Once the Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced final cuts this past weekend, their ensuing depth chart for Week 1 preparation against Atlanta wasn’t expected to look too different from the preseason.
And it didn’t … for the most part.
The one attention-grabbing tweak was at defensive end, where William Gholston has (for the moment) unseated Jacquies Smith to start opposite free-agent acquisition Robert Ayers.
Smith has done nothing but exceed expectations since joining the Bucs as a relatively unknown waiver-wire pickup following Week 1 in 2014. It was during that season, in fact, that Smith took starting reps away from Gholston and eventually finished second on the team behind Gerald McCoy with 6.5 sacks. Smith followed that up with a seven-sack campaign in 2015 and led the team with four this preseason.
When asked about the current situation from in front of his locker Wednesday afternoon, Smith didn’t hide his disappointment but also made it clear that he’s ready to do whatever it takes to get on the field and perform at a high level.
“I don’t really want to get into that,” Smith said about his thoughts on his role right now. “Since I first got into this league I’ve done whatever a coach asks me to do so if a coach sees a fit where he thinks he needs to play me, I’ll do the best to fill that role. A lot of people are going to ask me about not starting but it’s like in the NBA. There’s a sixth-man award and I take that role right now. Whatever opportunity you get you have to capitalize on.”
As for Gholston, the 25-year-old is entering his contract year after coming to the Bucs as a fourth-round draft pick in 2013 out of Michigan State. He played in all 16 games last season and made a career-best 11 starts, but his role has morphed in Tampa Bay. All 11 of Gholston’s starts last year were listed at left end but he spent plenty of time on the interior, as well.
“The more you can do the more you can do, but position flexibility the whole time I’ve been here is what really gives you a chance to get a real look, be it from this team or any other team,” Gholston said after expressing his excitement to begin the year as a starter. “If you can play inside and outside it’s a great thing.”
On the outside is where new Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith sees Gholston providing the biggest impact for now. It won’t be until kickoff Sunday at the Georgia Dome that Bucs fans get to see the exact difference in playing time, but head coach Dirk Koetter said both will get plenty of snaps.
“We’re going to rotate guys,” Koetter said. “I just think that’s the norm in the NFL right now. Atlanta is doing the same thing with their defensive line. It’s just tough. If you have the depth to rotate and you’re rotating fresh D-linemen against O-linemen, that’s definitely the way to go. That was always a hallmark of what [defensive line coach] Jay Hayes did in Cincinnati and that’s something we’ll try to do here.”
The offseason addition of Ayers combined with selecting rookie Noah Spence in the second round meant that playing-time decisions were coming no matter what.
“Obviously we have a lot of talented guys,” Jacquies Smith said about the team’s five current defensive ends and Gholston, who remains listed with the all-encompassing ‘defensive lineman’ tag. “We brought in a lot of talented guys and the guys that have already been on the team have been improving.”
Tampa Bay led the league with 16 preseason sacks and 12 of them came from the defensive line. Mike Smith is installing an attacking defensive scheme that differs from the Lovie Smith days and Gholston said he thinks the exhibition results can roll into the regular season.
“I feel like it puts more people in different opportunities,” Gholston said. “It isn’t the same thing. It’s so versatile as far as having so many different looks. Everybody can get a look and get put in the best position to make a play.”
Not all of those sacks and quarterback hurries came against starters, however, and they’ll be all but forgotten by Sunday afternoon, Smith said. “You can see we’ve done some good things in the preseason, but obviously the preseason doesn’t matter. We could go out the first game and not do anything and everybody will be like, ‘Where’s the pass rush?’
“So we just have to go out there and put it on tape every week.”