Pre-Camp Roster Breakdown: Defense/ST

The Buccaneers' 53-Man roster.

Expectations are high for a Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense that finished fifth in the NFL's yardage rankings last season with a young core of talent and a great deal of continuity on both the roster and the coaching staff. There are new coaches coordinating the defense (Mike Smith) and special teams (Nate Kaczor, however, and a number of new additions set to play key roles.

The Buccaneers are enjoying one final break before they reconvene for training camp in late July. In the meantime, we're taking a position-by-position look at how the camp roster has shaped up after an eventful offseason. Yesterday we broke down the offense; today we turn our attention to defense and special teams.

There is a key at the bottom of the page explaining abbreviations used in the positional reviews.

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DEFENSIVE LINE

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* *

  • Returning Players (8): Kourtnei Brown, William Gholston, George Johnson, Howard Jones, Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald (IR), Jacquies Smith, Akeem Spence (IR)
  • 2016 Additions (1): Robert Ayers (UFA), Travis Britz (UDFA), A.J. Francis (FA), DaVonte Lambert (UDFA), Cliff Matthews (FA), Noah Spence (D2a), Channing Ward (UDFA)
  • Projected Starter(s): McCoy, McDonald, Ayers, Smith, Gholston
  • Potential Total Kept on 53-Man Roster in 2016: 9-10
  • Number Taken to Training Camp in 2015*: 16 (Gholston, Johnson, McCoy, McDonald, Smith, A. Spence, Da'Quan Bowers, Quayshawne Buckley, Ryan Delaire, Larry English, T.J. Fatinikun, Caushaud Lyons, Henry Melton, Lawrence Sidbury, George Uko, Jamal Young)
  • Number Kept on 53-Man Roster in 2015^: 9 (Brown, Fatinikun, Gholston, Johnson, McCoy, McDonald, Melton, Smith, Tony McDaniel)
  • Key Team & Individual Statistics from 2015: 38 sacks, 3.4 yards per rush allowed, 8.5 sacks for Gerald McCoy, 7.0 sacks but four missed games for Smith

Tampa Bay's pass rush wasn't completely missing in 2015; the Bucs' 38 sacks tied for 14th in the NFL and the 15.5 combined QB takedowns by McCoy and Smith was fairly impressive given that both missed time due to injuries. McCoy played in 15 games but was saddled with a cast on a broken hand for several others. However, the 70% completion rate achieved by opposing quarterbacks was a strong indication that the Bucs' defensive front was not affecting opposing passers often enough.

With McCoy ranking as one of the best interior pass-rushers in the league, the need was clearly on the edges, and the Buccaneers chose to address that through both free agency and the draft. The former brought Ayers over from the Giants, where he had nine sacks in 2015 and proved to be a very productive all-around player. The latter produced second-round defensive end Noah Spence, considered by many analysts to be the best pure pass-rusher in this year's field.

Now the team has a pretty interesting rotation to work out on the edges, since Smith, Gholston, Johnson and Jones are all returning. Smith has been the team's best edge rusher over the past two years, and though he missed the offseason program while recovering from his 2015 shoulder injury, he would seem to still be a big part of the team's plans. Gholston had three sacks in 2015 but was better known for being one of the Bucs' best run defenders, a category in which Tampa Bay's shaky defense actually fared fairly well. Johnson came over in a trade from Detroit with the expectations of starting but ended up as a reserve in a rotation. Jones was an undrafted find who surprisingly contributed five sacks.

The Bucs will be looking for ways to get a good number of those linemen on the field, and it may come down to the versatility of the newcomers. Ayers is capable of moving down into the interior line on passing downs and Spence will probably rush the passer from a variety of locations, sometimes with his hand in the ground and sometimes standing up.

The best photos from the Buccaneers' 2016 OTAs.

The defensive tackle depth looks a bit slimmer, with only McCoy, McDonald and Spence owning much NFL experience. That's a good rotation to start with, however, and both Matthews and Francis have seen some regular-season playing time. The Bucs signed the former in January and he has played in 32 games during four years in Atlanta; the latter just came aboard in May after he was let go by Seattle.

Generally, defensive line is a spot at which a team is willing to carry an extra player or two at the expense of another position, as effective big men are not easy to find. The Buccaneers started the season with nine defensive linemen last year after acquiring former Seahawk Tony McDaniel in August and claiming Kourtnei Brown off waivers from Houston. The team could once again be on the lookout for another defensive tackle when the rest of the league starts making its cuts.

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LINEBACKER

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  • Returning Players (5): Kwon Alexander, Lavonte David, Jeremiah George, Adarius Glanton, Josh Keyes
  • 2016 Additions (5): Micah Awe (UDFA), Devante Bond (D6a), Cassanova McKinzy (UDFA), Luke Rhodes (UDFA), Daryl Smith (FA)
  • Projected Starter(s): Alexander, David, Smith
  • Potential Total Kept on 53-Man Roster in 2016: 6-7
  • Number Taken to Training Camp in 2015*: 10 (Alexander, David, Keyes, Quinton Alston, Bruce Carter, Larry Dean, Khaseem Greene, Danny Lansanah, Orie Lemon, Jason Williams)
  • Number Kept on 53-Man Roster in 2015^: 6 (Alexander, Carter, David, George, Lansanah, James-Michael Johnson)
  • Key Team & Individual Statistics from 2015: 3.4 yards per rush allowed, 100.4 rushing yards per game allowed, 340.4 net yards allowed per game, 6.0 combined sacks, five combined interceptions and 19 combined passes defensed by Alexander and David

The group of linebackers that the Bucs will take to camp is split between a starting trio that seems very well-defined and seven other hopefuls that will engage in a wide-open battle for three or four reserve spots.

Alexander and David could potentially form one of the most dynamic linebacking duos in the league, with both capable of stopping ballcarriers, rushing the passer and making plays in coverage. They've got the middle and weakside starting spots locked down, and the Bucs filled a void on the strong side by signing Smith after he was released by the Ravens for cap reasons. Smith is very familiar with Mike Smith's defense from their time together in Jacksonville, and he's been one of the most consistently productive linebackers in the league for the last dozen years. Bond, a sixth-round draft pick, may eventually be a good fit at the SAM spot for Tampa Bay, but it would be an upset for him to unseat Smith in 2016.

That said, Bond will get every chance to make the 53-man roster and is a strong bet to do so if he can make a difference on special teams. He and undrafted rookies Rhodes, McKinzy and Awe will all have to show that they are as good or better in the kicking game than the returning trio of George, Glanton and Keyes. The Bucs commonly keep six linebackers among their 53, but a seventh would not be out of the question depending upon how many defensive backs are worth keeping around. There are very few three or four-man combinations out of those seven competitors that would be a surprise. It would also not be a surprise to see the team comb the waiver wire during final cuts, as they did last year to land George and James-Michael Johnson (the latter would only be on the roster for a week). Unless an addition at that time of the year is a veteran, the Bucs won't have a lot of experience behind their starters in 2016.

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CORNERBACKS

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  • Returning Players (4): Jude Adjei-Barimah, Johnthan Banks, Joel Ross (PS), Alterraun Verner
  • 2016 Additions (4): Javien Elliott (UDFA), Brent Grimes (UFA), Vernon Hargreaves (D1), Josh Robinson (UFA)
  • Projected Starter(s): Grimes, Hargreaves
  • Potential Total Kept on 53-Man Roster in 2016: 5
  • Number Taken to Training Camp in 2015*: 9 (Adjei-Barimah, Banks, Verner, Brandon Dixon, Isaiah Frey, Mike Jenkins, Leonard Johnson, Sterling Moore, Al-Hajj Shabazz)
  • Number Kept on 53-Man Roster in 2015^: 5 (Banks, Jenkins, Moore, Verner, Tim Jennings)
  • Key Team & Individual Statistics from 2015: 240.0 passing yards allowed per game, 70.0% completion percentage allowed, 102.5 opposing passer rating, 11 interceptions, 2 interceptions by cornerbacks

The Buccaneers used six different starting combinations of cornerbacks in 2015, with the duo of Moore and Adjei-Barimah surprisingly getting the longest and most effective run (seven starts together from Weeks 9-15). That group was certain to be overhauled during the 2016 offseason, and that began with the departures of Jenkins and Moore (Jennings was released during the season). The team then signed Grimes and Robinson in free agency and used its first-round pick on Hargreaves, the University of Florida star.

Take a look at the best photos from the Buccaneers' 2016 Mini-Camp.

That said, the continued presence of Adjei-Barimah, Banks and Verner adds a lot of intrigue to the upcoming competition during training camp. Hargreaves, Grimes and Robinson were all added after the arrival of Mike Smith and thus presumably have been judged to be good fits for his defense. Whether or not that's true of the returning trio will become clear in training camp and the preseason, but all three of them had impressive moments during the offseason. Verner, in particular, spent a lot of time running with the first team as he looked to recapture his 2013 Pro Bowl form, while Adjei-Barimah capped his spring and summer with a very strong mini-camp.

Grimes and Hargreaves seem like the most obvious candidates to start, though the latter was mostly playing with the second team during mini-camp. Of course, the primary nickel back is essentially another starter, so there is room for someone like Adjei-Barimah, Banks or Robinson to carve out a big role even with Grimes and Hargreaves playing. The Bucs may eventually put Hargreaves into a hybrid role in which he plays outside during early downs and moves into the slot when the team goes to a nickel package.

Cornerback is another position in which the usual number of players kept – say, five – is often tweaked up or down based on available talent and special teams contributions. It would not be surprising to see the Bucs keep six players at a position that has proved difficult for them to stockpile talent in recent years.

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SAFETY

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  • Returning Players (4): Chris Conte, Bradley McDougald, Keith Tandy, Major Wright
  • 2016 Additions (4): Isaiah Johnson (UDFA), Kimario McFadden (FA), Elijah Shumate (UDFA), Ryan Smith (D4)
  • Projected Starter(s): Conte, McDougald
  • Potential Total Kept on 53-Man Roster in 2016: 4
  • Number Taken to Training Camp in 2015*: 7 (Conte, McDougald, McFadden, Tandy, Wright, Chris Hackett, D.J. Swearinger)
  • Number Kept on 53-Man Roster in 2015^: 5 (Conte, McDougald, Swearinger, Tandy, Wright)
  • Key Team & Individual Statistics from 2015: 240.0 passing yards allowed per game, 70.0% completion percentage allowed, 102.5 opposing passer rating, 11 interceptions, 4 interceptions by cornerbacks

This unit has actually seen the least change in the last calendar year of all the Bucs' defensive groups. The quartet of Conte, McDougald, Tandy and Wright is still together, and the only veteran added during that time – Swearinger, a May waiver claim from Houston – was later released in November. Conte and McDougald combined to make 28 of a possible 32 starts at safety last year, and while the secondary's results as a whole were disappointing, it's worth noting that those two had twice as many interceptions (four) as all of the Bucs' cornerbacks combined.

Take a look at the best photos from the Buccaneers' 2016 offseason.

Conte and McDougald were both re-signed in the spring, the former as an unrestricted free agent and the latter as a restricted free agent, indicating that the team is comfortable keeping them in their starting roles. The Bucs did not pick up a safety in free agency nor prioritize the position in the draft, either. However, the fourth-round pick of North Carolina Central cornerback Ryan Smith did potentially address the future of the position because the Bucs are converting Smith to safety.

Tandy and Wright are back to once again provide depth, though Tandy also had to be re-signed as an unrestricted free agent in March. He started the last two games of the season after an injury to Conte and, as he has done virtually every time he's had a chance to play, made a solid impression. The Bucs did get a couple of intriguing safety prospects in their post-draft rookie haul, picking up Notre Dame's Elijah Shumate and South Carolina's Isaiah Johnson. Those two will both have a better shot at making the 53-man roster if the Bucs choose to keep five safeties instead of four, and perhaps the presence of the versatile Smith would prompt them to do so at the expense of a cornerback spot.

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SPECIALISTS

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  • Returning Players (2): LS Andrew DePaola, P Jacob Schum
  • 2016 Additions (2): K Roberto Aguayo (D2b), P Bryan Anger (UFA)
  • Projected Starter(s): N/A
  • Potential Total Kept on 53-Man Roster in 2016: 3
  • Number Taken to Training Camp in 2015*: 6 (DePaola, K Brandon Bogotay, LS Courtland Clavette, P Michael Koenen, P Spencer Lanning, K Patrick Murray)
  • Number Kept on 53-Man Roster in 2015^: 3 (DePaola, K Kyle Brindza, P Jacob Schum)
  • Key Team & Individual Statistics from 2015: 72.5% field goal percentage, 25-26 PATs, 41.9 gross punting average, 38.0 net punting average

The Bucs started camp last year with two-man battles at all three specialist spots, but only one of those jobs would go to player who was there at the beginning. DePaola held on to the long-snapping position for a second consecutive year.

After a late-August injury to Murray, the Bucs brought Connor Barth back, and then created a three-way logjam by sending TE Tim Wright to Detroit for K Kyle Brindza before the preseason finale. Brindza had a strong showing in that last game, hitting on 55 and 57-yard field goals, and that won him the job to start the season. After he missed half of his first 12 field goal tries and two extra points in the regular season, however, the Bucs released Brindza and went back to Barth the rest of the way.

Barth and Murray were still around this spring but the Buccaneers changed the whole position by drafting Florida State star Roberto Aguayo. The two veterans have since departed and the job is obviously going to the rookie. The team has not added a second kicker for camp.

The punter battle between incumbent Michael Koenen and newcomer Spencer Lanning didn't give the Bucs what they wanted so they brought in Schum for a second go-around in late August. Schum got the job and performed reasonably well in his first regular-season action, but the team used free agency this spring to give it another option. Former Jacksonville punter Bryan Anger was brought in to compete with Schum, who had a gross average of 41.9 yards per punt and a net of 38.0. Anger's four-year averages with the Jaguars were 46.8 gross and 40.1; the gross ranked sixth in the NFL in that span while the net ranked 16th.

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Key:

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D[#] – 2016 draft pick, number indicates round

FA – free agent

UFA-[Team] – unrestricted free agent, team indicates player's previous team

UDFA – undrafted free agent

PS – Practice squad

IR – Injured reserve

* Based on the roster on the opening day of training camp.

^Based on the roster taken into the opening game of the season, after any additional moves were made following the final league-wide cuts.

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