Photos of Former Bucs' DE Lee Roy Selmon.
You've heard this one before: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven't had an individual 10-sack season since Simeon Rice racked up 14.0 QB takedowns in 2005.READ: ONE DOZEN DEBATES - RED ZONE IMPROVEMENT
It hasn't quite reached the level of the famous franchise kickoff return drought that Micheal Spurlock finally ended in 2007, but the Bucs' unwanted run in this category has become notable. It's the longest drought for any team in the league, with Jacksonville having last had a 10-sack performance in 2006. The other 30 teams have all had at least one since 2010.
Now, this does not mean that Tampa Bay's pass-rush has been completely toothless for a dozen years. This is a team sport, after all, and last year the Buccaneers' defense tied for ninth in the NFL with 38 sacks and also ranked ninth in sacks per pass play. All things considered, Tampa Bay's coaching staff would take that over Atlanta's results, as the Falcons had the NFL's sack leader in Vic Beasley (15.5) but as a team ranked 26th in sacks per pass play.
In fact, after a troubling dip in sacks around the turn of the current decade, the Bucs' defense has steadily improved in that category, surely mirroring the rise of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to five-time Pro Bowler. Tampa Bay has improved its spot in the NFL's sack rankings in five straight years, improving from 32nd in 2011 to tied for 29th in 2012 and then to tied for 23rd, tied for 21st, tied for 14th and tied for ninth in successive seasons. Really, at this point it's more of a curiosity than an indictment that Rice remains the Buccaneers' most recent 10-sack man.
Still, it's a curiosity the Buccaneers would prefer to eliminate in 2017. Who is the best bet to get to double digits in sacks on Tampa Bay's defense? That's the question of the day as we continue with our One Dozen Debates, looking at the issues that will define this training camp. From the uncertain depth chart at safety to the impact of Hard Knocks to the next step in the development of Jameis Winston, we'll look at one question a day, and that will take us right into the start of football on July 28.
We may not have all the answers just yet, but we'll try to define the issues. Read along with us and each day you can let us know where you stand on each debate.
- Monday, July 17: How will the depth chart at safety shake out?
- Tuesday, July 18: Can the Bucs improve in the red zone?
- Wednesday, July 19: Which Buc can break the 10-sack drought?
- Thursday, July 20: Who will emerge as the Buccaneers' kicker in 2017?
- Friday, July 21: Will the presence of the Hard Knocks crew affect the Bucs' preparations?
- Saturday, July 22: Is the new offensive line alignment going to work?
- Sunday, July 23: Is there enough depth at cornerback?
- Monday, July 24: How will Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard co-exist?
- Tuesday, July 25: Can the defense repeat its 2017 turnover magic?
- Wednesday, July 26: What will the running game look like during Doug Martin's absence?
- Thursday, July 27: What's the next step for Jameis Winston?
- Friday, July 28: Is Tampa Bay going back to the playoffs in 2017?
Debate #3: Which Buc can break the 10-sack drought?
The Buccaneers' chances of fielding a 10-sack defender in 2017 probably rest on one of two possibilities. Perhaps the D-Line position will prove deep and talented enough as a whole to be able to apply serious pressure from all angles, thus reducing the number of double-teams that can be thrown at any one pass-rusher. Alternately – or perhaps in addition to that – second-year man Noah Spence will have a Vic Beasley sort of breakthrough and fulfill the promise his teammates see in him.
Tampa Bay has certainly invested in its defensive line the last two years. Ayers came over as an unrestricted free agent in March of 2016 after a nine-sack season in New York, then Spence was nabbed with the 39th overall pick in the draft a couple months later. This offseason, the Buccaneers brought in help for the middle of the line in the (sizeable) form of former Washington defensive tackle Chris Baker. Baker, who had 10.5 sacks over the past two seasons, was thought to be the key player who can pull attention away from McCoy, thus freeing the former All-Pro to make the most of his lightning-quick release from the line.
Last year, the Buccaneers' defensive line depth was seriously tested by injury, including ones that essentially knocked Smith and George Johnson out for the entire season. Ayers, McCoy, Clinton McDonald and William Gholston all missed time as well…and the Bucs still finished as one of the NFL's top 10 sack-producing defenses. Injuries will remain a part of the game, but if Tampa Bay's D-Line can have slightly more good fortune in that regard in 2017 – and with the addition of Baker – they should have the pass-rushing depth they were hoping for a year ago.
Spence also sustained a significant injury last year, but he chose to play through his shoulder ailment while wearing a harness. After undergoing offseason surgery, he is expected to be fully healthy and ready to build on his 5.5-sack rookie season. Ayers definitely believes in the potential of his young teammate.
"Talking to him, I know how hungry he is, and I see what type of shape he's in," said Ayers. "I thought last year he was going to be a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate and a 10-sack guy. He wants to do that and I think this year he's even more hungry than he was last year. So I'm excited for him. I think he's a player who could be a 15-plus sack guy this year – that's my opinion. Whether he goes and does it is another thing, but that's how I feel about him because I think he has tools that not many people come into this league with and he's still learning. I'm excited for him. It's going to be a big year."
A rotation of Ayers, Smith, Spence and William Gholston plus a couple younger players would keep everyone fresh and maximize their pass-rush potential. Again, it would also hopefully draw double-teams away from McCoy, who got as close as you could get with 9.5 sacks in 2013 and then followed with two 8.5-sack campaigns. Gholston, a very valuable run-stopper, always plays hard and is determined to be more of a pass-rushing force after signing a new contract. Smith had 13.5 sacks in 27 games in 2014-15 and is expected to be full-go to start camp after suffering an ACL tear in Week One of last year.
The Bucs had poor luck with their defensive line health in 2016 and still rushed the passer relatively well. Perhaps better fortune will push this group into the realm of the NFL's elite…and get it least one individual into double digits.
If all goes well, in fact, maybe what we'll be debating in December is which Buccaneer pass-rusher is going to get to 10 sacks first.