FAB 2. Bucs Need To Rethink Scheme To Boost Pass Rush

I’ve been to the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl in back-to-back weeks to evaluate the defensive line talent and I’ve gotten a good look at most of the junior defensive linemen that weren’t in attendance to draw this conclusion.

Chances are that the Bucs’ pass rush isn’t going to get much better in 2018.

This is not a great year to find pass rushing defensive ends for Tampa Bay’s 4-3 scheme in free agency or the 2018 NFL Draft.

Oh, there should be some improvement over last year’s 22 sacks, which ranked last in the NFL and was 16 fewer sacks than what Tampa Bay produced in the 2016 season. But let’s look at the returning defensive linemen and forge some realistic expectations.

Bucs DT Gerald McCoy and DE Will Gholston - Photo by: Getty Images
Bucs DT Gerald McCoy and DE Will Gholston – Photo by: Getty Images

Six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who turns 30 next month, recorded six sacks to lead the Bucs last year and has seen his sack production decline in each of the past three seasons. The highest number of sacks McCoy has ever produced in his career was 9.5 in 2013. He recorded 8.5 sacks over the next two seasons before notching seven in 2015 and six last year, so getting eight sacks in 2018 would be realistic ceiling for McCoy at this stage of his career.

Defensive end Will Gholston was re-signed to a five-year, $27.5 million contract last season, and after two years of producing three sacks, Gholston didn’t record a single sack for the first time in his career in 2017. Gholston’s sack ceiling appears to be three and that would please the team because he’s not much of a pass rusher anyways and contributed zero sacks last year.

Reserve defensive end Ryan Russell doubled his career sack total from one in 2016 to two in 2017, and just isn’t that productive given the number of pass rushing opportunities he receives. Let’s suppose he continues to improve by one sack a year. That means the Bucs could expect three from him in 2018 – if he makes the team.

Noah Spence recorded one sack in his second season in Tampa Bay, which was cut short by a shoulder injury – again. Assuming Spence plays more than six games in 2018, and assuming he can return to the level of production he had as a rookie when he had 5.5 sacks, pencil in six sacks for a healthy Spence this year.

Bucs DT Clinton McDonald - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs DT Clinton McDonald – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald was second on the team with five sacks, and the team is interested in re-signing the 31-year old if the price is right, and would be thrilled if he produced five sacks again in Tampa Bay this year. Defensive tackle Sealver Siliga is also a free agent in 2018, but didn’t record a sack last year and doesn’t offer much in terms of rushing the passer. It’s unclear if he’ll return at this point.

Defensive end Will Clarke is also a free agent and the team wants him back if the contract numbers align with his value. He contributed 2.5 sacks last year and had a career-high four the previous year in Cincinnati. Let’s suggest his sack ceiling is four in 2018.

The Bucs are expected to part ways with defensive tackle Chris Baker after he underwhelmed last season with half a sack, and possibly 32-year old defensive end Robert Ayers, who has missed eight games over the past two years and saw his sack production decline from 6.5 in 2016 to just two last year.

Add up the reasonable sack expectations for McCoy (eight), Spence (six), Gholston (three) and Russell (three), and assume that McDonald (five) and Clarke (four return, and you reach 29 sacks in 2018. That’s nine more sacks than the 20 that the defensive line produced last year, which is better, but might be close to best-case scenario from those returning Bucs defensive linemen playing in the same 4-3 scheme.

Yet that’s not good enough to make a playoff run, and general manager Jason Licht knows it. Playoff teams typically get 40-plus sacks a season. Last year, Pittsburgh led the league with 56, followed by Jacksonville at 55.

Licht needs to sit down with defensive coordinator Mike Smith and defensive line coach Jay Hayes and discuss this with them. His message: Pass rush help is not likely on the way if the Bucs stay with the current 4-3 scheme.

Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

If the Bucs can’t apply more pressure on opposing quarterbacks they’ll continue to rank in the bottom third of the league in total defense, scoring defense, passing defense, third down defense, and of course, sacks. Another year’s worth of poor pass rush almost assures Tampa Bay of another losing record in 2018.

If that happens, expect regime change, and this time the Glazers might fire the entire front office in addition to the coaching staff.

Factor in a free agent class that has just four defensive ends with more than five sacks and the Bucs’ chances of landing a pass rusher that is game-changer this offseason look bleak.

Dallas will either come to a long-term deal with DeMarcus Lawrence (15 sacks) or give him the franchise tag. The same will happen in Detroit with Ezekiel Ansah (12 sacks), and if 37-year old Julius Peppers (11 sacks) wants to play for one more year it will be in Carolina. Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn, who was Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2011, recorded a career-high 9.5 sacks, but turns 30 in July. Six of his sacks last year came in one game against Dallas’ backup left tackle too, which is important for context.

The Bucs have to hope that Dallas restricted free agent defensive end David Irving receives an offer with a second-round tender that would allow Tampa Bay the chance to offer a multi-year contract that would only cost the team a second-round draft pick as compensation. The Bucs would have to spend a premium draft pick on a defensive end to begin with this year, and the 6-foot-6, 285-pound Irving had seven sacks in eight games playing the three-technique for the Cowboys last year.

Irving has 11.5 sacks in his three-year career, including 1.5 against Tampa Bay in 2016. The Cowboys are in a salary cap bind and need to make re-signing Lawrence a priority. Still, it’s not a foregone conclusion that Dallas won’t find a way to keep both Irving and Lawrence, so the Bucs can’t count on Irving as an option.

The problem with this year’s draft class is that a lot of the dynamic pass rushers not named Bradley Chubb are undersized guys that will transition better to the NFL as 3-4 outside linebackers than they would as 4-3 defensive ends. Chubb, who had back-to-back years with 10 sacks at North Carolina State, is the clear-cut top defensive end prospect and likely won’t make it to the Bucs, who have the seventh overall pick this year.

UTSA DE Marcus Davenport - Photo by: Jeff Heuhn
UTSA DE Marcus Davenport – Photo by: Jeff Heuhn

UTSA defensive end Marcus Davenport is a project, and better suited to be a second-round pick rather than No. 7 to Tampa Bay, as NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah suggested in his first mock draft. Despite the fact that Davenport failed to live up to the pre-Senior Bowl buzz, he’ll likely be over-drafted this year and wind up in the first round because of the lack of quality 4-3 pass rushers with size.

Davenport had 21.5 sacks for the Roadrunners, including 8.5 last year, but showed at the Senior Bowl that he’s likely not going to make an immediate impact as a rookie. He told me he met with the Bucs a couple of times in Mobile.

Kentavius Street, who played opposite Chubb at North Carolina State, had 1.5 sacks in his bowl game and another 1.5 sacks in the East-West Shrine Game, but only had eight sacks in his college career. Street met with Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg last week.

Ohio State defensive end Tyquan Lewis had 23.5 career sacks, but never more than eight in a season. He is an intriguing option, but how long would it take him to develop into a player that could get eight sacks a season in the NFL? The Bucs need help immediately.

Licht needs to share with Smith and Hayes, and linebackers coach Mark Duffner, who was at the Senior Bowl scouting this week, that the big-time pass rushers in this year’s draft are the undersized guys that 3-4 teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore tend to gobble up. Here are the players I’m talking about.

Arkansas State’s Ja’Von Rolland-Jones had 43.5 career sacks, which was half a sack away from tying Terrell Suggs’ all-time career sack record in college. He posted back-to-back seasons with 13 sacks, forced 10 fumbles and recovered two along with an interception. Rolland-Jones weighed in at the East-West Shrine Game at 6-foot-1, 245 pounds.

Central Michigan’s Joe Ostman posted 26 career sacks in college, including 13 last year. Ostman is a relentless defender, who has polished skills and tremendously quick hands. Like Rolland-Jones, Ostman played defensive end at 6-foot-2, 248 pounds, according to the East-West Shrine Game weigh-in. He’s currently being viewed as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

Ole Miss’ Marquis Haynes was a holy terror in the SEC where he recorded 32 career sacks, an astonishing 12 forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception for the Rebels. Haynes didn’t have fewer than seven sacks in any season and notched 10 as a sophomore in 2015. Haynes had a great week of practice at the Senior Bowl and plays bigger and stronger than his size would indicate. Yet despite playing defensive end for the Rebels, the 6-foot-2, 233-pound Haynes will have to be a 3-4 outside linebacker at the next level.

Oklahoma’s Ogbonnia Okoronkwo was a two-year starter for the Sooners were he recorded 17 of his career 20 sacks from 2016-17. He also forced five fumbles at OU and recovered two. He and Haynes were the two stand-out pass rushers in Mobile this week, winning with speed, spin moves and power. Okoronkwo is the smallest of the new wave of undersized defensive ends at 6-foot-1, 243 pounds, but he plays much bigger.

USC’s Uchenna Nwosu was a bit of a late bloomer in college with most of his production coming in a great season senior. Nwosu finished his Trojans career with 20.5 tackles for loss, 13 pass breakups, 12.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound edge rushing linebacker opened some eyes at the Senior Bowl.

By the way, the Bucs have interviewed Rolland-Jones, Haynes, Ostman, Okoronkwo and Nwosu either at the East-West Shrine Game or the Senior Bowl, so perhaps Licht and Smith already had the talk about playing more 3-4 and 3-3-5 defense this year and targeting more players that fit that scheme than traditional 4-3 defensive ends and tackles. Blitzing Alexander, David, Beckwith, Spence and guys like Okoronkwo or Haynes should the Bucs draft one of them is the only way I see Tampa Bay’s pass rush dramatically turning around in 2018.

I mentioned in a previous SR’s Fab 5 that the Bucs should switch to a 3-4 defense to make better use of their existing personnel, but it’s become even more clear to me with the available talent that is coming down the pike that the Bucs need to either abandon the 4-3 defensive front or at least be multiple on defense and run a 3-4 or 3-3-5 with even greater regularity in 2018.

I certainly don’t envy Licht. He needs to find pass rushers in a year in which they are scarce in both free agency and the draft, and there is no such thing as a pass rush tree to pick edge rushers from.

The players Licht winds up selecting need to make an immediate impact this year or he is simply adding talent for the next general manager and coaching staff as he is in a contract year, and the Glazers have put Dirk Koetter and his staff on notice that they have one year to right the ship.

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Scott Reynolds is in his 24th 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 son's Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]

30 COMMENTS

  1. Trust me Scott, my expectations will be real low this coming year, I wouldn’t want to make Licht cringe again! Besides, why expect better results with no coaching changes, and maybe bringing guys like Sims back?

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  2. Scott I feel you are swinging way too hard to the negative side now this year, but I suppose that’s fine 😛

    On a bigger note, if we really are going to a 3-4, don’t be surprised if we keep guys like Barker and Siliga. While the draft is filled with a lot of guys that project as 3-4 OLB pass rushers, the only reason those kinds of guys are able to do work is because they have fat guys in the middle eating up blocks and shedding them to capture RBs. McCoy is wasted in that role, and I think it would be silly to think 7th round rookie Stevie T is going to step in and dominate like that.

    Baker especially has worked out of a 3-4 front before, so I can see him being opposite McCoy if we go 3-4. But who to plug in nose? Stevie T? Siliga? McDonald? Then there’s depth to consider even if we get new pieces.

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  3. fixed that for you SR: Until this team changes the losing, stubborn, trust my system, never make any adjustment coaching that exists at One Buccaneer Place and ultimately proves it by making an unexpected postseason run I won’t believe in the Bucs and won’t overhype this team again.

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  4. My expectations were reasonable last year and I think overall we will be better this year. I never thought we were a 9-7 Team the year before and I don’t think we are a 5 and 11 team this year. We have a few obvious holes on both sides of the ball but with some good drafting and aggressive Free agency picks, we can be a playoff team in a year or two.

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  5. Surferdudes is right.
    Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.
    IMO Desean Jackson should be released and Chris Godwin should replace him. Far too much money (like Baker) with little to show for it.

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  6. Bucs, how did passing on Calais Campbell and signing Jackson and Baker work out for you?

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  7. Scott, The Bucs PASSED ON KAREEM HUNT!

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  8. I think just about everyone bought in. It was hard not to. It wont happen with me again next year either. I also dont care if they go 3-4 or 4-3. Either way they must stop playing so much cover 2 zone. Theyve gota be more aggressive and play more man and blitz more or it wont get much better. Yeah where were the double a gap blitzes? Same thing i said all year. Well that and where were more slants to djax? First went for 41. And more draw plays? First went for 36. Then they dissapeared. The lack of coaching was unbelievable this season. Im stunned they kept the coaches. They must have promised some sort of changes. Cant wait to see what. I hope its starting now with the coaches drawing up schemes…considering they all skipped the senior bowl. Wow nothing to see there I guess. And I hope it then turns into a real training camp where they practice tackle football. That would be a great start. Bucs coaches, please take heads out of rear ends! Thanks

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  9. All this chatter about Baker getting a Half a sack and being released but nothing about our high priced defensive end Gholston and his zero sacks getting the boot.

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    • He may get the boot if they feel it would be an upgrade. Depends on who they think they can sign and draft. You can bet this year there will be alot of change on the Dline. Its apparent to licht that smith is not going to adjust, so he either gets a new crop of linemen or loses his job…maybe both.

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  10. I been a Buc fan too long. I remain optimistic and have high hopes for the Bucs this year – wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve been a glutton for punishment so long that I now consider it a badge of honor. We never give up or retreat, we simply advance to the rear! Go Bucs!

    However, there is something that I would like for anyone to clear up for me. Where/when did the Bucs ever say they were changing to a 3-4 defense? Where did that talk come from?

    Last I heard from our still DC Mike Smith as for the difference between a 4-3 and a 3-4, Smith doesn’t think there’s much of a difference. Here’s what he said “We’re going to base out of a four-man front. But again when you play with a four-man front, you over shift and you’re in a 3-4. You start in a 3-4, you over shift and you’re in a 4-3. There’s not a whole lot of difference in terms of what you do, it’s a matter of how you’re going to put your shell in the back-end. And I think that’s the thing that you have to do, you have to give the quarterback different looks. Your front, there’s only so many things you can do.”

    Serious question! When did he or anyone at the Bucs say different? I apologize in advance if I missed the update.

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  11. Seem to recall Smith tried to run more 3-4 during his last year in Atlanta and it didn’t go well, though I could be mis-remembering that. Hoping the results are different if he decides to go that route in 2018.

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  12. welcome to the no-hype zone, Scott. when schiano’s 7-9 team with a horrible secondary landed revis and dashon goldson, i thought we had ourselves a steady playoff contender. freeman on the rise, doug martin projecting as a stud, lavonte looking like an MVP type player….what could go wrong? that was the last time i allowed myself to get optimistic about this team prematurely

    since then i’ve been resolved to not get excited about the bucs until they are relevant around thanksgiving. at least i had 2016….

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  13. And I just don’t get the love Sims gets from Licht and the coaching staff. I understand he’s evidently a great guy and all, but come on, when he’s in the game he might as well wear a sign that reads ” we’re running a pass play”. There’s tons of other “receiving” backs out there that can actually returns kicks and punts and offer more production in the run game.

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  14. To all of the Pewter Reporters. Thank you for so much insight into the players at the Senior Bowl. Your hard work is much appreciated.

    In the “bad old days” all we Bucs fans had was hope and the Senior Bowl always served as the beginning of the Season of Hope. We checked out the college draftees and knew just one or two of those guys would be the saviors that would elevate our team to well…………mediocrity. We knew in a few weeks we’d get Mel’s Big Blue Book in the mail so we could figure out which players we should, could, would select. Of course then Draft Day would come and the Bucs would choose players who often weren’t even in the book.

    So now, the Pewter Reporters have become naysayers even as macabee, Horse, Surfer, Martini and the other Baby Boomers’ long awaited Season of Hope is barely underway. Say it isn’t so Ethel.

    But alas, I still vaguely remember coming off another 5-11 season in 1978 when no one had much hope for a “New Day in Tampa Bay”. As Gomer Pyle would say, “Surprise, Surprise.” “Worst to First” indeed. “Remember the Jaguars”.

    I have learned to temper my enthusiasm over the years. I don’t ride Raheem’s emotional roller coaster as I once did. I have hope for a lot of things much more important than the Bucs…………like waking up each morning. So until I’m told by my doctor, “Scubog, I HOPE you have a good life insurance policy, you’re a gonner”, I’ll have hope to relive that day 15 years ago in San Diego when Gene screamed the words, “There’s the dagger” and it wasn’t in my heart.

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  15. What could the coaching staff have going on that’s more important than going to the Senior Bowl practices? Considering the thin ice below their feet, you’d think they’d want to get a really close look at these prospects.. i also think the idea of a 3-4 base defense is a good idea.

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  16. I would trade two high draft picks for a local fan base that could fill our stadium with BUCS fans and would cheer our team through thick and thin. We seem to have the opposite of a home field advantage. I am so jealous of the huge advantage that the Patriots, Eagles, Cowboys, Seahawks, Steelers, etc, have.

    Regarding local sports writers who are so good at pointing out team weaknesses and dampening fan enthusiasm, I know lots of people who have ugly, under-performing kids, but it rarely does any good to point that out and rub it in.

    On the positive side, at least we don’t live in Cleveland.

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    • Ahenneke. Im glad youre not the GM. Its a bandwagon city buddy. Trust me Ive been going to games since about 82. The place was packed when they won around the time of the new stadium. The waiting list drove up the prices. I paid 6 bucks in around 1990. The bandwagoners drove up the prices then never went because the play fell off. Its a shame. Im one who believes a losing team needs the fans much more than a winning team. Too bad it doesnt work that way with most.
      Also the local writers have nothing to do with dampening fans enthusiasm. They write what they see and hear. We judge off the games played. Just like us they want the team to succeed too. Ya cant let others judge for you.

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  17. Scubog, hope, and expectations are to different things. With this team moving forward, I’ll be hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. My UCF Knights lost all their games two years ago. When they hired Scott Frost, and old man O’Leary retired I saw he had that it factor, and my hopes were rewarded with progress then a once in a life time perfect season. Sorry to see him go. Frost quickly changed the culture, the offense, the attitude, you could tell things were going to be at least different if not better. I’ve seen enough of Licht the last four years, and Koetter the last three to realize what we’ve seen is what we’re going to get. Don’t expect Smith to switch to a 3-4, don’t expect Koetter to become a genius in the red zone, or have his troops practice harder. The ping bong table will stay, McCoy will make the same we need to do better statements. My hope is the Glazers find the right people next time around, I’ll still be here waiting. Hopefully Frost wants to be an NFL head coach next year, and we make it happen.

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  18. Sorry Scott, but I see us better than your win prediction of yours. Yes we need DdE’s, but if there are no worthy players in the 1st or even 2nd round then we can fill those two spots with other needs or trade down and draft those DE’s in 3rd and 4th rounds. I will agree we have seen enough on the DL that Baker, Ayers,Silgva, and yes Gholston should go too; let younger players try to become starters. The Buc world has not come to already predicting another awful season; it actually is just starting for us in another week. I’m hopeful like many;t most of us don’t let it ruin our day to day life if we lose games. Now if we start off very poorly as to our performances from players and coaches then I’ll join the bandwagon to say NEXT! Can some of you please stop looking in the past of players we should have, could have, didn’t get, and move on to the thought of what are we doing about making this a better team. Most of us know just about enough of the game to understand we are all knowing of nothing. Go Bucs! Make it our year!

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  19. Bucs fell in love with Kareem Hunt at the senior bowl last, hopefully they continue to do due diligence, I know early on you guys were on Rashad Penny, then the switch to Sony Michel, however, I can’t see how Penny’s senior bowl will move him up or down, his film hollers loudly as a big play back, watched him in the bowl game where he went crazy and a few other games during the year, hoping he would stay under the radar even though can’t, I would love to see this guy in Pewter, but I do not think he will be there in round two, given the success of RBs lately in the NFL

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    • You know what’s hilarious? The spin that the Bucs loved Kareem Hunt. Sure they did, they loved him so much the passed on him THREE times and let him fall to the 86th pick (they had the 84th pick).

      If that doesn’t show you Licht and Co loved a player in the draft (after he becomes the leagues leading rusher) then what does?

      It’s almost as bad as the “rumor” that ownership comandeered the draft room to take Aguayo. Ignoring the fact that the GM paid a heavy price to trade up in the 2nd round to draft him. Now that, my friends, is love. Not whatever BS spin Scott and Licht want you to believe about Kareem Hunt.

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  20. Rashad Penny showing up in the senior bowl so far in the second quarter. 73 yard TD reception and a plus 40 yard run

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  21. I cant believe the OL staff didnt even attend the Senior Bowl. If they stick with this OL and they dont sign any free agents or draft any OL AND they extend the awful Donovan Smith, then I will stop wasting my time watching them.

    Philly was just named the PFF OL of the year and they’re in the Superbowl with Nick Foles as their QB.

    If they are that stupid, fire them all after next year. Lame ducks is what they are. Extremely lame

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  22. The only reason they’re going to win any games this year, is because of the weaker schedule. Roy Cummings hit the nail on the head, when he said that they were just going through the motions during training camp last year, lethargic etc. Most Buc fans are foolish optimist, but hey, what else do you have as a Buc fan. The Glazers are the real problem. They need to sell the team to someone who can run this team the right way!

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  23. On one hand Scott has finally come around to the idea that the roster is full of holes and limitations that keep it from being a playoff team.

    On the other hand, Scott refuses to assign any accountability to the GM who is in his 5th year building said swiss cheese roster. Instead Scott writes that he doesn’t “envy” the man who is most resposible for being in the position he is in.

    You’re a funny guy Scott.

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  24. Licht needs to draft down and get two second picks, then take Oklahoma’s Brown LT in the first round; then Cherry in the second (feature back and break away run back specialist both) and then Okoronkwo DE also in the second round, Stephen Shepherd as your nose tackle in the third round, Michigan State’s Center falls to the fourth round with all the controversy at his college and we take him so we get our All Pro RG back. If any undersized DEs are left take one of them in the fifth round, Pinero from FL Gators in the sixth, and a fast Special Teams Ace in the seventh. Use Free Agency for a DB and a Safety and a back up OL. Keep Dotson, Pamphile (as a back up OT), and Beneoch (only a back up Guard only), and our backup Center (not Smith).

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  25. That way you don’t need to draft a top LG, just shift Smith to LG and he will be an All Pro there. Save money cutting backup Center Smith, Sweezy, our pudgy Free Agent DT Bust, our old DE, and have McCoy as the three technique DE in the new 3-4 and put our 6’8” DE for the 5 technique from Michigan State who is solid against the run despite no sacks as the DE on the other side. Put our two LSU MLBs in the middle and David on one side as an OLB and Okoronkwo as the OLB on the other side. Make those changes and insist on our DC playing more man to man and an aggressive 3-4, and I will be optimistic next year.

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  26. Thought provoking SR5

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  27. You are rounding back into style SR. 3 in a row, albeit late, but good. You know I am the ever optimist. And It sucks not to have hope. But with all being considered I’m kind of waiting for the shoe to drop and we go hunting for a new front office…ugggghhhh

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