BUCS’ DEFENSIVE LINE FREE AGENCY PREVIEWWith free agency scheduled to begin at 4:00 p.m. on March 11, PewterReport.com brings you its annual free agency preview by position. PewterReport.com has been taking a look at what Bucs will become free agents at each position, who the Bucs have under contract at the previewed position, and taking a look at five players that could fit into Tampa Bay’s plans, known as the Bucs’ Best Bets. Today it’s Tampa Bay’s defensive line, followed by linebackers tomorrow.
BUCS’ PENDING FREE AGENTSTampa Bay only has two unrestricted free agent defensive linemen in defensive end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim and defensive tackle Gary Gibson. Te’o-Nesheim started 13 games at left defensive end and was a huge disappointment after signing a one-year, $1.323 million contract as a restricted free agent in 2013. Te’o-Nesheim finished the season with just one sack, which came in the season opener and eventually lost his starting job to rookie Will Gholston. He will not be re-signed.
Gibson played for former head coach Greg Schiano at Rutgers and was strictly a backup nose tackle behind rookie Akeem Spence. Gibson played sparingly and turns 32 this year, which means he won’t be pursued in free agency by the Bucs.
WHAT THE BUCS HAVEDefensive end Adrian Clayborn has 13.5 sacks in three seasons after missing 13 games in 2012 with a torn ACL. He rebounded from his injury to record six sacks last year, but Smith called him a solid defensive end – not a great one. The contracts for Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers, a former second-round pick, are up at the end of this year, and neither may be re-signed.
Bowers has been a bust, notching just five sacks in three years and getting passed on the depth chart by Gholston, who recorded two sacks as a rookie and wound up starting the final three games at left defensive end. The Bucs also have Steven Means, the team’s fifth-round pick last year, who rarely saw the field, in addition to unheralded ends Scott Solomon and Marvin Booker.
Tampa Bay has a two-time Pro Bowler in defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who has erupted for 14 sacks in the past two seasons, including a career-high nine in 2013. McCoy is the unquestioned leader of the defensive line and is the key to Smith’s Tampa 2, one-gap defense with his ability to penetrate.
The depth at defensive tackle behind McCoy is thin. Akeem Spence enters his second season as the team’s nose tackle, although the Bucs may try to find him some competition in free agency as his pass rushing skills are limited. The Bucs also have Everett Dawkins, David Hunter and Matthew Masifilo on the roster at defensive tackle.
WHAT THE BUCS NEEDTampa Bay desperately needs a defensive end with the speed to get to the quarterback off the edge, according to new head coach Lovie Smith. The Bucs haven’t had a player like that since defensive end Simeon Rice produced double-digit sacks for the team in 2005 before getting injured in 2006. Smith isn’t sure the team has that player on the current roster and early reports suggest that the Bucs are in hot pursuit of Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson.
Aside from a stud defensive end, the Bucs also need some talent behind and next to McCoy at defensive tackle. If an injury would strike McCoy, the entire play of the defense would suffer. The Bucs want to get a pass-rushing nose tackle to help the inside push on passing downs and better depth is needed at both tackle spots.
BUCS’ BEST BETS1. Cincinnati DE Michael JohnsonThe 27-year old Johnson is one of the most sought-after free agents this year. Despite not being as accomplished as Minnesota pass-rusher Jared Allen, Johnson does have 26.5 sacks over the past five years, including 15 over the past two. The Bengals franchised the 6-foot-7, 270-pound Johnson last year after he recorded 11.5 sacks, but he only recorded 3.5 sacks last year and the Bengals will likely move on from him. Johnson would give Tampa Bay a big, athletic speed rusher off the edge that the team is currently missing. Reports are that the Bucs will be making a big play for Johnson in free agency, but he already has drawn interest from seven other teams thus far.
2. Minnesota DE Jared AllenAllen is one of the most prolific pass rushers of modern day football with 128.5 sacks in 10 years, including double-digit sacks in each of the last seven seasons. He’s also forced 29 fumbles in his career. The Bucs could use an edge rusher like Allen, but aside from wanting a king’s ransom in free agency, Allen will also turn 32 in April and wants to play for a legitimate playoff contender, which all but eliminates Tampa Bay. The only chance the Bucs would have of landing Allen would be the fact that he played for defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier when he was the head coach of the Vikings.
3. Chicago DE Corey WoottonSmith drafted Wootton in Chicago five years ago and has seen him develop over the years. In 2012, Smith’s last season with the Bears, Wootton had a career-high seven sacks and two forced fumbles, but his production dipped in last year as he recorded just 3.5 sacks with two fumble recoveries and one forced fumbles. Still, at age 26 and blessed with a 6-foot-6, 270-pound frame, Wootton has the size, athleticism and experience that NFL teams could pursue in free agency. The Bucs might go after Wootton if they fail to land some of the bigger-named, more productive defensive ends in March, but they are expected to have some stiff competition from the Bears.
4. Chicago DT Henry MeltonMelton was a Pro Bowl defensive tackle in 2012 with six sacks, but tore his ACL in late September last year and was lost for the season. Complicating matters is the fact that Melton was arrested for a misdemeanor in October and is not fully recovered from knee surgery. Still, at age 27, Melton, who was the Bears’ franchise player in 2013, could be a nice wave defensive lineman for Tampa Bay as he recovers unless he can break the bank in free agency and take advantage of a somewhat weak defensive tackle market. It’s unclear if the Bucs would want his services, but he does have a past with Smith from their time together in Chicago.
5. Seattle DE Michael BennettThe Buccaneers made a huge mistake in not re-signing Bennett last year as the team struggled to produce a pass rush from the defensive end position. Adrian Clayborn finished with six sacks, but Bennett’s replacement, Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, only had one. Meanwhile, Bennett opted to take a one-year, $5 million deal with Seattle where he won a Super Bowl. Now, after leading the Seahawks with eight sacks, Bennett wants a long-term lucrative deal although many NFL teams consider him to be a good, but not great pass rusher. Bennett would be better than any defensive end currently on the Bucs.
TOP 5 DEFENSIVE LINEMEN IN 2014 FREE AGENCY1. Cincinnati DE Michael JohnsonThe 6-foot-7, 270-pound Johnson is a freak of an athlete, running a 4.69 and possessing a huge wingspan. But he has underachieved in all but one of his five NFL seasons, and that should concern some teams about his motor and future production.
2. Minnesota DE Jared AllenAllen turns 32 this year and although he is still a high-level pass rusher, his productivity could diminish at any moment. Allen won’t be returning to Minnesota and wants to cement his NFL legacy by playing for a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2014.
3. Dallas DT-DE Jason HatcherHatcher was a solid defensive end in the Cowboys’ 4-3 scheme, but took his game to another level as a defensive tackle in the 4-3 defense, notching a career-high 11 sacks and two forced fumbles earning a Pro Bowl berth. The Cowboys really want to re-sign him.
4. Seattle DE Michael BennettA year after leading the Buccaneers in sacks with nine, he produced a team-high eight for Seattle and helped the Seahawks win their first Super Bowl. Bennett wants more than a one-year deal and will be looking to get paid substantially in free agency.
5. NY Giants DT Linval Joseph The 26-year old Joseph is a big, powerful run-stopper that has the ability to get to the passer. Over the past three years the 6-foot-4, 323-pounder has compiled nine sacks and the Giants would love to have him back.
UP NEXT: Linebackers
Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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