DT Greg Peterson, a 2007 draft pick, could blossom in the Bucs' new defensive system
As in previous years, Buccaneers.com will use the weeks leading up to the NFL draft to take stock of each position on the team. We will look at the team's draft history at that position, recent additions, current depth and potential starters and what players might be available to the Buccaneers through free agency and the draft. As usual, this analysis is not intended to reflect the intentions or strategies of the team's personnel decision-makers. Today we focus on the defensive tackles, a position that is clearly a league-wide priority on draft weekend.
There's no denying it: Defensive tackle is a position of interest for anyone trying to divine the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' fortunes in 2009.
One of last year's starters, Jovan Haye, is gone to the Tennessee Titans, though it's reasonable to wonder if Haye would have been the perfect fit in the new defense being imported by Jim Bates, anyway. Ryan Sims, the sixth overall pick in the 2002 draft, is first in line to take Haye's spot opposite Chris Hovan, but it's fair to call that an open competition. Young players like Greg Peterson and Dre Moore seem to have a lot of promise — and a better chance of excelling in the new defense — but they are anything but proven.
The Buccaneers will have two new starters among their three linebackers in 2009, and one of them could be former starting strong safety Jermaine Phillips. If that's the case, there will also be a new face in the lineup at safety. Unless Kevin Carter is re-signed and reinserted at the top of the depth chart, there will be a new starter at left defensive end. Former starting cornerback Phillip Buchanon is now a Detroit Lion, meaning second-year man Aqib Talib is now on the front line.
Obviously, there is a significant amount of change about to take place on the Bucs' defense, but there is also enough talent on hand for the team to believe it can make this transition without taking a step back. For that to be the case, however, the Bucs are likely to need at least good production in the middle of the front line.
Few teams — or their fan bases — could know more about the importance of dominant defensive tackles than the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay's ridiculously good defense from 1997-2003 had a lot going for it, not the least of which was Hall of Fame-bound linebacker Derrick Brooks, do-it-all safety John Lynch, big-play cornerback Ronde Barber and pass-rush extraordinaire Simeon Rice, at least for part of that time. But it also had a rare talent providing pressure up the middle in Warren Sapp, and that might have been what put that crew over the top.
NFL teams certainly understand the importance of a presence in the middle, and we're not talking about Albert Haynesworth's recent deal with the Redskins. The tale is told by the draft, in which the last decade has seen the position essentially double in importance. We noted that trend last year and it only continued in 2008 when both Glenn Dorsey and Sedrick Ellis went in the top 10, and the New Orleans Saints had to trade up to get Ellis.
In the 20 drafts from 1980 to 1999, NFL teams selected a total of 38 defensive tackles in the first round, including 21 in the top 10 picks of each draft. In the nine drafts of this decade so far (2000-08), the NFL's draft gurus have combined to take 29 defensive tackles in the first round, including 19 in the top 10.
Whether it's an anchor for a 3-4 defense (think Jamal Williams in San Diego) or a penetrating, Sapp-like under tackle for a 4-3 scheme (think Kevin Williams in Minnesota), premier defensive tackles have become a coveted commodity that almost demands an early draft pick. And, once teams have gained such a commodity, they are loathe to let them go; most of the league's star defensive tackles are home-grown products who have been kept away from free agency. Haynesworth is a gigantic exception, in more ways than one.
The Buccaneers haven't spent a first-day draft pick on a defensive tackle since they selected Anthony McFarland in the first round in 1999. Both of this year's presumptive starters — Hovan and Sims — are former first-round picks, but for other teams. Tampa Bay got Hovan as a free agent and Sims as a trade acquisition.
Will that change in 2009? Before we consider the players that could be added to the roster over the next weekend or the next few months, let's take a look at the state of the Bucs' defensive tackle position as the 2009 offseason begins.
|**Defensive Tackles Currently Under Contract**|
|**Player**||**Exp.**||**2008 (Tackles-Sacks)**||**Career (Tackles-Sacks)**|
Peterson and Moore are recent second-day draft picks for the Buccaneers who are considered intriguing options. As plus-300-pounders, both are potentially better fits in Bates' scheme, which has traditionally produced its best results with big bodies in the middle. That's good news for Sims, as well.
As mentioned, there was one significant free agent development regarding the defensive tackle position in 2009. Haye, who the Bucs had plucked off the Browns' practice squad in 2006, had started the last two years, though his sack total dropped from six in 2007 to zero in 2008.
|**Free Agent Defensive Tackles from the 2008 Buccaneers**|
|**Player**||**Exp.**||**2008 (Tackles-Sacks)**||**Free Agency Result**|
|Jovan Haye (UFA)||5||40-0.0||Signed with Tennessee|
With or without Haye, it's difficult to determine just how strong the team's returning defensive tackle position is. It should be noted that Tampa Bay's run defense was actually quite stingy for a good portion of 2008. Halfway through last year's campaign, the Bucs ranked eighth in the entire NFL in run defense and, at that point, they had yet to allow even a single rushing touchdown.
Things got much, much worse after that, however. There were a few troubling weekends in November — most notably at Kansas City — but that was nothing compared to December, when the wheels came off for the Bucs' run defense. Tampa Bay dropped all the way to 19th in the NFL in that category after allowing 189 yards on the ground per game over the last quarter of the season.
Obviously, that doesn't directly impugn the defensive tackle position; stopping the run is a full-team issue. The Bucs dropped off significantly as a whole in December, and the club's moves since that disappointing month have clearly been designed to refresh the roster.
The DT position will be refreshed in some capacity, too. Early this offseason, it appears that versatile lineman Jimmy Wilkerson is focusing on defensive end, and the equally versatile Carter is no longer on the roster. In some way or another, the Bucs are sure to add some competition to the defensive tackle position.
Defensive Tackle Position Numbers:
As mentioned, the Buccaneers haven't spent much in the way of high-round draft commodities on the defensive tackle position in the last decade. That's certainly a matter of circumstance rather than philosophy, and the team has tried to address the position on the second day of the draft, to mixed results.
|**Defensive Tackles Drafted in the Last Five Years**|
|**Year**||**Round**||**Player**||**School**||**Still on Team?**|
|2007||5th||Greg Peterson||North Carolina Central||Yes|
Again, the Bucs have only recently used any first-day picks at defensive tackle, though they've had a decent amount of success doing so. Obviously, players of Sapp's caliber come along only so often, but the team's signing of former first-round picks like Hovan and Sims indicate that top-notch talent at the position remains highly coveted for years.
Defensive Tackles Drafted by Tampa Bay in the First Three Rounds, 1976-2007