State of the Union 2017 – Defensive Line

2017 marked what could be the beginning of a defensive revolution in Tampa Bay. What sparked it? The six year culmination of searching for the right pieces surrounding defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.

McCoy is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. You know it, I know it, the American people know it. He’s consistently a sack leader among interior linemen and on a regular basis makes offensive linemen look like foosball figures. This season he notched seven sacks and 19 hurries – top ten ranks for both.

The additions of Robert Ayers and Noah Spence helped juice up the Bucs front four beyond McCoy’s pass rush prowess. While injuries and Spence’s inexperience stalled the line’s progress out the gate, they came on strong down the stretch and were big reasons for the Bucs defensive dominance from Week 10 to Week 14.

The key now is consistency over an entire season. With consideration for the entire season, the line was pretty average. While the defense ended season in the top ten in sacks, the run defense got worse down the stretch. Football Outsiders ranked the Bucs 26th in run defense. Most notably, the line allowed a lot of runs into the second level, ranking 27th in the league in yardage five yards past the line of scrimmage.

Conversely the Bucs made stops when they counted, ranking fifth in success in short yardage, late down situations (“power success” in Outsiders parlance). Basically, the line returned to its “bend don’t break” paradigm.

Progress is good, but the Bucs work is not complete to make the defensive line truly formidable. The first order of business is making a decision on Will Gholston. A de facto starter, Gholston is one of the best run-defending 4-3 defensive ends in the league.

The Bucs just signed Gholston to a five year, $27.5 million contract with another $9 million in incentives per NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo. This is a great deal for the Bucs. They get a starting-caliber lineman for a fair $5.5 million per year that escalates if Gholston earns it. This prevents the Bucs from having yet another roster hole to fill this offseason.

It’s now unlikely the Bucs will add major additional pieces at defensive end. The Bucs will likely let Jacquies Smith, Howard Jones and Davonte Lambert battle for playing time. That won’t preclude the Bucs from drafting another end, but it likely won’t be until day three barring the

Fellow 2014-draftee Akeem Spence is also a free agent. His fate should cause the Bucs far less consternation. Per Sporting Charts, Spence played 34.8 percent of the Bucs’ defensive snaps in 2016, following a downward trend in his usage from 65.5 percent in 2013 to 44.4 percent in 2014 and 26.3 percent in 2015.

Spence is an adequate rotational player but by no means is he irreplaceable. The Bucs are unlikely to offer him a big extension. At best he’ll get a deal like TE Luke Stocker’s: a two or three-year deal with little to no guaranteed money.

With just an aging Clinton McDonald and a gaggle of undrafted free agents under contract, the Bucs should be in the market for a defensive tackle, both in free agency and the draft. The most popular name connected to the Bucs at defensive tackle is Calais Campbell per CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora.

The 30-year-old Campbell is one of the most consistently productive 4-3 defensive tackles in the league. Since his rookie year, he recorded no fewer than five sacks per season. He would be the best player to line up next to Gerald McCoy since Michael Bennett.

Signing Campbell should not disqualify the Bucs from drafting a tackle either. Since 2010 the Bucs have drafted just three interior defensive linemen. Both McDonald and Campbell are on the wrong side of 30 and McCoy is rapidly approaching that point with quite a bit of mileage behind him.

The top two defensive prospects in this year’s draft are Alabama’s Jonathan Allen and Michigan State’s Malik McDowell. Draftniks have Allen going anywhere from the top five picks to falling out of the first round altogether due to concerns over his arthritic shoulders.

McDowell is one of those “tweeners” at 6’6″ and 295 pounds, but he’s a freakishly athletic and disruptive. However, his technique can be spotty and his rumored emotional volatility could scare away a lot of teams. Still, his ability to play across the entire line would make him a huge pick for the Bucs.

The Buccaneers are finally in a position where the defensive line is a consideration rather than a dire need. With a formidable line in place, whatever moves the Bucs do make will go that much further to pushing them to the playoffs.

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