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Despite losing starting nose tackle Chartric Darby to Seattle in free agency, Tampa Bay feels it could have a fairly deep and talented group at defensive tackle this year, but if that notion is going to pan out, Anthony McFarland, Ellis Wyms and Damian Gregory, all of whom finished the 2004 season on injured reserve, will have to fully recover from their respective injuries.

Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has spent the offseason in the lab trying to come up with a solution to the defense’s inability to shut down the run on a consistent basis. Last season, Tampa Bay ranked 19th in this area, which is unacceptable for a unit that prides itself on stopping the run, which allows Kiffin to turn his front four lose on passing downs.

Tampa Bay needs the 6-foot, 300-pound McFarland to live up to the $34 million contract extension he received in 2003. Last season, McFarland was inconsistent in his first attempt at playing under tackle, and the position overall suffered as a result of a plethora of injuries to several players. McFarland notched just three sacks and struggled to defend the run and provide a potent pass rush when the team really needed it.

McFarland is signed through the 2008 season, but 2005 could be his last season as a Buc if he struggles or fails to remain healthy. His cap value goes from $4.7 million this year to $6.2 million in ’06, which could be considered quite pricey for a player who has missed 19 games (16 regular season, three post-season) over the past four seasons due to a variety of injuries. As a result of those injuries, McFarland has notched just 18 sacks in six seasons and just seven quarterback takedowns over the past three years.

To put that number in perspective, second-year defensive end Dewayne White, who played three technique on passing downs due to the rash of injuries the Bucs suffered at defensive tackle last season, recorded six sacks, which was just one less than McFarland had produced over the past three seasons.

White (6-2, 273) is a talented and productive pass rusher, but he’s still best suited at defensive end since he’s still working on his run-stuffing skills, which was one of the reasons why the Bucs re-signed Greg Spires. Should McFarland struggle to produce in the sack column next season, don’t be surprised if Kiffin turns to White again on passing downs.

Although it’s extremely early, Tampa Bay is hoping it got a steal when it signed former Minnesota Vikings DT Chris Hovan to a one-year contract worth approximately $540,000 last week.

Hovan (6-2, 298) will play exclusively at nose tackle and will compete with Wyms (6-3, 279) for the starting job. Hovan is nearly 30 pounds heavier than Darby, which could help the Bucs run defense, but they want him to produce a pass rush as well. He’s notched 17 sacks in five seasons. Should he or Wyms face more double teams, which isn’t unusual at the nose tackle spot, McFarland should produce in the sack column since he’ll face more one-on-one matchups.

The addition of Hovan, who should benefit from the coaching of assistant head coach/defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, gives the Bucs three former first-round draft picks on their defensive line.

Wyms (6-3, 279) worked extremely hard last season and pushed McFarland for the starting under tackle spot in 2004. He could do the same this season or possibly win the starting NT job by beating out Hovan.

Wyms really needs to show that he’s capable of starting in 2005 if he wants to be around in 2006, which is when his cap value is scheduled to jump from $790,000 to $3.25 million as part of the six-year contract he was signed to by general manager Bruce Allen last offseason.

The player that will likely compete hard with Hovan for the starting one-technique spot is Gregory (6-2, 305), who the team really likes and was extremely high on before he suffered a season-ending knee injury. The bad news is Gregory might not be 100 percent until closer to training camp, which means Hovan should benefit from the extra reps since the “Tampa 2” is somewhat new to him.

The Bucs currently have four other defensive tackles — Jon Bradley (6-0, 301), Delbert Cowsette (6-1, 296), Bryan Save (6-1, 313) and Keith Wright (6-2, 275) — under contract, but all four players will be hard pressed to earn roster spots, unless, of course, the injury bug bites the team’s defensive line again in training camp and/or preseason.

The Bucs would feel pretty good about a defensive line that features defensive ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires and defensive tackles Anthony McFarland and Chris Hovan as starters in 2005. However, Hovan still has to prove that he can grasp the defense’s one-gap scheme. If he can do that, and all four players can stay relatively healthy, both the Bucs run defense and pass rush should be improved this season.

Tampa Bay appears to be finished addressing the defensive tackle position in free agency due to its limited funds, but Chidi Ahanotu, who re-joined the Bucs last season and went on to notch 19 tackles and 3.5 sacks while playing both under tackle and left end, is still out on the market. However, Ahanotu turns 35 in October.

The addition of Hovan could make the Bucs feel comfortable drafting a defensive tackle a little later than they might have otherwise. The Bucs like USC’s Mike Patterson and Northwestern’s Luis Castillo, but both players could go as early as the second round.

Iowa’s Derreck Robinson, Oklahoma’s Lynn McGruder, Auburn’s Jay Ratliff and Boston College’s Tim Bulman are all defensive tackles that the Bucs will consider drafting in the latter part of the second day of the draft.

Believe it or not, Tampa Bay’s 2004 defense actually produced a sack total (47) that was higher than the one the 2002 Super Bowl team did. However, the Bucs’ run defense is another story and definitely needs work.

The good news for the Bucs is the 2005 NFL Draft is extremely deep in terms of defensive tackles who excel against the run. The Bucs allowed 12 of their 16 opponents in 2004 to rush for over 100 yards, and they’re 0-19 since 2000 when the opposing team’s primary rusher carried the ball 24 or more times against them.

Current Position Grade: C

Buc Update Publishing Schedule (Dates Subject To Change)
April 8 – Linebackers
April 11 – Cornerbacks
April 13 – Safeties
April 15 – Kickers/Punters

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