After a year in which the Bucs defensive line contributed to the lowest sack total in Tampa Bay in decades, there will be some significant changes this offseason.
One of the most recent additions to the Bucs D-line will be departing as the team is expected to release defensive tackle Chris Baker, who signed a three-year, $15.7 million contract last March as a free agent from Washington. His release could happen any time but will certainly occur before March 18, as $3 million of his $4.875 million base salary becomes guaranteed if he is on the Bucs roster at that time.
Baker’s release will create $4.875 million in salary cap room for the Bucs, who are believed to have over $61 million in salary cap room right now before any cuts.
The 30-year old Baker was lazy and was a bad signing by general manager Jason Licht, who hoped that the 6-foot-2, 320-pounder could add size and pass rush to the Bucs defensive line. Baker had 100 tackles, 9.5 sacks and five forced fumbles for the Redskins from 2015-16, but disappointed in his first season in Tampa Bay with 33 tackles and half a sack while getting paid $6 million.
PewterReport.com spoke with Licht at the Senior Bowl where he and his Bucs scouting staff and assistant defensive line coach Paul Spicer were scouting defensive ends and tackles in anticipation of a defense-heavy draft in April.
“Speaking as the general manager, we have a good nucleus of talent and we definitely need to provide our coaches with more players and more depth and I feel that lies on me, obviously,” said Licht, who has spent only two draft picks on defensive linemen in his four years in Tampa Bay. “I am cognizant of that, especially on the defensive side of the ball. We need to start focusing more on that side, and that falls on me. We need to add more players that add to the culture and we need to do a really good job of making sure we add players that don’t detract from the culture.
“I don’t feel like we have a lot of those players. We don’t. The vast majority of our roster is made of guys that my scouting staff and I are looking for. You can start with the four rookies that contributed last year (tight end O.J. Howard, safety Justin Evans, wide receiver Chris Godwin and linebacker Kendell Beckwith), those are the types of guys we want along with Kwon [Alexander] and Jameis [Winston] and those guys.”
Along the defensive line, the Bucs need more like Clinton McDonald who was also the Buccaneers Man of the Year for his community service work, and none like Baker. Blame Licht for signing Baker, but the Bucs G.M. doesn’t hang on to mistakes very long, evidenced by his release of defensive end Michael Johnson, quarterback Josh McNown and left tackle Anthony Collins after one year in 2015, and his release of kicker Roberto Aguayo, Tampa Bay’s second-round pick in 2016, last summer after just one season.
McDonald was supposed to be Baker’s backup at nose tackle last season, but wound up beating him for the starting job and for playing time while recording 29 tackles and five sacks in 14 games. The 31-year McDonald is an unrestricted free and the team would like to re-sign him, in addition to defensive end Will Clarke, who is also scheduled to be a free agent this offseason, if the price is right. McDonald made $2 million last year, which was the final year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2014.
One of the players that started his time in Tampa Bay as a positive contributor is defensive end Robert Ayers, Jr., who signed a three-year, $19.5 million contract in 2016. Ayers recorded 29 tackles, 6.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a safety in his first season in Tampa Bay despite missing four games due to injury. But last year was a different story as Ayers recorded 31 tackles, and only two sacks and two forced fumbles for the Buccaneers, who were dead last in the league with 22 sacks.
Tampa Bay has not made a decision on whether to keep Ayers, who missed four more games last year due to injury, or release him and save $6 million in salary cap room. Ayers, who turns 33 in September, has a $1 million roster bonus that is due on March 18 if he is still on the team. The guess here is that the Bucs move on from Ayers, who was a two-year starter.
“Some decisions will be very easy, and some we’re still having some internal discussions about,” Licht said.
One defensive lineman Tampa Bay will not be looking to part ways with is defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who is in Orlando this week for his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl. While McCoy has reached a place in his contract where the team could trade him due to a very low salary cap hit of just $500,000, the Bucs have no intentions of doing so. Although he turns 30 on February 25 and his sacks have decreased every year over the past three seasons, Licht still believes McCoy is one of the NFL’s elite defensive tackles.
“I still think that Gerald is in the prime of his career,” Licht said. “I don’t think that Gerald has lost a step by any means. I still think Gerald has one of the best get-offs in the league from a three-tech standpoint.
“Gerald did miss some time with an injury, but he came back from it and that’s a testament to him – although we were out of contention. I’m not worried about Gerald losing a step. We’re more focused on bringing in more depth and more players around Gerald.”
With better sack production and pressure from the defensive end position, Licht believes McCoy can increase his sack numbers in 2018 from the six sacks he totaled in 15 games last year, and is not interested in trading him for draft picks. Getting rid of the Bucs’ most productive pass rusher won’t help the team rush the passer better this year.
“We are not in discussions with anyone regarding Gerald,” Licht said. “Gerald is one of our best pass rushers and that’s an area where we need to get significantly better at.”
The Bucs are expected to look to both free agency and the draft for players that can help the team’s pass rush, but the two biggest names – Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence and Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah – likely won’t be available as neither team wants to lose their biggest sack producers. It’s not a great year to be searching for 4-3 pass rushers in free agency and the draft, and the Bucs, who have the seventh overall pick, likely won’t have a shot at drafting North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb, so it will require a good deal of proper evaluation and a little bit of luck to find productive pass rushers to add to the team in 2018.