FAB 2. Bucs Should Copy Coughlin When Constructing The D-Line
There is no doubt that Tampa Bay’s defensive line will be revamped this offseason, and if I’m Bucs general manager Jason Licht I’m leaving all options on the table – including listening to offers about possibly trading defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. The six-time Pro Bowler will turn 30 this year and has battled injuries each year over the last few seasons. This might be the only time to move McCoy while his value is still high – but only if the right offer comes along.
The other option to consider is blowing up the defensive line and starting over. Tampa Bay’s defensive line accounted for 20 of the team’s 22 sacks, which ranked dead last in the NFL last year. The Bucs had 38 sacks in 2016 with the defensive line accounting for 28 of them.
There used to be a time when the Buccaneers had a sack in 69 straight games over several years when Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp anchored Tampa Bay’s defensive line.
Those days are gone – long gone.
The Bucs’ 22 sacks last year were the third-worst finish in franchise history. Tampa Bay was sackless in five games last year against the Minnesota Vikings (33 pass attempts), New York Giants (49 pass attempts), Carolina Panthers (32 pass attempts), Atlanta Falcons (36 pass attempts) and Detroit Lions (44 pass attempts), and only notched one sack in few other games.
Without a legitimate pass rush all season, the Bucs went from first in third down defense last year to last in third down defense this year as the team’s sack total fell. Tampa Bay’s total defense and pass defense also ranked last in the league because there was no pressure up front.
“We can’t get pressure with a four-man rush,” beleaguered Bucs head coach Koetter admitted at the end of the 2017 campaign. “I’m not telling anybody any big secrets here.”
No, he’s not.
Licht has done a good team of finding a capable quarterback, stocking the team’s passing game with weapons and building a stud linebacker corps, but the defensive line came into the 2017 season ill-equipped to get to the quarterback. Licht and Koetter relied too much on five aspects as it pertained to the defensive line.
First, the Bucs were counting on speed rushers Noah Spence and Jacquies Smith to return from offseason surgeries to provide most of the pass rush from the edge. Spence had one sack-fumble in Tampa Bay’s season opener before going on injured reserve due to him needing a second shoulder surgery. Smith never fully recovered from a torn ACL injury he suffered in Week 1 in 2015 and was released a few weeks into the season.
Second, Licht was hoping to squeeze one more year of productivity out of Robert Ayers, Jr., who had six sacks, a forced fumble and a safety in his first year in Tampa Bay as a free agent signing in 2016. That didn’t happen as Ayers was a shell of his former self in 2017, notching just two sacks, which is quite a fall for a player that posted 9.5 in New York as a Giant just two years prior.
Third, Licht re-signed defensive end Will Gholston to a five-year, $27.5 million contract extension in the offseason. Gholston is not known to be much of a pass rush threat, but he did record three sacks in each of the two previous seasons. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, Gholston failed to record a sack for the first time in his NFL career. Instead of pursuing Calais Campbell, who had a career-high 14.5 sacks in Jacksonville last year, the Bucs sunk $7 million into Gholston in 2017. The 30-year old Campbell was paid $10.5 million last year by the Jaguars.
Fourth, free agent defensive tackle Chris Baker was expected to provide some interior pass rush to justify the $6 million Tampa Bay paid him in 2017. Instead, Baker disappointed and finished with half a sack, while splitting time Clinton McDonald, who was second on the team with five sacks.
And fifth, the Bucs counted on continued greatness McCoy. Yes, McCoy made his sixth straight Pro Bowl and led the team in sacks with six, but that is the fewest number of sacks McCoy has had since the 2012 season. It’s worth noting that McCoy had six sacks last year, and his sack numbers have been declining every year since 2015 when he notched 8.5 sacks, which matched his sack total from the 2014 season.
McCoy was one of one of five returning Bucs defensive linemen to have fewer sacks in 2017 than they did in 2016 under defensive line coach Jay Hayes’ watch.
Now Licht has one year to fix the pass rush.
I say one year because the Glazers picked up Licht’s option year last summer, and then granted Koetter and his coaching staff one year to turn the Bucs around. Koetter is 14-18 over the last two years after finishing with a very disappointing 5-11 record last year, but Licht, is just 22-42 since taking over as general manager in Tampa Bay in 2014. Both enter 2018 on the hot seat.
The advice I would give Licht would be from this moment on, follow Tom Coughlin’s approach when it comes to building a defensive line. The long-time New York Giants head coach kept adding pass rusher after pass rusher through draft after draft, and that approach helped the G-Men win two Super Bowls. His mantra was that an NFL team can never enough quality pass rushers.
Why do the New England Patriots only have five Super Bowl rings instead of seven? Because they were beaten by the Giants and their menacing pass rush in two Super Bowls in 2007 and 2011.
When Coughlin arrived in New York in 2004 he inherited a talented defensive line that featured future Hall of Famer defensive end Michael Strahan, a first-round pick in 1993, playing opposite Osi Umenyiora, the team’s second-round pick from the previous season. In Coughlin’s first draft in New York, which was without a first-round pick due to the trade for quarterback Eli Manning, he spent a third-round pick on defensive end Justin Tuck, who went on to have 66.5 career sacks, and the Giants’ sixth-round pick on defensive end Eric Moore, who flamed out after four sacks in the league.
With three pass rushers like Strahan, Unmenyiora and Tuck, who was moved inside to defensive tackle, Coughlin’s defensive line was set for years to come, right? Wrong.
Coughlin spent the first-round pick in 2006 on defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, who had 38.5 career sacks, and selected two defensive tackles in Barry Cofield and Guy Whimper in the fourth round in the same draft. Cofield, who had 19.5 sacks, was a five-year starter for the Giants before signing with Washington in free agency, while Whimper was a reserve defensive tackle.
When Strahan retired after winning the Super Bowl in 2007, New York still had plenty of pass rushers with Umenyiora and Kiwanuka outside and Tuck and Cofield inside. But two years later, Coughlin fortified the defensive line even more by drafting defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul in the first round in 2010 and defensive tackle Linval Joseph in the second round. Defensive end Adrian Tracy was also drafted in the sixth round, but didn’t last long in the NFL. Meanwhile, Pierre-Paul has notched 58 career sacks, while Linval had nine sacks in four years before moving on to Minnesota in 2014.
Coughlin would go on to draft five defensive linemen in his final three drafts. The Giants added defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins in the second round and defensive end Damontre Moore in the third round in 2013. The next year he drafted defensive tackle Jay Bromley in the third round and spent a fifth-round pick on defensive end Devon Kennard. Coughlin drafted defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa in the third round in 2015 before stepping down.
Coughlin carried that same approach to Jacksonville this season where he serves as the team’s executive vice president of personnel. The Jaguars already had some talent up front with defensive ends Yannick Ngakoue, who was coming off an eight-sack rookie campaign, and Dante Fowler, Jr., a former first-round pick who missed the 2015 season and wound up with four sacks a year ago. In 2016, the Jaguars also signed defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who was fresh off a Super Bowl win in Denver and recorded 6.5 sacks in his first year in Jacksonville.
Yet Coughlin wasn’t satisfied. He signed free agent Calais Campbell to a four-year, $60 million deal before drafting another defensive end – Dawuane Smoot – in the third round. Then in October, Coughlin traded for Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.
What was the end result? A whopping 55 sacks, which is second in the NFL, led by a career-high 14.5 from Campbell and 12 from Ngakoue, which is a personal best, while Jackson and Fowler each posted a career-high eight sacks. By the way, the Jaguars are in the playoffs and will face Pittsburgh after beating Buffalo in last week’s Wild Card game.
Meanwhile, Licht has drafted just one defensive end – Noah Spence in the second round in 2016 – and one defensive tackle – Stevie Tu’ikolovatu in the seventh round last year. That has to change, and I don’t mean loading up on pass rushers in this year’s draft. I mean Licht needs to add a defensive end or defensive tackle – or both – in every draft from now on to add competition, safeguard against injury and to fortify the Bucs’ defensive line.
Licht was one of many general managers that balked at giving the 30-year old Campbell that kind of money. Meanwhile, 35-year old Cameron Wake still put up 10.5 sacks in Miami this year, while 35-year old Terrell Suggs notched 11 in Baltimore and 37-year old Julius Peppers also posted 11 for Carolina. Some players like Campbell, Wake, Suggs and Peppers can play well into their 30s, some like Ayers in Tampa Bay, simply can’t.
The Bucs might have a similar feeling about Detroit’s free agent defensive end Ziggy Ansah, a former first-round pick that has battled injuries, but managed to record 44 sacks in five years, including 12 this season. Ansah is not a sure-fire free agent hit, but in a free agent class that lacks proven pass rushers, he could be the best available as Dallas is expected to place the franchise tag on defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who finished with a career-high 14.5 sacks. So why not make a run at Ansah, but don’t stop there.
Make a run at Dion Jordan, a former first-round bust in Miami, who finished half a season with Seattle with four sacks and may finally be living up to his athletic potential. Then make a run at Seattle defensive end and former Buccaneer Michael Bennett. Then draft a pass rusher, perhaps even in the first round with North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb or UTEP’s Marcus Davenport.
Wouldn’t you feel better if Tampa Bay’s defensive end position consisted of Ansah, Bennett, Chubb/Davenport, Jordan and Spence on the depth chart this year? The Bucs currently have the fifth-most salary cap room in the NFL with just over $61 million to spend, according to OverTheCap.com, and possibly even more (see Fab 3). With the hit rate less than 50 percent in NFL free agency, it’s important to add quantity as well as quality to ensure that some pan out – just like the Bucs did in 2002.
So just because the Bucs might sign Ansah or another defensive end in free agency doesn’t mean that the position has been addressed and the team will address other needs in the draft. Or at least it shouldn’t.