Bucs DT Gerald McCoy - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Tampa Bay’s 2016 season begins on Sunday in Atlanta where the Falcons will attack with Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan and an aerial assault that features Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones. The Bucs finally have the firepower along the defensive line to scare not only Ryan, but the rest of the league, thanks to the arrival of defensive ends Robert Ayers, Jr. and Noah Spence in the offseason, who will aid the pass rush of four-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy.
Which Bucs defender will lead Tampa Bay in sacks? We polled our Pewter Reporters and came up with a familiar answer and two alternatives.
Scott Reynolds’ 2016 Bucs’ Leading Sacker – DE Jacquies Smith
This may seem like blasphemy by not selecting four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy as Tampa Bay’s leading sacker. He’s accomplished that feat in each of the last three years. But I believe this is the year that Smith emerges as a pass-rushing force in the NFL.
Bucs DE Jacquies Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch
Smith, who has been a waiver wire gem for general manager Jason Licht, recording 6.5 sacks as a rookie in 2014 before posting a career-high seven last year, in addition to notching three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, including one that proved to be a key touchdown against Jacksonville in a 38-31 victory. Injuries robbed Smith of having an even bigger year in 2015. Smith missed the preseason with a shoulder injury that lingered a bit into the regular season, and also dealt with a hamstring issue.
The plan this year under new defensive coordinator Mike Smith is to start Will Gholston at left defensive end and play him on suspected run downs. Then Smith comes in as a designated pass rusher on obvious passing downs and on third downs. Playing Smith, who was a starter last year, less in 2016 should help keep him healthier and fresher throughout the season.
Because NFL teams throw 60 percent of the time and Tampa Bay will be in nickel defense a similar amount of time, Smith will have a great opportunity to not only lead the Bucs in sacks, but also hit double digits. Smith lead Tampa Bay with four preseason sacks and has momentum heading into the regular season.
Mark Cook’s 2016 Bucs’ Leading Sacker – DT Gerald McCoy
While it could be defensive ends Robert Ayers or Jacquies Smith who ends up as the Bucs leader sacker, it is hard not to think McCoy doesn’t finish the season with that distinction, partly because of the two players mentioned above. The veteran presence and legitimate pass rushing threat of Ayers should help McCoy get to the quarterback more often in 2016, especially when Ayers slips down inside on passing downs.
Bucs DT Gerald McCoy – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The Bucs will likely line up Smith, McCoy, Ayers and rookie Noah Spence on the field at the same time in obvious pass rushing situations, creating matchup nightmares for opposing offenses. Add in an aggressive style many expect from defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who will dial up some linebacker blitzes, along with bringing some players from the secondary on occasion, and that should create some confusion, which should allow McCoy to use his quick burst to get to the quarterback early and often in 2016.
McCoy will be entering his seventh season and has seen it all for the most part. His knowledge, combined with his skill, should make him the most effective pass rusher for the Buccaneers this season. The four-time Pro Bowler has come close to being a double-digit sacker the last three years, but this is the year he makes it happen – thanks to the arrival of Ayers.
Zach Shapiro’s 2016 Bucs’ Leading Sacker – DE Robert Ayers
After two attempts the last two years to bring in a solid sack-man via free agency – Michael Johnson in 2014 and George Johnson in 2015 – I believe the third time will be the charm for Tampa Bay. Ayers, a defensive end coming off a 9.5-sack season with the Giants, has improved significantly since underperforming in Denver following his first-round selection in 2009. His progress indicates that his early struggles could have had more to do with the defensive scheme than his ability – a point he would certainly make.
Bucs DE-DT Robert Ayers – Photo by: Getty Images
Ayers credited his development to former defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who Ayers said could identify players’ strengths and put them in position to succeed. Mike Smith, as Ayers and many others have said, can do the same. Since coming to Tampa, teammates, most notably Gerald McCoy, have said that Ayers brings an “edge” or “nastiness” to the defensive line. Bucs fans would appreciate that kind of attitude, and they saw a glimpse of it in the preseason as the front four amassed 16 sacks.
Ayers was far from the only defensive end to have a good preseason. Noah Spence looked as advertised and Jacquies Smith, who contributed four of the 16 sacks, resembled the player who had four sacks in the first two games of 2015. And looking inside, Gerald McCoy, who’s led the team the last three years, could also stake his claim on a fourth straight sack title in Tampa.
My guess is that players – and fans – would opt for five players to get eight than one player to get 10. But Ayers, the most experienced and angriest of the defensive ends, strikes me as the player who will lead the charge, with nine sacks. He’s shown so far in the offseason that he can take advantage of McCoy’s double-teams and close in on the quarterback. If all goes as planned, Spence will develop into that player for Tampa Bay and Smith will emerge as a reliable second end. For the 2016 season, though, Ayers has the opportunity to become the sack leader he was drafted in the first round to be.
Eric Hochy’s 2016 Bucs’ Leading Sacker: DT Gerald McCoy
Predicting that McCoy will lead Tampa Bay in sacks is a pretty solid bet. He’s done so in each of the last three years while making the Pro Bowl the last four seasons.
Bucs DT Gerald McCoy – Photo by Cliff Welch/PR
Quarterback Jameis Winston may have taken over as the face of the franchise and middle linebacker Kwon Alexander may have generated plenty of buzz with his rookie campaign, but the defense still belongs to McCoy. He’s shown what type of play he can bring when he avoids serious injuries by racking up 26.5 sacks over the past three years from the defensive tackle position. And at age 28, McCoy still has a few big-time seasons left to establish himself as one of the franchise’s top defensive linemen of all-time.
One thing McCoy hasn’t been able to do, however, is bump his season sack total up into double digits. That’s something no Bucs player has been able to accomplish since defensive end Simeon Rice registered 14 in 2005. McCoy got oh-so-close in 2013 by picking up 9.5 sacks and followed that up with 8.5 the past two seasons.
Tampa Bay has managed to increase its overall sack total each of the past four seasons and defensive coordinator Mike Smith’s new defense intends to bring pressure from all angles by blitzing more than any Lovie Smith/Leslie Frazier unit ever did over the last two years. The Bucs also brought aboard a pair of edge rushers in veteran free agent Robert Ayers and rookie Noah Spence, and still have Jacquies Smith and his 13.5 sacks accumulated over the past two seasons.
Considering the team’s recent lack of success in signing and drafting defensive ends, there can be an understandable wait-and-see attitude toward the newcomers. But fans know what to expect from a healthy McCoy and this could be the year he puts up some truly impressive numbers.
Scott Reynolds is in his 22nd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Don’t care who leads. AS long as they get 60 as a team.
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