The NFC South is rapidly becoming the Division of the Quarterback.
Maybe that's why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are so determined to get to the passer.
On Friday evening, with the 19th pick of the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft, the Buccaneers selected Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. That pick came just 31 spots after Tampa Bay tabbed Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn with their first-round pick.
Bowers and Clayborn are expected to help the Buccaneers' rising defense harass the elite quarterbacks of the NFL's most competitive division, including New Orleans' Drew Brees, Atlanta's Matt Ryan and, as of the first pick of this year's draft, Carolina's Cam Newton.
That marks the first time the Buccaneers have ever taken defensive ends with each of their first two draft picks, and it addresses what many considered the team's biggest need: Upgrade the pass rush. At one point considered a possibility for the first overall pick in the draft, Bowers is coming off a dominant senior season at Clemson in which he won both the Nagurski Award as the nation's top defensive player and the Hendricks Award as the top defensive end.
In 2010, Bowers led the nation with 15.5 sacks as a junior, at one point running up a string of nine straight games with at least two QB takedowns. Paired with Clayborn, who had 11.5 sacks as a junior at Iowa in 2009, Bowers instantly rejuvenates a Buccaneers pass rush that ranked 30th in the NFL in sacks last fall.
Many draft predictions early in 2011 tabbed Bowers as a possibility for the first overall pick to Carolina. However, concerns regarding a knee that was surgically repaired following the 2010 college caused the consensus top-10 talent to go untouched in the first round. The Buccaneers certainly studied the issue as closely as any NFL team and are convinced that he will still be a very productive player in the NFL, and that he will be on the field in 2010.
"He's a player that has obviously been extremely productive," said General Manager Mark Dominik. "He's a guy that's going to line up and play our left end position. We feel like he's got a lot of production in him. Obviously, we did a lot of research. I think every club in the National Football League has put a lot of time into this selection, into this type of pick. For me, the value for this pick was too strong. I feel like we're at a spot on the defensive line, as an organization and how we're building this thing, that it was worth this selection.
"I think you'll see that here's a young man that's going to work his tail off to be the best he can be, no matter if he was drafted number one overall or 51 overall. He was going to provide the same effort into becoming the greatest football player he can be."
After grabbing Clayborn in the first round, Dominik decided before going to bed on Thursday night that if Bowers was still available at pick #51 the Buccaneers would make the pick. Head Coach Raheem Morris calls it a 'risk-reward' selection.
"We felt good taking him," said Morris. "He's a left end, which is a great fit right now, especially with what we did yesterday. He'll come in here and provide that power and that strength from the left side, and also that pass rush. He'll give you that upstanding quality that a Kevin Carter gave people in St. Louis, that Michael Strahan gave the Giants for years, that Randy White was able to do when he was out there for a little bit – that big, physical presence. It's obviously risk-reward, and we were willing to take that risk."
Bowers admitted that the first two days of the draft were 'grueling' wait for him but, unsurprisingly, he will be further driven by his lower-than-expected draft slot. He also dismissed any long-term concerns over his injury.
"I'm definitely motivated," he said. "I'm ready to get in Tampa and show everybody what I'm capable of doing. I'm going to show them they picked a great athlete and a great guy. I'm ready to get down there and go to work.
"The knee is fine—it's getting better every day. I'm just ready to come to Tampa, get with the rest of my teammates and get ready to win a championship. It's all about teammates and teamwork and I'm ready to start building a relationship with those guys."
While the Bucs have never opened a draft with a DE-DE combination before, they have started with two defensive linemen in the past. In fact, just last year Tampa Bay followed up the selection of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy at #3 overall with the choice of defensive tackle Brian Price early in the second round. Never before have the Buccaneers drafted four defensive linemen in the first two rounds of consecutive drafts, meaning the team could soon field one of the most talented front fours in franchise history. It certainly could be the deepest and most productive unit since the days of Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since 2009, the Bucs have devoted six picks in Rounds 1-4 to defensive linemen, with third and fourth-round picks in 2010 producing tackle Roy Miller and end Kyle Moore, respectively.
"I'm clearly a defensive line collector," said Dominik. "I think that's the one thing you all can start saying. And I believe it all starts up front. I think that's very important. Again, I think the value of this selection was too strong for myself and this organization. I think everybody felt the same way [before the health concerns]. He was a top-10 talent, no debate."
It could be quite a collection. Bowers is eager to see what he and his young teammates on the line can do together.
"It's going to be exciting," he said. "They have those great guys. Gerald McCoy's there, they just drafted AC in Adrian Clayborn and [now] myself, we're all just going to combine and just give them everything they've got. We're going to be the young guys that try to take that team to an NFL championship."
Dominik said the Buccaneers do not expect Bowers to need any additional surgery on his right knee. The team will now move forward with the process of helping the rookie return from his previous surgery, which addressed a torn meniscus, and it definitely expects Bowers to play in 2011.
"We're going to do everything we can to get him on the field when it's appropriate to get him on the football field. Obviously, our intentions are to provide the package for him in terms of medical to get him back on the football field. But I'm not going to rush putting him back on the football field, either. We want to get him as healthy as we can and then we want to play him as long as we can. That's our mindset. There's nothing degenerative in his knee as we sit here today. Obviously his knee has taken some pounding, which is part of the problem, but at the same point rest and rehab are the best things he can do right now so we're going to continue to monitor that until we get to training camp."