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.
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.
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.
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 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.