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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Buckner’s Dream Job
Imagine going from being unemployed to being hired to do something you love.
Before you work your first day on the job, your new boss gives you an unexpected raise. Then he tells you to go ahead and take a paid two-week vacation before you start.
When you come back from that vacation and finally show up for work you are given an unexpected bonus to start on top of the unexpected raise – and you really haven’t done a damn thing yet to benefit your new employer.
This fantasy sounds good, doesn’t it?
Well, that’s kind of what happened to new Buccaneers defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, who was hired in February to replace Jay Hayes and help re-ignite Tampa Bay’s pass rush, which ranked dead last in 2017 with a paltry 22 sacks.
Brentson was hired and less than a month later he had a new starting nose tackle in Beau Allen and a versatile, key reserve in Mitch Unrein via free agency, and Will Clarke was re-signed. Then Tampa Bay signed Allen’s teammate, defensive end Vinny Curry.
A few weeks later, Bucs general manager Jason Licht shocked the NFL when he traded for New York Giants pass rushing defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
As if that wasn’t enough, Buckner received the good news that a bulked up Noah Spence has been cleared to work out and has recovered from his second shoulder surgery in a year.
And to top it off, the Bucs spent the team’s first-round pick on 6-foot-4, 347-pound defensive tackle Vita Vea – all before Buckner takes his first step out on the grass practice fields at One Buccaneer Place.
Call it fortunate, call it blessed – call Buckner overjoyed.
“The day we signed Beau and Mitch, Buck sent me a text in all caps that said, ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ME!’” Licht said. “Then we signed Vinny and he said, ‘LET THE GIFTS KEEP COMING!’ I wanted to text him and tell him we were after JPP and say, ‘Your birthday is right around the corner!’”
Tampa Bay’s revamped defensive line looks great on paper.
There are a few others, but chances are that the eight or nine defensive linemen that make it to Tampa Bay’s 53-man roster will be comprised of these 10 men.
I included Lambert, who broke his wrist last August and spent the year on injured reserve, on this list because – well, Licht told me to.
“I’m not counting Lambert out of the mix, either,” Licht said.
Mix is the key word. This is a mix – a mix of some very talented accomplished players.
The Bucs revamped their defensive line in 2014 by adding nose tackle Clinton McDonald, who was fresh off a Super Bowl win in Seattle, and prized defensive end Michael Johnson to a line that featured a younger McCoy, who was perhaps more in his prime from a health standpoint at the time. It didn’t translate to wins, as Johnson was a bust – as were most of Tampa Bay’s free agents that year – and the team finished with a surprising and disappointing 2-14 record.
In other words, be excited over the possibilities, Bucs fans, but don’t crown this unit yet. They haven’t recorded the first sack in 2018, nor have the Bucs won their first game.
Right now it’s a collection of what seems to be very talented parts. Yet like any offensive line, a defensive line has to come together and work together to be effective. As Bucs Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp once told me, to be effective, a defensive line has to become a fist rather than a hand featuring four individual fingers and a thumb.
If Buckner seemed like a kid at Christmas this offseason, unwrapping a bunch of toys under the tree, now it’s time for him to take them out of the box and assemble them.
History suggests that out of the free agent additions of Pierre-Paul, Curry, Allen and Unrein that one or two may not work out as the team anticipates. In fact, Licht will tell you that batting .500 in free agency is actually a high percentage.
And history reveals that 50 percent of first-round picks will be busts. Will Vea be a bust, or will he be closer to a “boom” player for the Bucs?
The fate of Tampa Bay’s defensive line this year may not even rest on the team’s new additions. One of Buckner’s main missions will be to get more out of the players he inherited when he became a Buccaneer back in February.
Having more talent around McCoy should help his sack total, which has slid each of the past three years from 8.5 in 2015 to just six this past season. But can Buckner help the 30-year old McCoy finally turn into the double-digit sacker he could before he’s out of his prime?
Perhaps more importantly, what can Buckner do for Gholston and Spence, two holdover defensive ends that figure prominently into the team’s plans after two disappointing seasons?
Coming off two really good seasons in which he posted a combined 116 tackles to go along with three sacks in each of those years, the 26-year old Gholston signed a five-year, $27.5 million that included $13.5 million in guaranteed money. As the team’s strongside defensive end, Gholston is instrumental in run defense, yet had only 36 tackles last year, which was his fewest total since recording 30 his rookie season in 2013. Perhaps more disappointing, Gholston failed to record a sack or a takeaway for the first time in his five-year NFL career.
“Will was the first to admit that he didn’t have a good year last year,” Licht said. “He’s had a great attitude this year and he looks really good. He’s changed his body quite a bit. He looks better and is moving around a lot better. He’s lost some weight. He looks a lot leaner, which is good for him.
“In 2016, he was one of our better defensive players. Even our new D-line coach felt like when he watched him in Arizona he was one of the better six-techniques that he saw that year. I’m pretty excited that we have him along with Vinny, JPP and Noah.”
As for Spence and his surgically repaired right shoulder, Licht is eager to see what type of player he can become as a situational pass rusher with Buckner’s help now that he’s healthy.
“We still have a long way to go, but he could be a big factor for us in that role,” Licht said. “I’m not counting him out whatsoever. He looks great. He’s 257 pounds right now. He looks much thicker and is still moving around the same as he did around this time. “Knock on wood – we think the surgery worked this time. It was a little bit different surgery. Hopefully it’s fixed for good – for the long run. I hate to use clichés – you’ve heard iron sharpens iron a thousand times – but that’s the type of attitude he has right now. I do know that a healthy Noah Spence is going to make an impact for us in some way shape or form.”
Licht has seen Buckner’s work first hand in 2013 when the two were with the Arizona Cardinals organization. Licht’s good friends – former head coach Bruce Arians and current general manager Steve Keim – raved about the job Buckner did for the past five years before Arians’ retirement promoted a coaching change and a new staff.
“We’ve got some guys he can work with,” Licht said. “I’ve seen Buck firsthand take guys like Darnell Dockett in his last year in the league and have one of his best years. Jacksonville got the most of out Calais Campbell’s ability last year, but at the time, I saw Buck turn Calais into the player that he has become. John Abraham – he was a castoff for the last couple of years of his career and have one of his better years in Arizona. Buck has also taken undrafted free agents and waiver claim guys and got the best out of them. He’s the happiest guy in this building right now with all of his new players.”
Vea, the newest defensive lineman, is in great hands as not only has Buckner coached defensive line at the NFL for the past five years, he played nose tackle in the league for 12 years, including five years in Carolina where he helped lead the Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII.
“With Vita, Buck can speak from experience and he is not the kind of guy to sugarcoat anything,” Licht said. “He’s been at all ends of the spectrum as a player, and that’s invaluable. It doesn’t always have to work that way. You don’t have to have played to be a coach, but the fact that he has played and is a very good coach is a bonus to our guys, especially Vita.”
Although the Bucs have yet to hit the practice field for the first OTA yet, head coach Dirk Koetter has marveled at Buckner’s energy.
“Buck is off to a fast start,” Koetter said. “It’s well documented that he did a great job [in free agency recruiting] with Vinny Curry. I love his energy. He’s a very upbeat guy. He’s definitely brought something to our building and our coaching staff. Jason had worked with him before in Arizona. We did our research when we were talking with other coaches he had worked with around the league. So far, it’s been all positive.”
Licht shares Koetter’s excitement about Buckner, and the mission that lies ahead in revitalizing the play of Tampa Bay’s defensive line.
“It’s going to be a little different this year with Buck here,” Licht said. “I’m really excited about Buck. I’m not comparing him to Jay or wanting to take a shot at Jay, but the fresh voice, the fresh face and his style – it’s going to be fun to watch.”