FAB 3. The Bucs’ Forgotten Draft Pick
PewterReport.com forecasted the overhaul of the Buccaneers defensive line and the release of defensive tackle Chris Baker a month ago. When the construction of the 2018 defensive line is complete it may not even resemble the 2017 unit, which could be a very good thing considering Tampa Bay finished dead last in sacks with just 22.
In addition to Baker, Tampa Bay is contemplating the release of 32-year old Robert Ayers, who is slated to make $6 million this year, including a $1 million roster bonus if he’s on the team by March 18, and there are several free agents along the defensive line that may or may not return, including defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga and defensive end Will Clarke. Defensive end Ryan Russell is a restricted free agent.
Instead of trying to figure out who may be leaving Tampa Bay, the easier question to answer might be which defensive linemen are staying? Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive ends Will Gholston and Noah Spence will suit up in red and pewter this season, but they are the only sure things. Defensive lineman Davonte Lambert is also under contract, as are defensive ends Channing Ward and Pat O’Connor, but they are far from locks to make the team.
There is also one other defensive lineman that is on the Bucs roster that you might have forgotten about. That would be defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, Tampa Bay’s seventh-round pick from a year ago.
Tu’ikolovatu spent his rookie year on injured reserve after suffering an MCL sprain in the preseason, but could figure into Tampa Bay’s plans at defensive tackle this season, especially with Baker’s departure and McDonald and Siliga currently unsigned. The 2017 season was generally a disappointment for every Tampa Bay Buccaneer after the team finished 5-11, but for Tu’ikolovatu it was doubly disappointing because he couldn’t practice, he couldn’t get better from a technique standpoint and he couldn’t gain a greater understanding of Mike Smith’s defense because he wasn’t out there on the field.
“It was definitely different being more of a student than a player last year,” Tu’ikolovatu said. “I just focused on learning from the older guys and the tricks that they have learned and how they maintain their bodies through the season and see what they do, it helped me. It’s hard to believe how long some of these guys have played for, but after seeing some of the tricks they know, you can see why. That was a big thing for me to learn.”
Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy does a great job of taking young players under his wing as a team captain, and did that with Tu’ikolovatu during his rookie season.
“Stevie came in and handled his business,” McCoy said. “He’s a great man that made sure his family was in order, and he didn’t have to be around here. Some guys on I.R., they do their workouts and rehab and leave. Stevie would stick around and help us, whether it was running errands for us or going to get us food. He was here for us and that’s what I love about him. In order to be a diligent guy and a great teammate there has to be something inside you as a man first. He has all that, and I’m excited to have him here.”
McCoy imparted some of the wisdom he’s gained as a six-time Pro Bowler on the USC product, but there was another Bucs defensive lineman who also mentored Tu’ikolovatu, and that was Siliga. Tu’ikolovatu formed an instant connection with Siliga, and not just because of their shared Pacific heritage. Siliga and Tu’ikolovatu are both near 340 pounds and that was beneficial to the rookie.
“Sealver’s a lot buffer than me, but we have similar body types,” Tu’ikolovatu said. “I know a lot of rookies when they go to different teams and different clubs and there is nobody with a similar body type, they have to figure things out themselves, and that can be rough. Sealver has been the person this whole season that I can lean on for anything because he moves like I move. He’s been a huge help. I hope he comes back so I can keep learning from him.”
The Bucs haven’t shut the door on Siliga’s return, but having a similar-sized defensive tackle like Tu’ikolovatu might make him expendable, especially after Siliga was seldom used last year and recorded just eight tackles while making over $1 million. Tampa Bay needs to increase its sack totals in 2018, and Siliga had just 6.5 sacks in his seven years in the league, including one with the Bucs in 2016. Siliga wasn’t much of a pass rusher at either Utah or USC, but is quicker and has more upside, which might give him the upper hand if the team plans to keep just one of their mammoth defensive tackles.
“I think the pass rush is always a priority, but we just didn’t get in a groove this year,” Tu’ikolovatu said. “I think once we catch that groove we’ll get on a roll. I know our guys weren’t happy about it and will be working extra hard on it this offseason.”
Because the Bucs like to deploy a multiple defense that can shift from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 front, Tu’ikolovatu has some scheme versatility from his college days.
“I feel comfortable in a 3-4 or a 4-3 front,” Tu’ikolovatu said. “I know that both defenses require certain things from nose tackles and I have what it takes to play in either.”
It will be interesting to see what Tu’ikolovatu can bring to the table in 2018 after what was essentially a redshirt season last year and most of the experience he picked up was cerebral. Linebacker Davante Bond was essentially redshirted the same way in 2016, spending his rookie season on injured reserve after suffering a hamstring injury in training camp and he wound up as a contributor on special teams and on defense last year.
But, two years ago after wide receiver Kenny Bell missed his rookie season due to a season-ending hamstring injury during training camp he didn’t survive the preseason and was released before his second year in the NFL even began.
“Last year I feel like I improved the most in learning how this business works,” Tu’ikolovatu said. “I wasn’t able to do much physically, but what I was able to do is learn that the competition is real. Guys can come and go quickly. You can’t just come in and do what you did in college. You have to be prepared. There are no scholarships here.
“You won’t last if you aren’t prepared. This is grown men feeding their families. You’re trying to do the same. What I need to work on is not being on I.R. I need to be physically ready to do my job.”
McCoy is ready to see Tu’ikolovatu apply what he learned behind the scenes last year when OTAs start up in April.
“He just sat in the room, learned and got better,” McCoy said. “He’s hit the weight room and worked diligently to get himself ready for next season and I can’t wait to see him back out there on the grass.”