State of the Franchise: The 2017 Buccaneers Defense

Now that free agency has calmed down and the NFL Draft is in the books, we can take a step back and look at the makeup of this team and what we as fans can look forward to going into training camp:  position battles. The Bucs feature a new look for the offensive line,  new weapons for Jameis, more speed on offense as well as more depth on defense. On paper, this is the most complete football team that this 35 year Bucs fan has ever seen (or at least that I can remember.) Thast includes the Super Bowl team. I’ve decided to break down this roster, as it stands right now, to see just how deep and talented this team is going into training camp. Here we go with a close-up look at the defense along with the average number of roster spots designated for each position.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES (4-5 spots)

Despite being listed as a DE, it’s assumed that newly signed free agent Chris Baker (6’2″/320lbs) will be the other starting DT next to Gerald McCoy (6’4″/300lbs). That means that last year’s starter Clinton McDonald (6’2″/300lbs) will now be a backup along with DaVonte Lambert (6’2″/285lbs), Sealver Siliga (6’2″/345lbs) and the Bucs 7th round pick of the draft big Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (6’1″/320lbs). All of the sudden, a position that was once considered thin after losing Akeem Spence to free agency is now fairly deep and really wide. McCoy just turned 29 years old and finished his 7th season in Tampa. He’s been one of the most productive and disruptive defensive tackles in the NFL with five straight seasons of at least 5 sacks. He’s a staple of this defense and hopefully, will continue to be for another five years or so. Baker was a great addition in free agency. He’s only accumulated 12.5 sacks over his seven year career, but 10.5 of those have come in the last two seasons. In fact over those last two seasons, he’s put up better numbers than highly sought after free agent Dontari Poe in tackles (101-66), sacks (10.5-2.5) and in forced fumbles (5-2).

McDonald (30) will hopefully flourish in his new reserve role. He has yet to play a full 16-game season after three years in Tampa, so maybe a reduced workload will help keep him stay healthy. Lambert is entering his second season with the Bucs after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016. He saw limited action in 11 games producing 14 tackles.

Siliga is entering his second season with the Buccaneers as well after stints with Seattle, New England and Denver over the past few years. He could be in competition for the Bucs official run stopper with their 7th round pick Tu’ikolovatu from USC. They’re both big, wide, strong tackles who are good at plugging gaps and collapsing pockets. It should be a good battle if they’re both up for the same roster spot. Typically, teams keep 10 or so defensive linemen on the active roster so it depends on the combination of tackles and ends as to who’s fighting for positions.

DEFENSIVE ENDS (5-6 spots)

There are currently 8 defensive ends on the Bucs roster, with #9 coming as soon as restricted free agent Jacquies Smith (6’2″/260lbs) signs his tender offer (not sure what the hold up is there). Besides the obvious “starters”  Robert Ayers (6’3″/275lbs) and recently re-signed free agent Will Gholston (6’6″/280lbs), they also have second-year speed rusher Noah Spence (6’2″/250lbs), Ryan Russell (6’5″/275lbs), Channing Ward (6’4″/305lbs), George Johnson (6’4″/265lbs) and undrafted free agent signee Deondre Barnett (6’2″/240lbs). It’s a good problem to have so many talented defensive linemen, but it will make it difficult when cut days come around.

At 31, Ayers is headed into this season as one of the Bucs oldest players and he’s got two years left on his contract with Tampa. When he’s healthy, he’s a force off the edge. The problem is that he’s never healthy. He hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2011, which was the only full season of his 8-year career. Despite missing 14 games due to injuries, he’s managed to total 25.5 sacks over the last four seasons. If he can stay healthy this year, he will put up some monster numbers with Baker and McCoy in the middle now.

Gholston entered this offseason as an unrestricted free agent and the Bucs made it a top priority to get him re-signed, which they did just before the free agency period began in March. His value isn’t as a pass rusher where he’s only produced 10 sacks in his four years here. It’s as a run stopper on the edge where he’s one of the best in the league totaling 189 tackles in four seasons.

Spence is going into his second season with the Bucs and coming off of surgery after dislocating his shoulder and tearing his labrum early last year. He played through the injury for the remainder of the season wearing a brace and even dislocated it again in the final game of the season. He came off the field, popped his shoulder back in, then went right back on to the field again. You have to love the kid’s desire and passion. He finished 2016 with 5.5 sacks in a part-time role a situational edge rusher which was good enough for 6th among rookies. If he can do that while injured, I can’t wait to see what he can do in his second year when healthy.

Smith was a restricted free agent going into this offseason. The Bucs tendered him an offer of $1.8 million to stay in Tampa which he has yet to sign. The Niners had him in for a visit but have yet to make him any kind of offer. As of right now, it looks like he’ll be staying put. He was brought in as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and had 13.5 sacks in his first two seasons while missing 5 games in that span. He was injured in Week 1 last year and placed on I.R. where he spent the rest of the season. There’s no denying his pass rushing capabilities. The question is, can he stay healthy? He should end up playing a reserve role opposite Spence as pass rushing bookends.

Russell was brought in early last season after being released by the Cowboys. He saw limited action in 8 games once brought up from the practice squad after Howard Jones was sent to the I.R. with a season-ending injury. He’ll be in a big battle with Ward, Johnson and Barnett for the final DE spots. Ward came to the Bucs as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and was back and forth between the practice squad and active roster all season while seeing limited action in 4 games. Johnson came to the Bucs via trade with the Lions prior to the 2015 NFL Draft which sent their 5th round pick to Detroit for the DE and their 7th round pick. He sustained a hip injury in training camp last year and remained on the I.R. for the entire season. He’s entering the final year of his contract which will pay him $2.25 million and could be a make or break season for him should he make the final roster. Barnett was just brought in as an undrafted free agent from Southern Illinois. He only played in one game in 2016 where he recorded 5 tackles and a sack.

LINEBACKERS (5-6 spots)

The LB corps was looking pretty thin until draft weekend when the Bucs added one in the third round and a bunch more once the draft was over. Besides the obvious starters WLB Lavonte David (6’1″/235lbs) and MLB Kwon Alexander (6’1″/230lbs), the Bucs could have an interesting camp battle for the starting SLB position between their 6th round pick from 2016 Devante Bond (6’1″/235lbs) and their 3rd round pick from 2017 Kendall Beckwith (6’3″/245lbs). Bond is entering his second season with Tampa but spent his entire rookie year on the I.R. after sustaining an injury in the preseason. He does, however, have a leg up as he spent the year watching and learning Mike Smith’s system. Beckwith was leading LSU in tackles (91) and 6 tfl’s when he sustained an ACL injury against Florida.

Behind them are Adarius Glanton, Jeff Knox, Cameron Lynch, Richie Brown, Riley Bullough and Paul Magloire. These 6 players will be battling it out for what will probably be two, maybe three spots to fill out the LB group. Glanton (6’1″/230lbs) was signed off of the Panthers practice squad late in the 2015 season after Carolina had initially signed him as a 2014 undrafted free agent. He has experience playing both middle and strongside LB seeing action in all 16 games of 2016 so his versatility could give him an edge over the other candidates. Lynch (6’/230lbs) was signed to the Bucs practice squad early on in 2016 after he had spent last year with the Rams who signed him as a 2015 undrafted free agent. He saw limited action in 12 games mostly on special teams. Knox (6’2″/225lbs) is a bit of a wildcard in this battle. The Bucs signed him as a free agent back in January after he spent the last two years playing in Canada for the Saskatchewan Roughriders where he totaled 179 tackles, 1 int, 1 sack and 29 tackles on special teams. He could make things interesting for either Lynch when it comes to making the roster. Now we get into the recently signed undrafted free agents. Magloire (6’/225lbs) finished his senior year at Arizona with 81 tackles, 5.5 tfl’s and 2.5 sacks. Bullough (6’2″/225lbs) was voted team captain at Michigan State where he finished 2016 with 76 tackles and 6.5 tfl’s despite missing 3 games with a shoulder injury. Brown (6’2″/235lbs) was Mississippi State’s leading tackler his last two seasons in college with 109 tackles in 2015 and 102 tackles in 2016 while adding 17 tfl’s, 8 sacks, 14 pbu’s and 5 int’s. This is definitely a battle to keep an eye on in training camp as it should be a competitive one!

SAFETIES (4 spots)

The Bucs safety position was pretty thin, especially after losing Bradley McDougald to free agency. Besides the two starters from last season Chris Conte (6’2″/205lbs) and Keith Tandy (5’10″/205lbs) and 2016 undrafted free agent Isaiah Johnson (6’/210lbs), they’ve added free agent J.J. Wilcox (6’/210lbs) from Dallas, took Justin Evans (6’1″/195lbs) in the 2nd round of the draft and signed 2017 undrafted free agent Alex Gray (6’2″/220lbs). The favorites for the two starting safety positions have to be Conte and Tandy as they have the most experience in Smith’s system and played well in it over the second half of the season.

Wilcox and Evans are now the front runners for the other two safety spots should the Bucs keep four of them. Wilcox was Dallas 3rd round pick in 2013 and has only missed 6 games in four seasons while totaling 215 tackles, 15 pbu’s and 5 int’s as a reserve for the Cowboys. Evans finished his final year at Texas A&M with 87 tackles, 6.5 tfl’s, 8 pbu’s and 4 int’s. He’s a big hitter with good instincts and great ball skills who could very well end up challenging for a starting safety job.

Johnson spent almost the entire 2016 season on the Bucs practice squad and could likely end up there again while he’s still eligible. Gray had 99 tackles and 3 int’s in his junior and senior seasons at Appalachian State. He has a good combination of size and speed and could make a push for one of the backup safety spots with a strong showing in camp.

CORNERBACKS (6 spots)

The Bucs are going into training camp with 10 cornerbacks on the roster, not including the players brought in for camp tryouts. After obvious starters Brent Grimes (5’10″/185lbs) and Vernon Hargreaves (5’10″/205lbs), there’s a bunch of young talent who will be fighting for 4 or 5 roster spots which could make for an interesting position battle this summer. That group is headed up by Jude Adjei-Barimah (5’11″/200lbs) and Javien Elliott (5’11″/175lbs) who should be battling for the nickel corner job.

Josh Robinson (5’10″/200lbs) was just re-signed and should continue to wreak havoc on special teams. Ryan Smith (6’/190lbs), the Bucs 2016 4th round pick, will be in the mix for one of the top 6 corner spots after a solid rookie season. Cody Riggs (5’9″/190lbs) was signed to the Bucs practice squad late last season after being released by the Titans. Maurice Fleming (5’11″/200lbs), Greg Mabin (6’1″/200lbs) and Jonathan Moxey (5’10″/190lbs) were all signed as undrafted free agents and round out the CB group. Fleming had 48 tackles, 9 pbu’s and 1 int during his senior year at West Virginia. Mabin fractured his leg in his final year at Iowa but not before he collected 37 tackles, 3 pbu’s and 1 ff in 9 games. Moxey had 50 tackles and 13 pbu’s in his senior season at Boise State.

While the Bucs have yet to fill their 90-man training camp roster, there will be plenty more additions and subtractions from this current roster before camp opens. There have already been 15 more players invited to tryout for camp and the “second free agency period”  has just begun. We at WTB will try to keep you posted as best we can but until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!

 

 

Jon Hinkle

Jon Hinkle

My name is Jon Hinkle, also know as Deez Bucz to most Buccaneers fans. I have been given the opportunity by WhatTheBuc.net to do some writing about one of my favorite subjects...Buccaneer football and all that goes with it. This is my first public writing gig, so I'm hoping that I can entertain the fine fans of Tampa Bay while learning and gaining experience towards a possible new career in sports reporting. I hope everyone enjoys the fruits of my labor and I look forward to bringing some new and exciting stories to Bucs Nation! And as always.....GO BUCS!!!

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