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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. How The Bucs’ Free Agent D-Linemen Fit
The Buccaneers signed former Philadelphia nose tackle Beau Allen as their first free agent addition in 2018. Allen, an accomplished run stuffer, signed a three-year contract worth $15 million and the deal can reach $16.5 million with incentives. The deal averages $5 million per year.
As PewterReport.com forecasted, it wasn’t Ndamukong Suh nor was it Dontari Poe that the Bucs signed at defensive tackle. The signing of the unheralded Allen, who was a wave nose tackle for the Super Bowl champion Eagles last year, is reminiscent of the Bucs’ signing of Clinton McDonald to a four-year contract worth $12 million back in 2014. McDonald, a wave nose tackle who was coming off a Super Bowl in Seattle, had a deal that averaged $3 million per year.
The 26-year old Allen is the Bucs’ modern day version of McDonald – just younger, bigger and a little more expensive due to NFL inflation. Allen is 6-foot-2, 333 pounds and is five years younger and about 35 pounds bigger than the 31-year old McDonald, who was an effective pass rusher with five sacks last year, but struggled to stay healthy during his time in Tampa Bay. McDonald missed 19 games over four years, including two last season.
McDonald did have more pass rush production coming to Tampa Bay than Allen does. In four years with the Eagles, Allen has 87 tackles and just two sacks, including one last year. Allen will likely be a two-down run defender, which was the role that Chris Baker was slated to play and ultimately underachieved in during his only season with the Bucs. McDonald is not expected to be re-signed, as the Bucs also signed defensive lineman Mitch Unrein on Wednesday.
Unrein, who turns 31 on March 25, was signed to a three-year deal worth $10.5 million with $4 million guaranteed. The 6-foot-4, 301-pound has the versatility to play defensive tackle or strongside defensive end, and gives the Bucs a more capable backup to Will Gholston, and will perhaps put some heat on him as he underachieved last year after cashing in on a big contract.
The Bucs’ previous backups for Gholston over the past two years have been two nondescript players in DaVonte Lambert and Channing Ward. With eight years in the NFL under his belt, Unrein is a clear upgrade. Keep in mind that Unrein has experience playing in a 3-4 defense as a defensive end with stops in Chicago (2016-17), San Diego (2015) and Denver (2011-14), so when the Bucs deploy 3-4 fronts this year Unrein could very well be part of that package.
Without much talent at the defensive end position in free agency, the Bucs focused on improving their interior defensive line, especially run defense where Tampa Bay ranked 23rd in the league, allowing 117.5 yards per game. If the Bucs want to increase their sack total from 22 in 2017 to a more respectable number like 40 they will need to force teams into more passing situations.
Pro Football Focus ranked Allen and Unrein as the two top interior run defenders in free agency. Allen had a run stop percentage of 11.3 percent while Unrein had a run stop percentage of 10.8. I have no idea what those percentages mean or how they were derived, but I wanted to share them with you anyway given the ranking for those two new Buccaneers.
The signing of Allen and Unrein does not preclude Tampa Bay from signing or drafting another defensive tackle. The team needs at least four on the 53-man roster. Prior to adding Allen the Bucs only had six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, who was the team’s seventh-round draft pick last year and missed his rookie season on injured reserve.
Bucs DL Mitch Unrein – Photo by: Getty Images
Like Robert Ayers, Unrein is a swing player that can play defensive end and tackle. He essentially gives Tampa Bay five players that can play the edge and four players that can play inside. The team is still deciding whether or not to keep Ayers, and will add another defensive end and defensive tackle in the 2018 NFL Draft for competition.
The Bucs had New Orleans defensive end Alex Okafor in for a visit on Thursday to gauge his progress from last year’s torn Achilles tendon. The 27-year old Okafor was drafted by general manager Jason Licht when he was in Arizona and was coached by new defensive line coach Brentson Buckner.
Here’s how the current Bucs’ 2018 defensive line depth chart could shake out:
LDE: Will Gholston, Noah Spence, Mitch Unrein DT Gerald McCoy NT Beau Allen, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu RDE: Robert Ayers, Will Clarke
Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith had a three-tackle rotation going with Chris Baker, McDonald and McCoy last year, and Sealver Siliga, who is an unrestricted free agent, was the seldom-used fourth defensive tackle for goal line and short yardage plays. The Bucs need one more, and the 2018 NFL Draft is full of talented defensive tackles and the team has shown interest in Washington’s Vita Vea and Fort Hays State’s Nathan Shepherd among others.
With McCoy turning 30 this year the Bucs could look for a pass-rushing defensive tackle in the draft that is capable of playing both three-technique and nose tackle as McDonald did in his role last year. McCoy won’t play forever, perhaps another year or two in Tampa Bay, and the Bucs would be wise to find an eventual replacement to groom behind him.
The danger in signing Allen and Unrein is that the Bucs tied up $8.5 million in two run defenders that likely won’t be on the field in nickel defense when Tampa Bay will likely deploy that sub package at least 60 percent of the time in the pass-happy NFC South. The Bucs see the value in bringing in two bigger, tougher defensive linemen to boost the work ethic in the defensive line room as Baker was seen as a detriment in that area last year.
So why didn’t the Bucs go after Suh or target Poe in free agency? The fact that Suh was released in Miami along with center Mike Pouncey should tell you that despite their talent, the Dolphins felt like those two linemen were responsible for some of the bad chemistry in the locker room.
Teams aren’t exactly beating down the doors to sign Suh immediately, either. The 31-year old made it known that he wants to go to the highest bidder, and if that’s the case, that means winning isn’t as important to Suh as it probably should be. Leadership is not Suh’s strongpoint. He is visiting New Orleans on Friday and has drawn some interest from Dallas, too.
Bucs DT Beau Allen – Photo by: Getty Images
The Bucs believe that a locker room with two distinct personalities like McCoy and Suh would have a hard time coexisting, and that is because the two players play the same position and would get paid roughly the same amount of money. That could cause some unwanted friction. McCoy openly lobbied on Twitter for the Bucs to trade for a few defensive players, including defensive end Michael Bennett, but notice how McCoy didn’t lobby for Suh? I don’t blame him.
As for Poe, the fact that he is on his third team in three years should tell you something. Poe registered 2.5 sacks and 39 tackles as Atlanta’s starting nose tackle last year, while Allen had 20 tackles and one sack as a reserve in Philadelphia. Tampa Bay believes that with more snaps Allen could be just as productive as Poe for about half the price. Poe signed a three-year deal in Carolina worth between $9-10 million per year. The Bucs signed Allen and Unrein for less than what the Panthers paid Poe.
Time will tell if the signings of Allen and Unrein pay off and if the Bucs did enough to better the defensive line in free agency. I’m not about to tell you that these were good moves or bad moves because neither Allen nor Unrein is a difference-maker.
But I don’t know if Poe is really a difference-maker, either, and I agree with the team’s thinking that Suh could have been a headache in the locker room and not worth it in the long run. We’ll see what other defensive linemen the Bucs add this offseason and how these puzzle pieces all come together.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th 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 spent six years 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: email@example.com
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