S.S. Mailbag: Where They All Fit

suh

Within the last 10 days, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have released long-time standout Gerald McCoy and signed five-time Pro Bowler Ndamukong Suh, both among the best defensive tackles the NFL has featured over the last decade. Those two are also connected, as most of you are surely aware, by their 2010 draft experience, as Suh went second overall to the Detroit Lions and McCoy was next off the board to the Buccaneers.

That the Bucs have now employed the second and third picks of the same draft is noteworthy but in the end merely a coincidence. It did get me thinking, though: Just how rare of a coincidence is this? Have the Buccaneers ever done such a thing before. It certainly seems possible, as not too many players take the Derrick Brooks/Ronde Barber path of spending their entire careers with a single team. That's true even of those players taken very high in the draft, the type of prospect that teams hope will become long-term franchise cornerstones.

Take that 2010 draft that brought Suh and McCoy into the league. Offensive tackle Trent Williams could be the only one to retire as a one-team player; he's been with Washington ever since they took him fourth overall. Safety Eric Berry, who went one pick after Williams, is the only other possibility in the top 10, but he was released by the Chiefs in March so if he continues his career he'll presumably be moving on to a new home.

There are plenty of instances of the Buccaneers ending up with multiple players from the same first round, whether at the same time or in separate years. In fact, the current roster has two players from the 2015 opening round (Jameis Winston and Breshad Perriman) and two from the 2014 first round (Mike Evans and Deone Bucannon). Obviously, any time the Bucs have had multiple first-round picks – most recently in 2012 with Mark Barron and Doug Martin – they have had two on the team at a time.

But let's narrow it down even farther. Is this the first time the Buccaneers have ended up with two players, whether together or at the same time, from the top fivepicks of any draft? Glad you asked (you didn't). The answer is no.

There were, in fact, two players from the first three picks of the 1996 draft on the Buccaneer team that won Super Bowl XXXVII: wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and defensive end Simeon Rice. Johnson was the Bucs' leading receiver during that 2002 regular season while Rice paced the team with 15.5 sacks. Johnson, the first pick of the '96 draft, to the Jets, became a Buccaneer when Tampa Bay sent a pair of first-round picks to New York in a 2000 trade. Rice joined the team a year later as an unrestricted free agent, five years after he was selected third overall by the Arizona Cardinals. Both players were essentially considered the missing piece for their side of the ball in Tampa, and given the eventual results it's hard to argue.

So it's not unheard of for two of the top five picks in any given draft to eventually don a Buccaneers uniform, but it's unsurprisingly uncommon. Another example: In 1987 the Buccaneers took quarterback Vinny Testaverde first overall. Before Testaverde's Tampa tenure ended, he was teammates in 1991 and 1992 with running back Alonzo Highsmith, who was drafted third overall by the Houston Oilers.

Now, on to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

So David and White are going to start, who do you see filling that 3rd linebacker spot?

- nekooooooooo, via Instagram

I know exactly who will fill that third linebacker spot: Nobody.

Basically, you're asking me to name the Fifth Beatle. There used to be a third linebacker, but there is no more. Or, if you want to look at it another way, there are four linebacker spots to fill, not three, and that's a whole different question.

Let me be more clear. Under Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles, the Buccaneers are switching to a 3-4 base defense, after nearly three decades of running a 4-3. A long-time Tampa Bay fan could be excused for being conditioned to think of the Bucs' starting linebacker group as a trio, as it has been that way for so long. We think of it as one middle linebacker flanked by two outside linebackers, one on the weak side and one on the strong side. Or, MIKE, WILL and SAM. Those three would all be off-ball linebackers who played behind four down linemen and didn't go after the quarterback unless sent on a blitz.

In a 3-4, you have four linebackers, but two of them are usually pass-rushers who stand up at the edge of the line, flanking the three down linemen. A player you might have called a defensive end last year, like Carl Nassib, the Bucs now call an outside linebacker. So, in terms of what you are almost surely asking me about, there are only two inside (or off-ball) linebackers on the field most of the time. (I say "most" because Bowles is known to be very creative with his personnel packages, so it's not impossible he'll have something up his sleeve that employs more off-ball linebackers.)

This is really not as big of a change as it may seem. The outside linebackers, while primarily pass-rushers, do sometimes drop into coverage, which would give you more of a three-linebacker look. In addition, as you will hear our coaches say over and over again, teams are really in their base defense only about 35% of the time. On the majority of snaps, the defense is in a "sub" package of some sort because the offense has more than two receivers on the field. When this happened against the Bucs' old 4-3 front, they would generally replace the SAM linebacker with a defensive back, so the majority of the time there were only two off-ball linebackers on the field anyway.

By the way, I think you are right that Lavonte David and Devin White will be the two starting inside linebackers, and no, neither of us deserve any credit for that bold prediction. David is an established NFL star and White was the fifth-overall pick in the draft, so the Bucs will want them on the field as much as possible. But for a position that seemed like it might be thin after the free agency departure of Kwon Alexander, it actually has some solid depth. Behind the David-White combo you can bring in Deone Bucannon and Kevin Minter, two veterans who have extensive experience in the Arians-Bowles defense from their Arizona days. Also in the mix are Devante Bond, Jack Cichy, Corey Nelson and Emmanuel Smith. With his last Arizona team, in 2017, Arians started the season with six inside linebackers on the roster, even though that was covering just two starting spots, and that's almost certainly because those players help a lot on special teams.

Who out of our undrafted rookies is showing the most potential to make the 53-man roster?

- Cbell96825, via Instagram

Well, it's a little early to jump fully on the bandwagon of any of the rookie free agents. I feel confident that a couple of them will make it, just because that happens almost every season. It's probably going to take a while before we can confidently predict which ones, however.

That said, I think we can identify some of the top candidates. I like the chances of the wide receiver duo of Anthony Johnson (Buffalo) and DaMarkus Lodge (Ole Miss). Both were considered likely draft picks before they fell through the cracks into the "eighth round." Johnson, in particular, was surprised not to hear his name called after he put up huge numbers in the Buffalo offense, including 25 touchdowns over the past two years. He's got good size (6-2, 209), and while he's not blazingly fast he's not deficient in that area either, running a 4.55 40 at the Combine. You could say much of the same about Lodge, who is 6-2, 202 and who also ran a 4.55 40.

For these guys, as for any undrafted rookie trying to catch on, you've got to look at the situation in which they've landed, too. The Buccaneers lost wide receiver Adam Humphries to free agency and traded DeSean Jackson, and that's about 1,200 receiver snaps to replace. The team did sign Breshad Perriman and he figures to play a lot alongside the entrenched Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. That still leaves two spots on the roster if the Bucs roll with five receivers, and three if they keep six. You have to assume that 2018 fifth-round pick Justin Watson and 2019 sixth-round pick Scotty Miller are strong candidates for those spots, but this still seems like a realistic opportunity for an undrafted player to make his move.

The Buccaneers clearly need to find some edge-rushing options, particularly if they are without Jason Pierre-Paul for any length of time. Kahzin Daniels and David Kenney are thus worth watching. Daniels was very productive at Charleston despite being blind in his right eye, and that doesn't seem to be limiting him on the Bucs' practice field. Kenney has been out of football for a couple years and this is his first time on an NFL roster, but he was probably the top standout at the Bucs' rookie mini-camp on a tryout contract, showing great quickness of the edge.

The Buccaneers said they would see if former Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald could develop into a version of the Saints' Taysom Hill, including playing a lot on special teams. And, indeed, Fitzgerald is getting plenty of time on the kick and coverage units in practice during OTAs. However, he's probably a better candidate for the practice squad to start his career, and there's nothing wrong with that.

All of that is just a prelude to the undrafted rookie I'm actually going to pick. That would be South Carolina guard Zack Bailey, who I believe was one of the Buccaneers' priority targets when all the scouts and assistant coaches started calling the undrafted players right after the seventh round. Bailey definitely has one thing that the Bucs' coaching staff prizes, as Arians has mentioned publicly several times: Versatility. Bailey started at center, left guard and tackle for the Gamecocks and held his own at every position. His draft stock probably took a hit when he suffered a broken leg in his last collegiate game, but the Bucs were eager to get him to town and see what he could do. Bailey's top asset is his power in the running game, which means he's probably best suited for guard.

The Bucs have a couple veteran options for their backup interior line spots in Earl Watford and Evan Smith, though Smith has not yet practiced this year as he recovers from hip surgeries. In fact, Bailey could end up with a similar NFL path to that of Smith, who went to Green Bay as an undrafted rookie, took a little while to get a solid foothold on the roster and then eventually developed into a starter. He came to Tampa as an unrestricted free agent in 2014 and is still here five years later in part because of his versatility, at some point starting at all three interior-line spots.

Why Suh? Do you believe he's running at 100%?

- Louieprimo1, via Instagram

Well, define 100%. If you are asking me if the Buccaneers are getting 100% of Ndamukong Suh in his prime, I don't think anyone would expect that to be the case. I mean Suh couldhave a late-career renaissance and start putting up eight to 10 sacks a season again, like he did three times in his first five years, but I don't think the Bucs were counting on that when they signed him. Suh has had 4.5 sacks in each of the last two seasons, but he also had 19 quarterback hits last year, remained a very active defender and was quite good against the run.

The Buccaneers needed some help on the interior defensive line, especially after they and Gerald McCoy made the mutual decision to part ways after nine years. Tampa Bay has a very promising young lineman in Vita Vea and strong veterans in Beau Allen and Will Gholston, but the rest of the D-Line depth is largely unproven. Suh should make life easier for all of those players and give the Bucs a better rotation inside. After practice on Tuesday, Arians said he thought it would be very hard to run up the middle against the Buccaneers with Vea and Suh in there next to each other.

Carmen Vitali got the more detailed scoop from Bowles on how Suh can help the Buccaneers' defensive front, so check that out for a deeper dive on the subject. But as to your first question, I guess I would counter with, 'Why not?' The Bucs had a need and there was, somewhat surprisingly, a proven producer at that spot still available on the free agent market. They agreed to a one-year deal with Suh at what seems to me to be a reasonable price, so it's not necessarily a long-term commitment, though that obviously could change in the future. As Bowles says in that article linked above, Suh can give his new team, "a lot of fire, a lot of attitude and a lot of toughness." I'll take all of that, thank you.

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