took a look at the camp battles on the offensive side of the ball for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Today I want to take a look at the defensive side of the ball where there is probably a lot more volatility at every position.
Before we get started though I want to state unequivocally that I believe the defense will take a major jump forward this year. The combination of Coach Morris making the calls and most of the guys having played in the system for part of the season last year and having practiced in it all offseason is going to pay major dividends in my opinion. The camp battles are going to be what they are but if we stay healthy this season on defense we are going to give people major headaches.
Now lets go ahead and break this down position by position.
I considered breaking this up into defensive tackles/defense ends but the truth is the defensive line has to play as a unit in order to be successful. That is one of the major deficiencies I saw last year was that while certainly some guys played better than others, I rarely saw the kind of coordination that it takes to really put the pressure on the opposing offensive linemen and quarterbacks. Aside from the Green Bay Packers game, which was a beautiful thing to behold, it appeared that there was just four guys doing their own thing instead of one group fighting for the same goals. That is going to have to change and I think it will.
Obviously there are at least two guys whose names you can write in pen on the roster for the defensive line right now. That would be our 1st and 2nd round picks, Gerald McCoy and Brian Price respectively. McCoy almost assuredly will be our starting undertackle and it would appear that Price will be given every opportunity to start at nose tackle. Now I have written before why it would probably be a mistake to expect too much from either guy this season but I know some folks won't listen. But for me my biggest hope for them is that they stay healthy for all 16 games this year. If they can do that it will mean that they will be gaining experience week after week after week and presumably they with that experience they will get better along the way.
Last year we carried nine defensive linemen on the roster to open the season. Four defensive tackles and five defensive ends. Well to be clear one of those defensive ends, Kyle Moore, had double duty as a tackle as well. So after the two rookies Roy Miller is probably a safe bet to make the team if not start. I know that there will be a push to get Price into the starting line up but I liked what I saw from Roy most of last year. He is quick off the ball, stout, and he has a knack for rushing against a double team. As for the fourth defensive tackle, it goes against conventional wisdom but I have this sneaking suspicion that the starter from last year, Ryan Sims, will make a push to make the team.
I can't be sure of that until the bullets start flying but as I look at the guys he will be competing against I don't see anyone who he isn't obviously better than. I also thought he was more suited to be a nose tackle in our regular "Tampa 2" defense last year and when the scheme reverted back he played a helluva lot better. Still not world beating good, but he did give center's fits at times. If he is motivated and humble enough to accept a back up role, I think a spot on the team is right there for him.
But there is a conundrum if you read this analysis closely. Only one guy out of the top 4 right now is going to be groomed as an undertackle and that's McCoy. That's not to say that Price or Miller couldn't also play undertackle, but they are going to be in a steel cage death match trying to win the starting job at nosetackle so learning and working on playing undertackle is probably going to be secondary to both of them. Even though Sims has played undertackle in previous seasons he is better suited to play nose.
This the primary reason I questioned the Bucs taking Price in the second round after having taken McCoy in the first. On paper the best use of our talent would be to have both Price and McCoy vying for the under tackle position. But because of his draft positioning McCoy HAS to play. And Price can't really ride the bench either as a high 2nd round pick. And the only way they both play is if they don't play the same position. Its going to be interesting seeing how this rotation works out. I have a strong feelign it won't be near as easy as the Buccaneers brass has tried to let on.
With the defensive ends I'd say Stylez G. White is also a safe bet to make the team. He was, by far, our best and most consistent pass rusher last year. As I have said previously, he just has to get into the best shape of his life so that he doesn't have to come out of the game and if he stays healthy double digit sacks is not only attainable, its likely.
I believe that when its all said and done the guy backing him up, at least on paper, will be Michael Bennett. Bennett was plucked off the Seahawks' practice squad last year and he showed me some flashes last year. He had one of the best get offs on the defensive line and he has really good functional strength. Its unfortunate that the Bucs primarily played him on the left side last year and then right when they changed defenses and he may have had more of an opportunity to show what he can do, he got hurt. I think at his size and with his tools he is much more of a right end who can spell White whenever he needs a blow.
At left defensive end you can get your popcorn ready for an all out battle royal. I predicted after the season ended that the Bucs would practically hand Kyle Moore the job and they have. Yes I have heard all the stories about him getting in better shape and looking good in OTAs but unless Tim Crowder fell off the map you would have to say that on the merits he deserved first dibs at the position. After all for most of last year he was the primary backup to starter Jimmy Wilkerson and he even started a couple games. But it is what it is and Moore being a 5th round draft pick gives him a leg up.
But you have to remember that Crowder himself was a former 2nd round pick and he is still a young guy. I can't foresee a scenario where he just concedes that position to Moore. And to be honest I'm definitely not sure that Moore is the better player at the moment. Barring injury I think this battle will go all the way down to the wire with both guys sticking on the team.
That leaves one open roster spot. I wish I could say for sure who will get it but with three rookies and an under achiever amongst the guys left over fighting for it, I just don't have a clue. I think the late draft pick Erik Lorig may have a head start if he can be a guy who plays both inside and out. If not then that is the kind of guy who I would bet money on. Last year that guy was Moore, but if he is the starter he can't really be that kind of "swing" guy. I guess we will just have to wait and see.
The three starters at linebackers are pretty entrenched right now. It appears that Coach Morris has big plans for Quincy Black as the starting Sam linebacker, Barrett Ruud is primed to have a career year, and Geno Hayes in his second year as a starter may be on the cusp of big things. I like all three players and I think Hayes in particular may have a break out year. But after those guys there are a lot of question marks.
Adam Heyward is probably the most versatile of the backups and a guy the Bucs actually would trust if he were pressed into action. But while he is physical he doesn't have the kind of size nor speed that you look for in a starting NFL linebacker. Then you have Jon Alston and Niko Koutouvides who will probably get first dibs on the other two backup linebacker spots but neither guy is anything special. I know a lot of people are high on late draft pick Dekoda Watson but I am not sold on how quickly he will transition from the college game. Instead I think he along with fellow rookie Rico McCoy will have opportunities to make their name on special teams this year.
Last year we kept seven linebackers and at the moment we have nine on the roster. Only two guys are going to be cut but at this point that could be anybody not named Black, Ruud, or Hayes. What we have to hope however is that our starters stay healthy because I just don't trust anyone one else to play a lot for us.
This group has the potential to be the strongest on the whole team. You have two guys with Pro Bowl potential in cornerback Aqib Talib and free safety Tanard Jackson. You have a potential Hall of Famer in corner Ronde Barber and you have a third round pick in Myron Lewis who is tall and physical and will likely be the starting nickelback.
But there is one position that could be the weakest link and that is the strong safety position. At this point there's no need to sugarcoat it, I felt that Sabby Piscitelli was our Achilles Heel against both the run and the pass last year. You would like for your strong safety to be both a physical presence when he is in the box against the run and a guy with the ball skills to be able to have the corner's back on deep balls in Cover 2. At the least you would want them to be strong at one or the other. But instead Sabby sucked at both for much of the year.
Now there is no law that says he can't get better. However its my opinion that he will not get that much better this fast to be a positive factor for our defense. Thankfully one of the only free agents the Bucs brought in this year was Strong Safety Sean Jones formerly of the Eagles. He is a guy who has had a knack for coming up with interceptions but he will also lay the wood in the running game. For whatever reason he didn't fit into the Eagles' plans anymore but one team's trash can be another team's treasure.
But here's the deal, I don't think either guy is necessarily a "game changer". So for me I don't really have a favorite. What I believe is that whomever gets the starting job will have to play so well to beat out the other that whomever it is will not be the weakest link. And that's good enough for me for this year.
After the starters there is some talent but nobody that I think is going to push for playing time. Corey Lynch and Cody Grimm are going to make or not make the team on special teams. Elbert Mack is a guy I like because of his heart but his propensity for getting toasted on the deep ball last year was no bueno. E. J. Biggers had some buzz once upon a time but we just haven't seen enough of him at this point. And then you have some other guys that I will be honest in saying I have never heard of.
Last year we kept nine defensive backs and I see no reason for that number to change. Odds are if I didn't mention one of the guys by name, they are going to be a long shot to make it.
At the end of the day one thing worth remembering is this. While our defense finished at our near the bottom in a lot of categories, most notably against the run, our passinig defense was in the top ten in the NFL. Yes the whole getting the ball run down our throats thing played into that, but we also had two guys with 5 interceptions a piece. The potential is there and if we can get our run defense better there really is no limit on how good this defense can be this year. That's not happy talk, that's a fact.