Warren Sapp, Brad Culpepper, Marcus Jones, Steve White, and yours truly, Chidi Ahanotu. These are the names of the men who made Buccaneers defensive line folklore and legend.
Roy Miller, Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers. Are these the names of new legends? Will they be responsible for the resurgence of the folklore of Tampa Bay’s front four?
Sapp, Culpepper, myself, and others, grew up together as young NFL linemen in the 1990s and gelled to make the Buccaneers defensive line dreaded throughout the NFL. This new crop of young defensive linemen is being groomed in the same fashion under two new defensive line coaches, former NFL Pro Bowl defensive tackle Keith Millard and former Arizona State defensive line coach Grady Stretz.
In order to make the famed Tampa 2 defense – or Raheem Morris’ version of it – click it requires a nasty, foaming at the mouth, bloodthirsty, relentless defensive line. Much is expected from first-round picks McCoy (2010) and Clayborn (2011) and second-round picks Price (2010), when he is healthy, and Bowers (2011).
But even Sapp, Culpepper and I took some time to grow up and grow together. Sapp did not start as a rookie and got the chance to watch and learn from 1992 Defensive Rookie of the Year Santana Dotson. While I managed to start my rookie year, the trio of Sapp, Culpepper and I still were given time to gel and exploded on the scene in 1997 after playing together for two full years. Collectively, we had had 29 sacks that year with Sapp leading the way with a team-leading 10.5, followed by my 10 sacks and Culpepper’s 8.5. To put that production in perspective, the entire Bucs defense only produced 26 sacks last year.
Tampa Bay’s front office is following the same blueprint that former general manager Rich McKay and head coach Tony Dungy had back in the 1990s with a new crop of highly talented young defensive linemen led by McCoy, the third overall pick in 2010. General manager Mark Dominik and Morris come from great stock and have witnessed first hand the formula for success from their predecessors, McKay and Dungy.
As these young rookies and second-year defensive linemen head into the regular season they can expect the pressure to perform and live up to their draft billing. But it is of utmost importance for these aspiring sack-masters to not let the pressure get to them and allow themselves time to learn, grow and blossom as football players. This is a hard feat to accomplish when millions of dollars are being paid and high draft picks are used, but blocking all of these stress factors out is key for their success.
The new collective bargaining agreement reduced training camp practices to just one padded session per day instead of two-a-days, so for younger players it will take longer for them to rise to be cream of the crop. While two-a-days are hated amongst all that play the game of football, they still served a purpose of enabling young players more instruction time and more time to battle together in live situations. As young defensive linemen, they soon learn that most of the arsenal that they used in college does not work at all in the NFL. Subtle tweaks and little nuances of the game are needed to be learned by young defensive linemen as soon as possible or frustration and self-doubt can creep into a young lineman's psyche.
However, the reduction of practice time by virtue of new CBA rules will aid these young linemen by eradicating the fatigue and soreness battles and allowing them to focus solely on improving their skill set and learning the tools of their trade. One of the hardest parts of the transition from college to pro here in Florida is overcoming the increased intensity, soreness, and pain from battling against grown men twice a day in the extreme temperatures and humidity. No matter how good of shape these defensive linemen think they are in, they will soon find out that battling ever day against the best of the best takes a toll on the body, mind, and spirit of a young man.
Surely, the reduced practices will aid in these young linemen's development by reducing the amount of physical pounding, but the lack of time in the trenches with padded practices will surely hinder their growth and ability to gel under live situations. But this is where we find ourselves in this new era of NFL football where walking fine lines is the norm and searching for balance is the goal.
As an old warrior from the NFL of days gone by, I cannot say for sure what these young linemen should expect and how prepared they are for the regular season, given that the CBA has evolved new rules governing training camps. But I can tell them for sure that their adventure into the NFL will be one journey that will give them an opportunity to become legends.
I fully expect at least some of these young men to reach their full potential and reign in a new era of legendary Buccaneers defensive linemen. After watching Clayborn at training camp, I am impressed with his physical tools. This young man has “swag.” He is of the stuff that separates the average player from the elite. He’s a warrior with a take-no-prisoners attitude, and he does not bow down to anybody – not even Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn.
Bowers has it, too. The attitude of a defensive lineman is key to playing a position that is as brutal as it gets. “Swag” is something that took me five years in the NFL to develop, which was manifested by feeding off the likes of gladiators like Hardy Nickerson, Sapp and our defensive line master, legendary coach Rod Marinelli.
But these young warriors have that “swag” already, which is awesome. With so many of the Founding Fathers of the dreaded Buccaneers defensive line still living right here in Tampa Bay, it would be great if Tampa Bay’s upper management would call on them to tutor these young upstarts and pass on their knowledge and skills.
The quintet of Jones, White, Culpepper, Sapp, and I would love to help, and would consider it an honor. We all wish this new batch of Tampa Bay gladiators the best of success and are eager to see them grow and make us proud.
Chidi Ahanotu was an NFL defensive end for 12 seasons, including eight with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1993-2000). Ahanotu is the fifth all-time leading sacker in Buccaneers history with 34.5 QB captures. His career-high 10 sacks in 1997 helped the Bucs make the playoffs for the first time in 13 years and led to him being Tampa Bay's franchise player in 1998.
Aside from being a columnist for PewterReport.com, Ahanotu is the owner of Cigars of Soho, which is located at 212 S. Armenia Ave. in Tampa, Fla. To visit the Cigars of Soho Facebook page, click here. Cigars of Soho is open until midnight every night.
Cigars of Soho is the only South Tampa cigar lounge open after dinner to enjoy a nice cigar. Wednesday night is poker night at 9:00 p.m., and the lounge has NFL games on high definition TV on Sunday and Monday nights.