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Pass rush was a major issue for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2006. The Bucs generated just 26 sacks, and only 19 of those quarterback takedowns came from their defensive linemen.

An extra emphasis was placed on the pass rush this offseason. The Bucs fired defensive line coach Jethro Franklin and hired former Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer in January.

In March, the Bucs signed defensive lineman Kevin Carter, who has 97.5 career sacks, and defensive end Patrick Chukwurah, who is a former linebacker that will be used as a situational pass rusher.

Tampa Bay also used the fourth overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft to select DE Gaines Adams. It used its fifth-round pick to draft DT Greg Peterson, and two of the linebackers the Bucs drafted, Quincy Black and Adam Hayward, have the ability to be used as down linemen in passing situations.

The addition of all of these players has prompted the Bucs to experiment with the 3-4 defensive scheme. The Bucs are hoping some new looks and personnel up front will resurrect a pass rush that often times lacked a pulse last season.

But what happens if these additions don’t help the Bucs produce a potent pass rush this year? That likely would mean more changes for Tampa Bay’s defense in 2008.

But even if Tampa Bay’s defensive line proves to be effective against the run and pass this season, there likely will be changes made to this group since DE Simeon Rice will turn 34 next offseason and is the final year of his contract, Carter will turn 34 in September and DE Greg Spires is scheduled to turn 33 in August.

The good news for the Bucs is they are scheduled to be approximately $30 million under the salary cap next year, and the free agency class of 2008 appears to be littered with talent as far as the defensive end and defensive tackle positions are concerned.

Listed below are the top free agents-to-be at defensive end and defensive tackle in 2008:

Defensive Ends
Terrell Suggs (Baltimore) – Suggs originally entered the league as the No. 10 overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft. He has since notched 40 sacks while playing left defensive end and left outside linebacker for the Ravens. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound Suggs is only 24 years old and in his prime. However, there’s always a chance that the Ravens will use the franchise tag on Suggs in order to keep him off of the open market. But if they don’t, expect the Bucs to be seriously interested in signing him in 2008.

Justin Smith (Cincinnati)
– Although Tampa Bay drafted Adams to succeed Rice at right defensive end, Smith is a player the Bucs could take a hard look at if he is able to test free agency in 2008. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound Smith has recorded 41.5 sacks and 15 passes defensed since 2001. He originally entered the NFL as the No. 4 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Smith was slapped with the franchise tag earlier this offseason. If the Bucs feel Smith can play left end or under tackle they could attempt to sign him next offseason.

Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis)
– The Colts placed the franchise tag on Freeney earlier this offseason and they’re in the process of working to sign him to a long-term contract. Freeney originally entered the NFL in 2002 as the No. 11 overall pick in the draft. He has since recorded 56.5 sacks, which averages out to 11.3 quarterback takedowns per season. It’s difficult to imagine that the Colts would allow the 6-foot-1, 268-pound Freeney to get away, but the defending Super Bowl champions are facing some serious salary cap challenges and could be forced to let him go in free agency next year. Should that happen, expect several teams, including the Bucs, to aggressively pursue Freeney, who has excelled in the Tampa 2 defense under head coach Tony Dungy.

Jared Allen (Kansas City) – The 6-foot-6, 270-pound Allen has had some run-ins with the law during his three-year tenure in Kansas City, but he’s been extremely disruptive and productive on the football field. Allen, who was the Chiefs’ fourth-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, has recorded 27.5 sacks and 15 passes defensed as Kansas City’s right defensive end. Allen spent last season playing in head coach Herm Edwards’ version of the Tampa 2 defense, and he fared quite well, evidenced by his career-high 7.5 sacks.

Simeon Rice (Tampa Bay) – Rice has established himself as one of the best pass rushers to have ever played in the NFL. He’s recorded 121 career sacks since entering the NFL as a first-round pick in 1996. The 6-foot-5, 268-pound Rice helped the Bucs win a Super Bowl in 2002. However, he is 33 and will turn 34 next offseason. Rice is also coming off of a shoulder injury that limited him to two sacks before he was placed on injured reserve last season. The Bucs invested the fourth overall pick in Adams in April, which means they’ll likely let Rice walk in free agency next year.

Defensive Tackles
Cory Redding (Detroit) – Redding is versatile enough to play defensive end or defensive tackle. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound Redding has started 48 straight games for the Lions, who franchised him this offseason. A third-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, Redding has notched 12 sacks in four seasons. However, eight of those quarterback takedowns came in 2006, which was his first season under former Bucs defensive line coach and current Lions head coach Rod Marinelli. With Tampa Bay likely to use a under tackle-by-committee approach this season, the Bucs would love to have the opportunity to sign Redding next year.

Corey Williams (Green Bay) – A former sixth-round draft pick, Williams has worked his way into Green Bay’s starting lineup by notching 10 career sacks since 2004. Seven of those quarterback takedowns came in 2006. The 6-foot-4, 313-pound Williams plays the three technique for the Packers and could be recruited by the Bucs to do the same should he hit the free agent market as scheduled next year.

Ryan Sims (Tampa Bay) – Tampa Bay traded a conditional 2008 draft pick to Kansas City in exchange for Sims earlier this offseason. The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Sims has underachieved since entering the league as the sixth overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. Sims has notched just nine sacks in five seasons. The Bucs are hoping Sims takes advantage of his fresh start in Tampa Bay and plays well enough to justify the Bucs offering him a long-term, lucrative deal after the 2007 season. He will have to earn a backup job behind Chris Hovan at nose tackle first.

Randy Starks (Tennessee) – Starks has recorded 10.5 sacks since entering the NFL in 2004. He registered three of those quarterback takedowns at under tackle last season. The 6-foot-3, 307-pound Starks was a third-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft and could pique the Bucs’ interest should be become a free agent next year.

Albert Haynesworth (Tennessee) – Haynesworth has recorded 9.5 sacks and 12 passes defensed since entering the NFL as a first-round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. While he plays nose tackle for the Titans, the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Haynesworth could still be a player the Bucs pursue in free agency next year. Even if he can’t play under tackle, the Bucs could sign Haynesworth with the idea of moving Hovan to under tackle and plugging Haynesworth in at nose tackle.

Rien Long (Tennessee)
– Three Tennessee defensive tackles are scheduled to become free agents in 2008, and the Titans probably won’t be able to keep all of them. The 6-foot-6, 300-pound Long has recorded 9.5 sacks since entering the league as a fourth-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft. However, Long has missed a significant amount of playing time during his young career, including all of the 2006 season after undergoing two leg surgeries and nearly losing his foot to a staph infection. Long is considered a talented pass rusher and could be in the Bucs’ plans if he isn’t in the Titans’ next year.

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