The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense has seen its defensive sack production climb steadily for three straight seasons, but last year’s total of 36 still falls short of expectations.
If the team plans on pushing that number into the 40s – something not seen from a Bucs defense since Simeon Rice was leading the rush in 2004 – it needs more pressure coming off the edge.
Charged with that task in 2015 will be a pair of defensive ends who first entered the league as undrafted free agents but are trying to become reliable NFL starters.
Tampa Bay enters training camp with Jacquies Smith and George Johnson penciled in to bookend its line. Smith impressed last year after being signed in September, racking up 6.5 sacks that put him two behind team-leader Gerald McCoy in that category. Johnson is back in Tampa Bay after beginning his career with the Bucs in 2010. He enjoyed his most successful season last year when he racked up six sacks in a backup role while in Detroit.
There’s a lot of practice, preparation and review time coming up before Week 1, but McCoy said Saturday he’s confident moving forward with Smith and Johnson on the ends. While waiting out a lengthy weather delay on the first day of training camp, the Pro Bowl defensive tackle spoke at length about both teammates.
“Jack is what we call him, which is Jacquies, and he was in Buffalo [before] and we watched him play,” McCoy said. “The crazy thing is when we watched film on them they played Carolina, I think, the week before us last year and he kept standing out. In our room we kept saying, ‘Who is this guy?’ When we brought him in, coach said, ‘Hey, that’s that guy we were watching on tape.’
“So he always had something to him, but once he got comfortable and he stopped thinking so much he was able to produce the way he did. And he’s only going to get better because now he’s really relaxed. He puts all the same work in and works even harder but now he’s comfortable out there.”
“George, he was here in my first year here,” McCoy continued, switching to Johnson. “So this is my second go-around with George. He’s always been able to rush the passer. When George couldn’t do anything else, when he got here he could rush the passer.
“He’s done nothing but mature and he’s just going to keep growing. He carries himself completely different than what I remember and that’s a good thing because he’s ready to roll.”
Also competing for playing time at either defensive end position will be veterans Larry English, T.J. Fatinikun, William Gholston, Lawrence Sidbury Jr., George Uko and Da’Quan Bowers, as well as rookies Jamal Young and Ryan Delaire.
With Lavonte David still under a soon-to-expire rookie deal, some have become anxious during the ongoing contract negotiations. However, Lovie Smith assured fans that the star linebacker won’t be leaving Tampa any time soon.
“I would tell the fans it’s great that they’re paying attention, and they should,” Smith said during his press conference Friday. “But Lavonte will be taken care of.”
Smith emphasized past comments where he’s called David one of the best outside linebackers he’s ever coached. And for someone who’s coached the likes of Derrick Brooks and Lance Briggs, that’s exceptionally high praise.
“I think I’m on record… you can go back to any shot I’ve given on Lavonte David on how I feel about him,” Smith said. “And I feel the same way. That person and those fans who are thinking that way, no one loves him as much as I do.”
It’s hard to imagine a scenario where, at the very latest, an extension isn’t signed during the season. However, it’s likely the two sides could reach an agreement sooner. In Friday’s Fab 5, Scott Reynolds wrote that sources have told PewterReport.com that “talks are progressing and that a deal for David during training camp is quite possible,” and to expect the former Husker to become the league’s highest paid 4-3 outside linebacker.
So, while it might take the front office a little longer to hash out details, they’re at least on the same page with one thing: the Buccaneers need Lavonte David for the long-term.
“When I say ‘I’, (I mean) we as an organization,” Smith said. “In time, we’ll get this taken care of and Lavonte hasn’t missed a beat. I have seen him and he’s just excited. Again, in time we’ll get that taken care of.”
Fans showing up to One Buccaneer Place to see their boys in pewter and red open training camp will have to hope Sunday’s weather is improved from what the Bay area saw over last few days.
Earlier in the day the team told the media that the Saturday 2:30 p.m. start has been pushed back to 5:00, but around 4:15 it was announced that the open practice was canceled. The team is still hoping to get some type of work in at some point Saturday, but if it happens it will not be open to the public. There is a possibility that a workout could happen off site.
PewterReport.com will stick it out throughout the evening in case there is practice, and we are expecting some players and Lovie Smith to be available later on Saturday.
George Johnson wasn’t a part of last season’s 2-14 nightmare, but the former Lion already feels a sense of urgency from his new teammates to rid themselves of 2014′s disappointment.
“I see these guys and they don’t want 2-14,” Johnson said. “They want to be better and prove people wrong. You can see how hard they work. I thought I worked hard, but guys (out here), they are working a lot harder than me.”
Johnson got his first taste of practice in the Tampa heat (at least since 2012) during OTAs and mini-camp, however training camp presents a new challenge. Over the next three weeks in the sweltering conditions, the six-year pro is looking forward to seeing his teammates come together and fight through the season’s first test.
“One thing I want to see is just how tough we are, if we can take the heat and practice hard every day,” Johnson said. “During camp we get extremely tired, days are drawn out. But to see how guys are able to keep fighting and building just shows the kind of character they have.
“We actually bond more in camp than we do during the season. This is the time to build the chemistry and foundation.”
After a six sack season in 2014 while playing in a rotational role, Johnson is looking to take the next step in Tampa Bay and become the team’s first double-digit sack man since Simeon Rice in 2005.
Of course, the Bucs also have rising star Jacquies Smith who could beat him to it. Either way, a race to 10 sacks between teammates would be a great scenario for a squad that collected 36 in total last season.
“Just for them to bring me in and believe that I can be that double-digit sack sack guy, it shows they want someone (to start a new trend),” Johnson said. “It’s a challenge for me and the other defensive ends on this team.”
Johnson is expected to start at left defensive end opposite Smith on the right side come Week 1. This is a familiar position for the Rutgers product as he’s spent the majority of his career on the left side in a base 4-3 Cover 2 defense, making this a seamless transition to Tampa Bay.
“I’ve always played in this defense,” Johnson said. “Even in college we played the Tampa 2, and coming into the pros my first couple of years it was Tampa 2. I’m really familiar with it, and coming here makes it even better because I’m playing with great guys around me.”
Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith wasted little time making it official Friday afternoon: the starting quarterback position is rookie Jameis Winston’s to lose.
But even before announcing the day’s biggest news – a decision most fans assumed was coming, anyway – Smith made it a point to address one of the team’s most glaring weaknesses entering training camp.
Prior to opening up Friday afternoon’s press conference to questions, Smith let it be known that the Bucs’ unsettled situation on the offensive line will remain that way until pads come on and live action begins.
“When you evaluate linemen, it’s pretty hard to evaluate them when you don’t get a chance to practice in pads,” Smith said during his opening statement. “In about three days or so we’ll be in pads and be able to get some better evaluation on some of our players.
“I felt like we had a good start to our offseason program, kind of setting the direction we wanted to go. But now it’s about finishing it.”
Smith was noncommittal on specific position battles outside of placing Winston atop the quarterback depth chart, but his unsolicited mention of a unit that struggled to open running lanes and protect passers last year highlights how critical improved play in that area will be in 2015.
Heading into tomorrow’s first practice, two of five starting positions along the line appear to be there to earn. Barring injury, center Evan Smith, left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Demar Dotson are expected to be back as starters. That leaves left tackle and right guard up in the air.
Second-round draft picks Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet will be given opportunities to win jobs at left tackle and right guard, respectively, but will have plenty of competition from a group that includes Kevin Pamphile, Garrett Gilkey, Patrick Omameh, Kadeem Edwards.
“I haven’t talked to all of our football team about the depth chart and where our starting rotation will begin, but we just started on meetings this morning,” Smith said. “This afternoon we’ll start getting into football a little bit more, but we’re going to be a good football team. We realize there are areas we need to improve but now it’s time for all that talk to cease and we get to work on the practice field.”
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced today that they have placed wide receiver Louis Murphy, who injured his ankle, on the Active/Non-Football Injury List and DT Akeem Spence on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform List due to a back injury.
Head coach Lovie Smith addressed both players during his Friday press conference.
“There are two players who will be sidelined,” Smith said. “Akeem Spence has a back injury; he will not be practicing. And Louis Murphy hurt his ankle, a freak accident, so he will not be practicing. You will not see those two players practicing on the football field tomorrow. Everyone else should be good to go.”
Due to their distinction as active, both players will still count on the 90-man roster.
The Buccaneers are gearing up to start two rookies along the offensive line, leaving some fans and media members skeptical of the unit’s overall improvement.
General manager Jason Licht acknowledged that having two first-year guys isn’t ideal, but insists that this approach is about the bigger picture. Along with believing Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet are special players, Licht wants them to go through the growing pains together and build chemistry from the start.
“Can’t lie, it’s going to be a learning process,” Licht said. “You’re going to take some lumps early. But if you have really talented rookies like we think we do, whether they start Week 1 or whenever, when they’re playing and making mistakes together as rookies it’s like a fraternity. Those guys grow and get better together, and it’s way better than spending a lot of money in free agency.”
Licht was quick to point out the team got away from the plan a little bit last year. And while he didn’t mention any names, it’s almost certain he was referring to the signing of guys like Anthony Collins and Oniel Cousins. But now they’ve changed course and Licht seems content starting Smith and Marpet, knowing they’ll learn together along with Jameis Winston. Not to mention having Smith at left tackle allows Demar Dotson to stay at his natural side
“We’re really excited about these guys, particularly with a young first overall pick quarterback,” Licht said. “These guys are always together and it’s great to see that.
“And Demar Dotson on one side (right), too. We’ve got some pieces. I think that position group is going to shock people the most this year.”
With training camp set to open in just three day, the front office and coaching staff of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are steadily tweaking their roster and on Wednesday announced that they have signed cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah, safety Kimario McFadden and cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz.
Adjei-Barimah (5-11, 200) is a college free agent, who played collegiately at Bowling Green (2010-14), starting 20-of-52 games, totaling 150 tackles, 21 passes defensed, 8.5 tackles for loss, five interceptions, three forced fumbles and two interceptions. He will wear No. 38 for Tampa Bay.
McFadden (5-11, 197) originally entered the NFL as a college free agent with the Atlanta Falcons last season, before spending time on the Falcons’, Buccaneers’ and Carolina Panthers’ respective practice squads. The South Carolina State product also spent part of this offseason with Carolina. McFadden will wear No. 2 for Tampa Bay.
Shabazz (6-2, 185) comes to Tampa Bay after spending part of this past offseason with the Indianapolis Colts, where he signed as a college free agent following the 2015 NFL Draft. Shabazz played collegiately at West Chester, where he appeared in 47 games, tallying 151 tackles, 32 passes defensed, nine interceptions, five tackles for loss, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one blocked kick. He will wear No. 41 for Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers also waived safety Deshazor Everett and safety Derrick Wells. Wells had been placed on the Active/Non-Football Injury List yesterday, prior to being waived.
–Part of this report is courtesy of the Buccaneers Communications Department
The bulk of Jason Licht’s interview on 620 WDAE focused on topics ranging from Jameis Winston’s work ethic to the resurgence of Logan Mankins to overall team excitement heading into training camp. But in closing, Licht revealed a interesting take on a tight position battle.
After explaining to a fan how the waiver wire works, the general manager noted that the Buccaneers had already used it to their advantage when they signed D.J. Swearinger in May. While many assumed the former Texan would compete for a backup or rotational role, Licht seemed to think he has a legitimate chance to earn the starting job.
“(The waiver wire) will give us a leg up and we already feel like we’ve improved our team a lot with D.J. Swearinger,” Licht said. “He’s already stepped in and there’s going to be some serious competition for a starting safety job from D.J.”
Licht had success using the waiver wire last season, claiming Jacquise Smith in September. Despite limited action, Smith finished the year with 6.5 sacks and plenty of promise towards the future. Now, Licht feels like they might’ve found another gem in Swearinger, and says they’ll continue exploring options with the No. 1 waiver.
“We love everything about him and we were lucky to get him, just like last year with Jacquise Smith when we had the seventh overall waiver claim,” Licht said. “But now we have No. 1 and we’re going to take advantage of it.”
A former second-round pick out of South Carolina in 2013, Swearinger still has a lot of upside and newfound confidence in Tampa Bay. The 5-foot-10, 208-pound safety will likely compete with Chris Conte and Major Wright to start opposite Bradley McDougald in Week 1.
The Buccaneers had a busy offseason in 2015 to say the least. From the seven-man draft class that started with their hopeful franchise quarterback, to the addition of a veteran player at every position on defense, plenty of help is hopefully on the way to Tampa.
However, draft and free agency aside, general manager Jason Licht believes the most significant piece was added in January.
“If we wouldn’t have signed or drafted any player, we still think we are a better team than we were last year,” Licht said during an interview Tuesday on 620 WDAE. during the annual town hall style function “(And that’s) because of the addition of Dirk Koetter.”
While Licht also mentioned quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian and assistant offensive line coach Butch Barry as reasons for improvement, the general manager says Koetter affects every aspect of the offense while providing experience and leadership to help Lovie Smith.
“Lovie can’t oversee everything at all times, and he’s focused on defense,” Licht said. “No coach that I know of can watch and keep tabs on everything, so just the discipline there. And we had a lot of penalties on offense last year, so hopefully (having an experienced OC) is going to correct that.”
“But just the game plan, the knowledge and experience he has, and being able to adjust (will help the team).”
Koetter is known for running a fast pace, pass-heavy offense from his time in Jacksonville and Atlanta. And while success in the system is generally measured by the performance of skill position players, Licht believes the tempo and structure will facilitate the offensive line’s play as well.
“Even the offensive line play is affected by the offensive coordinator,” Licht said. “Does he want to get it out quickly? Does he want three, five or seven-step drops? What is the philosophy there? If you go back and watch Dirk, the past he’s had as a coordinator, he does like to get the ball out quickly. That will affect how we protect the quarterback and we’re excited about that.”