The trenches. It’s where football games are won or lost. It’s where the big boys play and it’s a place that hasn’t been focused on by the Buccaneers in a few years. This off-season Jason Licht said NO MORE! He made the conscious decision to shore up the Bucs trenches on both sides of the ball in an all-out effort to help this team make the playoffs. He didn’t have much of a choice though.
The Bucs haven’t taken a defensive lineman in the first round of the draft since they picked Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers back to back in the first and second round of the 2011 NFL Draft. The last time they used a first round pick on an offensive lineman was way back in 2006 when they took guard Davin Joseph with the 23rd pick. That along with the numerous failed attempts in free agency to fill in the cracks on both lines is the reason that Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea was the 12th pick of this year’s draft instead of Florida State safety Derwin James. It’s the reason that Licht put so much emphasis on both lines during this offseason. And it’s the reason that the Bucs could be on their way back to better days.
In 2017, the Buccaneers offense finished 18th in points per game (20.9), 11th in plays from scrimmage (1,034), 9th in yards per game (363.5), 8th in yards per play (5.6), 2nd in first downs per game (22), 4th in third down percentage (43%), 25th in touchdowns (8) and 27th in rushing yards (1,450), yards per attempt (3.7) and yards per game (90.6). The passing game was better finishing 14th in completion percentage (62.5%), 4th in yards (4,366), 9th in yards per attempt (7.6), 4th in yards per game (272.9), 10th in touchdowns (26), 11th in interceptions (14) and 13th in sacks (40). The run game was terrible. The “Ali Marpet at center” experiment wasn’t necessarily a failure, but as it turns out he makes a better guard. Starting right guard J.R. Sweezy is still recovering from an injury suffered towards the end of last season and it’s unclear when or even if he’ll be ready for training camp. Last year’s starting left guard Kevin Pamphile became an unrestricted free agent in March and was signed by the Tennessee Titans. The o-line had to be addressed this offseason. The way Licht started that process was by signing Ravens free agent center Ryan Jensen.
Jensen is a nasty mauler with a mean attitude. He started all 16 games in Baltimore last year and was the anchor of a line that gave up the seventh fewest sacks in the league and had the 11th ranked rushing attack. His performance in 2017 made him the #1 center in free agency, and the Bucs were the lucky ones to land him. That allowed the team to move Marpet from center back to guard where he flourished in his first two seasons. However, he’s not back at his old right guard spot. He’s over at left guard next to his best buddy Donovan Smith. That move should help Smith tremendously. Last year, he was somewhat affected by the alternating of Pamphile and Evan Smith at left guard. There’s something to be said about continuity and familiarity amongst the o-line and now Smith will have just that on the left side for a change.
The right side is where the line has question marks. Right tackle Demar Dotson was having a Pro Bowl year until he hurt his knee. The hope is that he’s able to return to form come training camp. Right guard is really up in the air. Sweezy was the starter last year, but his status is still questionable at best. As of right now, guard/tackle Caleb Benenoch would be the apparent “next man up” for that spot, but this year’s third round pick Alex Cappa could push him for it. Cappa played left tackle at Division II Humboldt State but the Bucs like him at guard. He’s another mean, nasty blocker and if he can make the transition from D-2 college football to the NFL then it would really give this o-line a different look and a different attitude going into this season.
The defensive line got the biggest face lift over the last few months. And they definitely needed it. The 2017 defense finished 22nd in points allowed (23.9) and total points allowed (382), 32nd in yards allowed per game (378.1), yards per play (6.0) and third down percentage (48%), 23rd in rushing yards allowed (1,880), rushing yards per attempt (4.3) and rushing yards per game (117.5), 30th in rushing touchdowns allowed (30), 32nd in passing yards allowed (4,169) and passing yards per game (260.6), 12th in passing touchdowns allowed (22), 15th in interceptions (13) and 32nd in sacks (22). Not good. Actually it’s terrible. Jason Licht had to fix it and fix it fast.
The Bucs defense needed to get better at stopping the run and getting to the quarterback. Jason Licht started out by NOT bringing back free agent fail Chris Baker. He was a virus both in the locker room and on the field. The Bucs also did not re-sign free agent defensive tackle Clinton McDonald who signed with the Broncos and released defensive end Robert Ayers who is still unsigned. Then he went on to surprise most Bucs fans by signing relatively unknown free agent defensive tackles Beau Allen from the Eagles and Mitch Unrein from the Bears. They were both ranked at the top of all run stoppers in the NFL last season and should help solidify the middle rotation of the d-line. Next was the signing of versatile defensive end Vinny Curry from the Eagles. He’s a slightly younger, healthier version of Ayers not missing a game in four seasons while Ayers has missed at least four games in each of the last four seasons. He had 42 tackles and 3 sacks in a rotational role in Philly. Next was the biggie. The trade with the Giants for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Tampa Bay gave up a third round pick to get a player who had 68 tackles and 8 sacks last season. Jason Licht wanted him in free agency last year, but the price was a bit too steep. Nonetheless, he’s a Buc now and he’ll be a bookend to Curry.
As of right now, it appears as though the front four of the defense will be Curry, Allen, McCoy and JPP. However, the Bucs 2018 first round draft pick Vita Vea could make a play for the starting spot next to McCoy. That’s a pretty stout front. What may be even better is what’s behind the starters. Defensive end Noah Spence will hopefully come back strong from a shoulder injury that’s nagged him over the first two years of his career. Will Gholston was a starter at defensive end last season, but hopefully he’ll bounce back after a down year. In addition to everyone I’ve mentioned so far is second year run stopper Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, DeVonte Lambert, Channing Ward and Will Clarke. If you’re keeping count, that’s 11 defensive linemen. The Bucs will only keep 8 or 9 of them which means that at least two, maybe three of these guys will not even make the 53-man roster. This is quite possibly one of the most talented and deepest defensive lines that Tampa has ever had and stopping the run and sacking opposing QB’s should not be a problem for the 2018 season.
To sum things up, the offensive line is better. The run game should be better. Jameis Winston should be better. The entire offense should be better. Also the defensive line is better. The run defense should be better. Opposing quarterbacks should be extremely uncomfortable in what little pocket they may have meaning the pass defense should be better. The entire defense should be better. This entire team should be better. Jason Licht has built a wall in front of Jameis and he’s built a wall in front of their future opponents. It’s too early to tell what all of it means or where it will take the Buccaneers, but it’s safe to say that Licht is well on his way to making the Bucs great again!
Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!