After finishing last season near the bottom of the statistical barrel against the run and in sacking opposing quarterbacks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers proved during April’s NFL Draft that shoring up the defensive line remains one of the team’s top priorities for 2011.
Media and fans got a glimpse at the potential game-day makeup of that unit’s bookends Monday afternoon with the release of the first, official depth chart.
After being named Tampa Bay’s first-round selection out of the University of Iowa nearly four months ago, highly touted defensive end Adrian Clayborn [6-foot-3, 287-pounds] has impressed with his speed and athleticism to earn the starting nod on the right side. Fifth-year veteran Tim Crowder is listed as Clayborn’s backup, along with 2010 free-agent pickups George Johnson [third team] and Brandon Gilbeaux [fourth team].
The Bucs’ second-round pick of this year’s draft, Clemson University defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, is initially listed on the second team behind third-year pro Michael Bennett at left end. Kyle Moore [third team] and Alex Magee (fourth team] round out the position.
Bennett has played in Tampa since the Bucs picked him up off waivers from Seattle in 2009 and appeared in 20 total games, including two starts last year. In 2010, the Texas A&M product recorded 15 tackles [13 solo] and one sack.
Whatever mix of names end up creating the entire Opening Day front four, much more is expected out of the unit compared to last year’s results. The Bucs ranked 28th against the run after allowing 131.7 yards per game. In passing situations, their 26 combined sacks tied them with Jacksonville as the second fewest in the league. The draft additions and absence of Stylez G. White give the Bucs a much different two-deep look at the ends this year.
While Bennett was named the starter at left end on the team's first depth chart they released, he is not focusing his attention on that. Instead, Bennett has his mind set on continuing to work hard and helping out his rookie linemates.
"I'm just going out there and playing hard every day," Bennett said. "I'm just trying to get better, be a good teammate and work as hard as I can. I'm not really worried about starting. We've got a young group of guys. We have Da'Quan, Adrian, Tim and Kyle. We've got a good group of guys at defensive end."
The 6-foot-4, 274-pound Bennett is glad the team counting on him to play a very significant role this season and is confident in taking on that role with two years of playing experience under his belt.
"It feels good [that the team is counting on me]," said Bennett. "I've come a long way and worked really hard. Everything from last year I'm bringing into this year. I feel more comfortable as I get older in the game. Last year was kind of difficult learning all of the plays, but this year is a whole different [story]. I'm understanding offenses and what's going on as far as pass rushing and being a good defensive player.
"[Head coach] Raheem [Morris] has taught me a lot, every postition so far, so this year I'm just learning defensive end and it feels really good."
Although the depth chart lists Bennett as a starter, he knows he will be sharing a lot of reps with the team's second-round pick Bowers.
"I anticipate [Bowers and I] having a big rotation as far as right or left [end] and we'll try to at least go [on a] 60-40 [rotation] or 50-50 maybe."
Bowers, who wasn’t in pads for Monday afternoon’s practice and is still recovering from surgery in January to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, said he remains confident he can get onto the first team by Week 1, “Definitely. Once it gets closer to the time to grind for Detroit [on Sept. 11], I’ll be working myself back into that starting lineup.”
Bowers, 6-foot-4, 277-pounds, said he will likely sit out Friday night’s preseason opener at Kansas City but wants to play out the final three tune-ups.
“I’m not sure if I’m going to play Friday," said Bowers. "I’ll probably play the rest of the preseason and just take this one off.”
Bowers led the nation in sacks during his final season at Clemson with 15.5 and earned the Bronco Nagurski and Ted Hendricks Awards for being named the nation’s top defensive player and defensive end, respectively. The injury, surgery and subsequent rehabilitation process are widely regarded as what led to Bowers’ slip out of the first round in April.
On the other side of the line, Clayborn said he doesn’t put too much stock into training-camp depth charts but fully intends to be an NFL starter when the season kicks off. During his senior year in Iowa City, he was named a consensus All-American after being attacked by opposing offensive coordinators with double- and triple-teams every Saturday.
“It’s never really set in stone,” Clayborn said of the first-team designation. “It can change every day. Me being a first-round pick, it’s expected [to be starting]. Like I’ve been saying, it’s a challenge so I’ve got to step up to it."
The man he is currently listed above said he accepts the challenge to start and is looking forward to giving his rookie competition a run all season.
“I’m just trying to start a controversy,” Crowder said with a laugh. “And that’s a good thing because if the backup is playing well, whoever it is, that’s good for everybody.”
Crowder is entering his fifth season out of the University of Texas and appeared in all 16 games for Tampa last year, starting nine. The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder was among the team-leaders in sacks, with three, and recorded 31 total tackles.
“Right now I’m not really worried about it too much. I’m just going out there and doing the best that I can. Like I was telling some guys earlier, just let the chips fall where they may.
“It’s a competition and you can’t really gauge a guy until the games start. That’s a good thing. This is my fifth year, I know what I can do in game time and I know it will work itself out.”
As for his young challenger, Crowder had nothing but praise for the former Hawkeye.
“I'm behind him just teaching him the nuances of the game, and not just football, about life," said Crowder. "I know when we get more comfortable he’ll talk more. I see a lot of greatness in him already. Once he learns and figures out what he’s doing, it’s going to be scary."
When asked about the expectations placed on this year’s defensive front, Crowder said playing-time competition will only help in bumping up the team’s sack total and keeping a lid on opposing running backs.
“It’s going to help everybody," said Crowder. "It’s not going to just be one guy getting a lot of sacks, it should be a lot of people. No D-lineman can play 40-50 snaps, so whenever you come in, I don’t care if it’s only 10 plays, you’ve got to make the most of it. That’s what I did last year and the year before.”
Although he’s not quite up to 100 percent leading into Tampa Bay’s first preseason game, Bowers said the surgically repaired right knee feels healthy and assured he’ll be ready to contribute to the unit’s effort.
“I feel good. [Defensive line coach Keith Millard] gave me the day off to recuperate and get my legs back because my first time running was the first day of camp," said Bowers. "I’ve been going pretty hard, pretty steadily. It was his idea for me to take a day off so who am I to argue with him?”