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Tampa Bay entered free agency with a league-high $43 million in salary cap room and an opportunity to improve its pass rush this offseason.
Cincinnati defensive end Justin Smith was available in free agency and Kansas City DE Jared Allen was available via a trade. However, neither player landed with the Bucs and instead signed with San Francisco and Minnesota, respectively.
Tampa Bay's defense ranked No. 2 overall in the NFL last year, but it was 17th against the run and notched just 33 sacks in 2007. Needless to say, there is plenty of room for improvement.
The Bucs head into the 2008 season banking on the maturation process of DE Gaines Adams, who was the fourth overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft and recorded six sacks as a rookie. Adams might have to improve in his second year like Houston DE Mario Williams did in his sophomore campaign in 2007 in order to help Tampa Bay's pass rush improve and prove the Bucs were right in terms of their decision to pass on Smith and Allen.
Tampa Bay is also counting on DE Greg White, who led Monte Kiffin's defense in sacks (8) and forced fumbles (7) last year, to build on that success. The former Arena Football League player must show that his 2007 performance was no fluke since 34-year-old DE Kevin Carter is no longer considered a consistent pass-rushing threat and DEs Marques Douglas and Jimmy Wilkerson are unproven in Kiffin's scheme.
Second-year DE Greg Peterson must also prove that he's a capable pass rusher at the pro level. The same can be said for rookie DT Dre' Moore, who will work exclusively along the interior of the line.
The Bucs are expecting big things from under tackle Jovan Haye this year. He is coming off a season where he led all defensive linemen in tackles with 97 and notched six sacks. The Bucs have been attempting to sign Haye, who is in a contract year, to a long-term deal since last fall, but to no avail.
Tampa Bay also needs nose tackle Chris Hovan to become more productive in the sack department. Otherwise, DT Ryan Sims, who had a knack for penetrating the offensive backfield in his brief playing time last year, could see more playing time in 2008.
Unless their defensive line demonstrates the ability to get after the quarterback on a consistent basis in 2008, the Bucs likely will be in the market for defensive linemen again in 2009.
However, there may not be many talented players to choose from. Listed below are the defensive ends and defensive tackles that are scheduled to become free agents next year.
DE Bert Berry (6-3, 264) Arizona DE Kevin Carter (6-6, 305) Tampa Bay DE Chauncey Davis (6-2, 277) Atlanta DE Ebenezer Ekuban (6-4, 275) Denver DE Demetric Evans (6-3, 275) Washington DE Ronald Fields (6-2, 321) San Francisco DE Bryce Fisher (6-3, 265) Tennessee DE Ndukwe Kalu (6-3, 265) Houston DE Josh Mallard (6-2, 259) Denver DE Jerome McDougle (6-2, 264) Philadelphia DE Mike Montgomery (6-5, 265) Green Bay DE Eric Moore (6-4, 268) St. Louis DE C.J. Mosley (6-2, 314) New York Jets DE Shantee Orr (6-0, 250) Cleveland DE Julius Peppers (6-7, 283) Carolina DE Kenny Peterson (6-3, 253) Denver DE Derreck Robinson (6-4, 289) Miami DE Bo Schobel (6-4, 265) Arizona DE Antonio Smith (6-4, 280) Arizona DE Corey Smith (6-2, 250) Detroit DE Josh Thomas (6-5, 271) Indianapolis DE Mike Wright (6-4, 295) New England
DT Kenderick Allen (6-5, 330) Minnesota DT Tim Anderson (6-3, 328) Atlanta DT Jonathan Babineaux (6-2, 286) Atlanta DT Rocky Bernard (6-3, 308) Seattle DT Ryan Boschetti (6-4, 311) Washington DT Colin Cole (6-1, 315) Green Bay DT Chris Cooper (6-5, 280) Seattle DT Damane Duckett (6-6, 318) San Francisco DT Dwan Edwards (6-3, 314) Baltimore DT La'Roi Glover (6-2, 290) St. Louis DT Amon Gordon (6-2, 312) Baltimore DT Howard Green (6-2, 315) Seattle DT Jovan Haye (6-2, 285) Tampa Bay DT Jason Jefferson (6-1, 296) Buffalo DT Tank Johnson (6-3, 300) Dallas DT Antwan Lake (6-4, 308) New Orleans DT Anthony Maddox (6-1, 295) Houston DT Rashad Moore (6-3, 325) Atlanta DT Michael Myers (6-2, 300) Cincinnati DT Darrell Reid (6-2, 288) Indianapolis DT Ian Scott (6-3, 302) Carolina DT Josh Shaw (6-3, 305) Oakland DT Ryan Sims (6-4, 315) Tampa Bay DT Kenny Smith (6-4, 289) New England DT John Thorton (6-3, 298) Cincinnati DT Larry Tripplett (6-2, 295) Seattle DT Marcus Tubbs (6-3, 318) Seattle DT Darwin Walker (6-3, 294) Carolina DT Ellis Wyms (6-3, 290) Minnesota DT Jeff Zgonina (6-2, 290) Houston
The player that likely will receive the most interest on the free agent market should he make it there is DE Julius Peppers. A former first-round draft pick in 2002, Peppers has terrorized many of teams, including the Bucs, en route to recording 56 career sacks.
However, Peppers notched a career-low 2.5 sacks in 14 games in 2007. That has the Panthers hesitant to sign him to a long-term deal. Peppers has spent the majority of his career at left end, but the Panthers have moved him over to right end this year. It should be interesting to see how Peppers fares there.
If the Panthers choose not to franchise Peppers and he hits the free agent market, the Bucs would be seriously interested in acquiring the 28-year-old speed rusher. The Bucs saw value in upgrading their center position while stealing Jeff Faine away from division rival New Orleans this offseason. Tampa Bay would see similar value – if not more – if that scenario played out with Peppers in Carolina.
Tampa Bay likely would move Peppers back over to left end opposite of former first-round draft pick Gaines Adams, which would give the Bucs a lethal duo at defensive end and one heck of a pass rush.
But Tampa Bay's first priority might be re-signing its own free agents, including Haye and Sims. Both players could draw more interest than any other defensive tackle scheduled to hit the free agent market next year.
Although the Bucs are scheduled to have approximately $35 million in salary cap room in 2009 (not counting money they could roll over from this year), they might find it difficult to justify giving Sims a long-term, lucrative deal when Hovan is under contract through 2010 and has his base salary scheduled to escalate from $1.6 million this year to $3 million in '09.
Should Haye get away in free agency next year, the Bucs could target Seahawks free agent DT Rocky Bernard, who has notched 25 career sacks. Bernard is 29 years old, so he still appears to have gas left in the tank.
Dallas' Tank Johnson is also scheduled to hit the open market next year. While he has been successful in a Cover 2 scheme before, Johnson's off-the-field baggage could outweigh his production on the football field.
As of right now, it doesn't appear as though there will be a lot of talent to choose from in free agency as far as defensive linemen are concerned. That said, the Bucs' best bet likely is to continue to negotiate with Haye's agent and hope that Peppers hits the free agent market as scheduled in 2009.
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