last 10 years – including Trent Cole, Rob Ninkovich and Pernell McPhee – but only five of those had even three sacks as a rookie, including the aforementioned pair from last year. Even some of those who would be considered success stories, such as Ninkovich, took a few years before they offered any real pass-rush production.

Of course, what's more relevant is this year's class of pass-rushers, and while there are some very impressive prospects expected to go early in the draft, it's not considered a terribly deep group. The Bucs may have trouble finding a good one high in the second round; the end of the fifth round seems like a long shot. There's a reason that NFL teams as a collective have averaged just three defensive ends drafted per year in the fifth round over the last decade; it's not the best place to find that type of asset.

But hey, if an intriguing end does happen to be available in the fifth round, the Buccaneers can still get him. Even after trading pick #168 to the Lions, Tampa Bay still owns pick #162, picked up in the Jeremy Zuttah-to-Baltimore deal last year. Draft picks are assets that can be used in a variety of ways. Sometimes Day Three picks are used to maneuver around in other rounds. In this case, the Buccaneers used one to grab an end that probably has a higher ceiling than any pass-rusher they could have gotten at the corresponding position in the draft. I say it was worth it.

And don't bet against Johnson duplicating or even exceeding his 2014 season. Yes, it took Johnson a good while to find solid footing in the NFL, but that's not as unusual of a development as you might think. I spoke with Buccaneers Defensive Line Coach Joe Cullen, and he compared Johnson's path to that of another player he has coached in the past, current Cowboys defensive end Jeremy Mincey. A sixth-round pick by New England in 2006, Mincey was cut by multiple teams and played only sparingly his first two seasons in Jacksonville. However, he had a breakout five-sack campaign in 2010, won a starting job and graduated to eight sacks the next year and has been a solid pro ever since. Solid enough, that is, to get two pretty decent new contracts in the last four years. The most recent one was last year with Dallas, where Mincey ended up starting all 16 games and producing six sacks.

Even if, in the end, Johnson fails to provide the type of production the Bucs are hoping for, I still think it was worth a try. Staying put and picking at #168 would have been no more of a sure thing. And hey, maybe the team will hit on the draft pick it got back from Detroit on the deal and this will turn into an even better deal for the Buccaneers. A wise man once said, "You never know." (That wise man is below.)


2. Hi Scott, I've watched enough videos on the Bucs' site so I'm not going to ask you who you think we should take with the #1 pick. I know you'll just sya that you have to take the shot to get a franchise qb when you have the chance. Sure, fine. But what if we took that option off the table. Hypothetically, if you knew the Bucs WEREN'T going to take a qb, who do you think they should take at #1.

You never know!! – Thanks, Jeremy McC. via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com

Glad to know I'm so predictable. Okay, you're right. That is what I would have said, in so many words.

Don't you wish the Buccaneers were in the rare position the Indianapolis Colts found themselves in circa 1992, when they had the first and the second pick in the draft? The Colts used both picks on front-seven defenders (and didn't fare all that well with Steve Emtman and Quentin Coryatt, as it turned out), but if the Bucs had those picks this year they could get their potential franchise quarterback and still nab another player to fill a big hole on the depth chart. Yeah, having the first two picks in the draft would definitely be a good thing.

So what we're doing here is basically looking at the second half of that equation. Who would the Bucs take off the board first if they didn't have to worry about quarterback? Good question. (And by the way, that scenario is still possible, obviously. I understand we're starting with the assumption that a quarterback will be the pick, but like you said, Jeremy, "You never know!!")

The great thing about having the first overall pick is that there is nothing standing between you and any given player. You want him, you got him. The terrible thing about having the first overall pick is that there is nothing standing between you and any given player. If you think that, say, Dante Fowler, Jr. is going to be a big star in the NFL, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you could have had him but you chose to pass. If you're picking fourth or fifth, that's not a problem because you almost certainly aren't going to get a shot at him.

Unless you do take Fowler. I would think he'd be high on the wish list of any team that was looking for pass-rush help. I firmly believe that if the Buccaneers were going to go in a direction other than QB in the first round, they would try to find a pass-rusher, as there is enough depth among the offensive line prospects to address that issue at the top of the second round. If I have to pick one player, though, I think I would actually take USC defensive end Leonard Williams. I think Fowler is going to be a star, but he might be better suited for an outside linebacker job in a 3-4 front. I'm sure a 4-3 team like the Buccaneers could figure out a way to use him, but when I also have the option of Williams on the table, I'll go what seems like the safer route.

I'm sure that was really enlightening, Jeremy. You tell me I can't take a quarterback so I just turn around and grab the consensus best non-QB in the draft. You know, the guy going second in the majority of mock drafts. I hope that doesn't seem like I took the easy way out; it's just too logical. The Bucs need an edge rusher more than perhaps anything other than a long-term answer at quarterback, so I'm taking the best one. Now, if there was an Orlando Pace/Jonathan Ogden-level left tackle on the board this year, I would probably be tempted enough to pass on the pass-rusher, but that's not the case.

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.*

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