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. SPICER SPICES UP BUCCANEERS DEFENSIVE LINE
Tampa Bay assistant defensive line coach Paul Spicer made the trip to Jacksonville this week with the other Buccaneers and he swears it was all business. There wasn’t going to be any time for nostalgia in Spicer’s mind, even though he is regarded as one of the best Jaguars players of all-time. Not with all of the work that needed to be done with Tampa Bay’s revamped defensive line that features two prominent newcomers in free agent signing Robert Ayers and second round pick Noah Spence.
Of the Buccaneers coaches that coached in Jacksonville, including head coach Dirk Koetter (2007-11), defensive coordinator Mike Smith (2003-07), linebackers coach Mark Duffner (2006-13), special teams coordinator Nick Kaczor (2008-11) and offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach (2007-10), Spicer spent the most time in Jacksonville with 10 years as a defensive end for the Jaguars and two years as an assistant coach for the team. So you couldn’t blame him if he was looking forward to coming back home – even if only for two joint practices with the Jaguars and a game on Saturday night.
“Honestly, I haven’t really thought about it a lot,” Spicer told me after Monday’s practice. “I still live there. Jacksonville is still my home, but I’m going back as a Buc and we’re going there to get better by Saturday. That’s it. It’s a business trip. I just want the guys to go out there and execute the techniques and fundamentals that [defensive line coach] Jay Hayes and myself are trying to teach and be successful in practice and on Saturday.”
The 41-year old Spicer was a 6-foot-3, 295-pound defensive end for 10 years in Jacksonville where he finished his career with 252 tackles, 28.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and one interception. His 28.5 sacks are tied for fourth in Jaguars history with former linebacker Kevin Hardy, and Spicer finished half a sack behind former Pro Bowl defensive John Henderson (29) for third on the all-time sack list.
Spicer’s game wasn’t flashy. It was workmanlike and born out of power and determination. If you don’t remember Spicer as a player, think Greg Spires rather than Simeon Rice. If you were to relate Spicer to today’s Buccaneers roster, think Clinton McDonald rather than Gerald McCoy.
Spicer was blue-collar all the way, entering the league as an undrafted free agent with Seattle in 1999, but he didn’t stick with the Seahawks. Instead, Spicer became a member of the Detroit Lions’ practice squad sandwiched in between stints with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League and the Frankfurt Galaxy of NFL Europe.
He signed with Jacksonville in 2000 and played for Smith, who was the Jaguars defensive coordinator, from 2003-07. Spicer’s best season came in 2005 when he had 37 tackles, 7.5 sacks and two pass deflections. During his playing days, Smith could see that Spicer was destined to become a football coach when he eventually hung up his cleats and jersey.
“Spice was a very good player for us in Jacksonville and you knew that he had the ability to be a good football coach because of his understanding of the game,” Smith said. “He was a very mature player and a quiet leader. We had more vocal guys, and he was quieter, but when guys had questions he was the one they would turn to. I coached him in Jacksonville, and in Atlanta I had an opportunity to have him as a guest coach and got to see him work with the players in a coach-player dynamic. I was very impressed.”
The self-made Spicer was the guy the coaches were always looking to replace. His attitude and his use of proper technique and fundamentals kept him in the league for 10 years as much as his physical ability did. The Jaguars finally released him in 2009 and Spicer signed with the Saints, but was released in the final roster cutdowns only to be re-signed as an emergency replacement for Charles Grant on January 5, 2010.
Spicer spent the 2010 season out of football before signing a one-day contract to retire with the Jaguars in 2011. He was then signed as an assistant defensive line coach with Joe Cullen for two years in Jacksonville and he began to fulfill his dream of being an NFL coach.
“He was an undrafted free agent who was cut three times and then he finally winds up at Jacksonville under Tom Coughlin and became an eight-year starter,” Cullen said. “He played the game physical and relentless on every snap. When I got to Jacksonville they weren’t going to re-sign him, so he went to New Orleans and got a Super Bowl with the Saints. Then he retired as a Jaguar and wanted to get into coaching.”
“Paul kept calling me and he had my phone ringing off the hook. I met him and we had breakfast at the NFL Scouting Combine and I mentioned him to Coach [Jack] Del Rio because I didn’t have an assistant defensive line coach at the time. So what I did was I grinded him for about a month 5:00 a.m. to midnight – just to see if he wanted to coach. He did a phenomenal job, so we kept Paul on as a paid intern. As the next season progressed, there was a coaching change and he was retained and we bumped Paul up to an assistant defensive line coaching position.”
After another coaching change in Jacksonville after Mike Mularkey was fired after one year, Gus Bradley didn’t retain Spicer or Cullen. But Cullen thought so much of Spicer that he tried to get him to come to Cleveland as a paid intern. The night before Spicer was set to travel to Cleveland, Smith called and brought him on as an intern in Atlanta because he played in his defense in Jacksonville.
“When I was still playing my last few years in Jacksonville I was literally a coach on the field, helping guys with assignments and alignments and things like that,” Spicer said. “I liked it. What really set the tone for me was when I got an opportunity to coach at Bartram Trail High School in St. John’s, Fla. Coach [Darrell] Sutherland really gave me the opportunity to come out and volunteer and help his defensive line coach, Marc Nadeau, who was great. Ever since then, working with those young men, it really said to me, ‘Hey, this is really what I want to do.’”
Spicer almost re-joined Cullen in Tampa Bay in 2014, but Mike Phair, who coached with Lovie Smith in Chicago, was brought on to be the assistant defensive line coach instead. When Phair left to become the University of Illinois co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach after the 2014 season, Spicer was hired and reunited with Cullen.
“He’s done a great job,” Cullen said. “Paul and I are very close. I learned under Rod Marinelli, and Rod and I are close friends. He was tough on me more than anybody because he wanted me to do well. It wasn’t always easy for Paul, but he’s really grown as a coach. As a former player sometimes you can be on the same level as the players and that’s not always a good thing. I think he’s grown from that and he’s a coach now. He’s grown and exceled. I think he’s ready to be a defensive line coach. He has the temperament. He’s tough and compassionate. He cares and he’s a great person. I think he’s ready to take the next step.”
Smith said that Spicer spending two years with Cullen in Jacksonville and then another year with him in Tampa Bay last season was invaluable. Cullen and his replacement this year, Jay Hayes, are considered some of the finest defensive line coaches in the NFL.
“It was great exposure for Paul and it’s only going to make him a better coach being around Joe and Jay,” Smith said. “Paul brings a lot to the table because he has a player’s perspective and can really help guys that way.”
Bucs defensive end Jacquies Smith had a breakout season in 2015 with a career-high seven sacks, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. He credits Tampa Bay’s addition of Spicer to the staff last year for assisting in his career season.
“He’s improved my game immensely by just getting the knowledge from him,” Smith said. “Paul was more of a bigger end then most of us, so some of the stuff he did is a little difficult to do. But the way he coaches us, he acts like he is still playing the game when he’s out here. Man, that’s one thing you can take away from him just being around him every day is his energy.
“Obviously, it helps when you’ve played the game yourself. You can get some experience off what he’s done by playing and kind of add it to your game. He will pull out film on how he did it or talk you through some stuff on how he played the position because he played in this defense.”
When Koetter took over as Tampa Bay’s head coach and hired Smith to be his defensive coordinator, Spicer was the only defensive coach that was kept from the 2015 season. The reasoning was clear. Not only was Spicer an up-and-coming talent as a defensive line coach, he also had intimate knowledge in Smith’s defense – most of which is the same from Jacksonville – because he played in the 4-3 scheme.
“When you’re putting together your coaching staff – I’ve got a huge book on guys at every position,” Koetter said. “You can’t always get all the guys you want. We were really fortunate to get a lot of the guys we wanted, in particular Paul Spicer – he was a team captain for us in Jacksonville. I’ve always been a fan of his. I used to love the way he talked to the defensive players, and loved his leadership and his playing style. But, the coaches that we have on this staff that were from Jacksonville, they’re here because they are really good football coaches, they’re good teachers, and they’re good men.”
Spicer’s NFL has quickly come full circle. He started out in Jacksonville playing for Smith and Koetter over a decade ago, and now he is a part of their staff in Tampa Bay installing the very same defense he played in with the Jaguars.
“It’s been great and I’m proud to be coaching the defense I played in,” Spicer said. “A lot of it is old hat, but there are definitely some new nuances that Mike has brought to the Buccaneers and we’re looking forward to that stuff being successful for us this year.”
Smith said the fact that Spicer has actually played in his defense helps the defensive linemen he’s responsible for teaching.
“Spice has played a long time in this league and he played at a high level in this defense,” Smith said. “He can go to his guys and say, ‘Hey, this is what Smitty really meant.’”
Cullen, who moved on to become the defensive line coach in Baltimore, said the Bucs were wise to retain Spicer.
“Obviously with the changes at One Buc Place this year with Dirk and Smitty – it was a no-brainer to keep Paul,” Cullen said. “He played in that defense and he’s coached it. I can’t say enough good things about Paul.”
Tampa Bay has been a hotbed of assistant coaches moving up the ranks over the years, especially in the secondary where Herman Edwards gave way to Mike Tomlin, who mentored Raheem Morris, who helped groom Jimmy Lake. The Bucs might be starting a similar trend with Cullen paving the way for Hayes, a widely regarded veteran defensive line coach, who is helping to bring Spicer along.
“It’s always great to be around great coaches,” Spicer said. “Jay is definitely one of the best D-line coaches in the league, as well as Joe. Both of them have been around the league for a long time. Now I have the opportunity to be with Jay, and I was with Joe for years in Jacksonville and Tampa and I learned a lot. That’s what this business is all about – learning and growing. I’m a young coach as far as my years and tenure as a coach, but I’m learning everyday. I’m just taking what Joe has done and take it and apply it where it’s needed.
“But now we have Jay, so it’s a little different philosophy as far as playing D-line. Realistically, everything is all the same, but Jay has his was of doing things, and as an assistant, I want to be a extension of Jay – just as I was with Joe – and continue to broaden Jay’s message to the defensive line. I want to help those guys apply the technique that Jay has brought to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.”
Smith said that Spicer has been helpful from a personnel standpoint in addition to his role as assistant defensive line coach.
“For us new coaches that were coming in he was a real big resource for us in terms of knowing the players’ make-up because he was here coaching them last year,” Smith said. “The scouting department gave us their point of view, but Paul was actually on the field and between the lines with these guys for a complete season, so he knew them the best.”
Spicer, who assists the Bucs defensive ends, has an interesting group of players ranging from a prized free agent addition in Robert Ayers to a young promising rookie in Noah Spence – and young talent in between, such as Will Gholston, Howard Jones and Smith.
“We have a great room now with Robert Ayers,” Spicer said. “He and Noah Spence are at different ends of the spectrum, but when those guys come together we’ve got a good group of young men. Our young guys are listening and paying attention to what Jay and myself are trying to tell them, and what Ayers and [Gerald] McCoy and [Clinton] McDonald are trying to tell them and it’s paying dividends for us because we’re counting on these young guys to step in on our 53-man roster and help us win this year. My hat goes off to Spence and some of the other guys like Davonte Lambert with how they have stepped in and how they’re really taking ahold of the coaching and really starting to apply it. We’re starting to see it pay off out here.”
The Bucs’ front four was quite fearsome in the 2016 preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, registering four sacks of backup quarterback Chase Daniel with Smith, McDonald, Jones and nose tackle Akeem Spence doing the honors. For a unit that was criticized for not bringing enough consistent pressure on the quarterback during last year’s 6-10 campaign, Tampa Bay’s defensive line made a strong impression in Philly.
“You’re always pleased when you get pressure on the quarterback, but the ultimate goal is to win,” Spicer said. “We came up short. No matter how the game started or how it ended, it’s all about getting the win. We’re going up to Jacksonville, but a lot has changed since my playing days there. There are still a few people up there I know. I’m not there to see them. I’m there to make sure these young Tampa Bay Buccaneers go up there and practice hard and go compete their butts off on Saturday and when the clock hits zero we can hold our hand up in victory.”
FAB 2. “GRANDDADDY” SMITH BRINGS EXPERIENCE TO BUCS LB CORPS
Tampa Bay defensive line coach Paul Spicer isn’t the only former Jacksonville player under Mike Smith’s old defense that is now a member of the Buccaneers. Strongside linebacker Daryl Smith, a 34-year old free agent signing, also played for Smith and with Spicer in Jacksonville.
When Tampa Bay decided not to re-sign Danny Lansanah, the team turned toward the aging veteran to not only step in at the Sam linebacker position because he was still playing at a high level. The Bucs valued Daryl Smith’s wisdom and experience in Mike Smith’s defense, too.
“I think Daryl will really serve a great purpose,” said Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter, who was the Jaguars offensive coordinator from 2007-11 when Smith was a player. “Not only is he a really good football player, but once you get to know Daryl and the type of guy he is, I think Daryl will be a really good sounding board. His experience and the players that he’s played with in his career, the things that he’s accomplished in his career, will do nothing but help Lavonte [David] and Kwon [Alexander] advance as players.”
When Smith wasn’t re-signed by Baltimore, where he played the last three years after a nine-year career in Jacksonville, turning to Tampa Bay and reuniting with several coaches he’s played with before made signing with the Bucs an easy decision.
“Yeah, knowing ‘Smitty,’ Mark Duffner, Dirk Koetter, Nate Kaczor – all those guys were in Jacksonville with me, so there was definitely a comfort level,” Smith said. “Then coming back to Florida, I had to take advantage of it.”
Despite being in his mid-30s, Smith has been an ageless wonder on the field in terms of productivity. He has racked up 123, 128 and 121 tackles in each of the last three seasons with the Ravens, in addition to nine sacks, five interceptions, four forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one touchdown during that span.
Bucs general manager Jason Licht didn’t sign Smith to just be a coach on the field. He signed him because he can still be an impact player when Tampa Bay is in its 4-3 base defense, which is about 35-40 percent of the time. In Lovie Smith’s 4-3 Over defense the Sam linebacker position played at the linebacker level. But in Mike Smith’s 4-3 Under scheme, which is similar to the defense Tampa Bay played under Monte Kiffin in 1996 and ’97, the Sam linebacker plays a more vital role because the Sam lines up at the line of scrimmage over the tight end to essentially give the Bucs a five-man front.
Because he is on the line of scrimmage the Sam linebacker has to set the edge like a defensive end would for containment responsibilities. That requires a bigger, more stout linebacker than the Mike (middle) or Will (weakside) positions. Smith is 250 pounds and outweighs Alexander and David by about 20-25 pounds.
“At the end of the day we working on it right now,” Smith said about the 4-3 Under scheme. “To be honest with you, I don’t know how much we going to do it in the season. Right now we’re putting in the work. On the line [in a 4-3 Under], off the line [in a 4-3 Over], it’s fun to me. I’m just enjoying playing football.”
Because the special nature of the Sam linebacker in a 4-3 Under defense calls for that player to be part linebacker and part defensive end, Tampa Bay spent a sixth-round pick on 6-foot-1, 238-pound Oklahoma linebacker Devante Bond, who will serve as Smith’s understudy this season.
“He’s definitely a mentor for me,” Bond said of Smith. “He’s been in this defense and in the league for a long time. He’ll pull me aside and go over my keys with me. He’s definitely been a huge help.
“The biggest thing Daryl has taught me is how to relax on the field. He says to relax and take it one play at a time. Take a breath, reset and go on to the next play. The old play is over and gone. That helped me a lot.”
Bond isn’t the only one who has benefitted from Smith’s knowledge and experience.
“He’s a very valuable guy going into his 13th year,” David said. “He knows basically the ins and outs of this defense. If we have questions sometimes we don’t have to ask the coach. You can just ask Daryl and he will answer it in a heartbeat. He’s caught a couple of picks in camp, and he caught one the other day and made some plays. That’s what you expect out of Daryl Smith. He’s a great football player. He’s been playing great since he got in the NFL a long time ago.”
Smith has amassed 1,051 tackles, 30.5 sacks, 13 forced fumbles, 11 interceptions and six fumble recoveries in his 12 years in the NFL since entering the league as a second-round pick out of Georgia Tech. Despite three highly productive seasons in Baltimore’s 3-4 defense, Smith knows he’s in the twilight of his career and is soaking up every last minute. He’s also telling the Bucs’ young linebackers to enjoy the moment, too.
“He’s a very smart player, who is in great shape,” David said. “He still moves around a lot. He has great hips and we are glad to have him on our squad.”
Smith, who generally comes off the field when the Bucs go to nickel defense when the nickel cornerback comes on the field, marvels at the speed and ability of David and Alexander, who play on all three downs in Tampa Bay.
“We’ve got to do a foot race to see who is faster between those guys,” Smith said. “I’ll be at the finish line because I’m not running with them. Lavonte can play some ball, man. Just over the years just watching film, he’s always been the guy that popped out with his speed and him just making the play. He has it all. You think he might not be. Of course he’s not as big as me, but he can show you the power, too. He caught some people by surprise with his success. Some people know and the rest will find out soon enough. I’m enjoying my time here with Lavonte. I think sky is the limit for him. We haven’t seen his best ball yet.
“You see guys on film, but when you actually meet Lavonte and you start working out with him you see that he’s so eager to learn. He’s just hungry, and Kwon is the same way. Kwon is just young. This is only his second year. He knows quite a bit but he’s still raw. He’s getting better and I’m excited for him. I’m excited for us about that guy.”
Smith had a lot of mentors in Jacksonville to help him develop, and likes taking on that role with Tampa Bay’s young linebacker room.
“It’s very satisfying to me,” Smith said. “I look at it like when I came in I had help. I didn’t become who I am by myself. I was eager to learn all that stuff but I had older guys like Paul Spicer, Donovin Darius, Fred Taylor, Deon Grant and Mike Peterson – a lot of older guys that helped me out along the way. At times I didn’t understand it all then, but I understand it now. And I understood stuff better as I got older.
“I know I’m nearing the end. I played with Spice for three or four years and he’s a coach here now. I think him and a few other guys might call me ‘Granddaddy’ I’m perfectly fine with that. I want to say it’s a duty helping young guys like Lavonte, Kwon and Devante. They’re like my little brothers. I want to see them do well. What good does having knowledge do if I don’t share it?”
FAB 3. BUCS’ MULTIPLE D-LINE LOOKS CAUSE HEADACHES FOR O-LINEMEN
When Mike Smith was hired as Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator in the offseason there was some talk that the Bucs might play some 3-4 defense in his “multiple” scheme. But that hasn’t materialized yet as Smith’s base defense is a 4-3 and the only true variation is flipping from a 4-3 Over front to a 4-3 Under front.
Where the “multiple” part of the equation comes into play is from a personnel standpoint, and that might prove to be even more daunting to opposing offensive linemen than different alignments, flipping from a 4-3 look to a 3-4 look from play to play. The reason is simple. Put stress on the offensive linemen, and not just from a blitzing standpoint, as Smith has deployed blitzes from every linebacker position, the nickel cornerback and the strong safety positions.
Where Smith wants to apply pressure is in opposing offensive linemen’s film room by having the guards and centers study an inordinate amount of players during the week. Last year in Lovie Smith’s defense, the Bucs deployed a three-technique tackle in Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy, who was on the field about 90 percent of the time and a nose tackle in Clinton McDonald or Akeem Spence. Reserve defensive linemen Tony McDaniel and Henry Melton were only when injuries impacted the starters.
In Smith’s defense he rotates several players, including some defensive ends, inside at defensive tackle next to McCoy. Last Thursday night against Philadelphia, McCoy, McDonald and Spence – the team’s top three defensive tackles – all saw action with the starting defense, while defensive end Robert Ayers also moved inside in the nickel rush. Strongside defensive end Will Gholston didn’t play in the preseason opener due to personal reasons, but he has spent a good deal of time rushing inside as a defensive tackle during camp, too, and that’s also something he did last year.
That’s six different defensive players that Atlanta guards Andy Levitre and Chris Chester will have to prepare for on opening day. Legendary Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber, who works for WFLA as the Bucs’ preseason TV color analyst, loves the different looks Smith gives opposing offenses from a personnel standpoint.
“From my perspective, and I played two positions as a cornerback and a nickel, in trying to prepare for two or three receivers inside and two or three guys outside, it takes up so much of a player’s preparation time,” Barber said. “You can’t go in there blind and say, ‘I’ll do what I’ll do’ and expect it to work for you. It doesn’t work that way. Success favors the prepared mind. You have to get ready for your opponents.
“Getting ready for Gerald by himself is a frickin’ monumental task,” Barber said. “Now you’re telling me Ayers is coming inside, too? Then you have to worry about Clinton running you over and Will Gholston bull rushing you. Akeem had a great first preseason game, too. So if you’re a guard, you are getting ready for Clinton and Gerald – it starts with Gerald, obviously. Then you have to study Akeem and Will, too. Then you have to deal with frickin’ 91 (Ayers) coming inside from the end position, too. That’s five different guys. Good luck.”
Having to study for two or three more defensive tackles puts more stress on the interior offensive linemen during the week.
“It’s hard to put a quantitative number on it, but let’s say I spent two hours a day for the four days a week we are in the building just studying my opponents,” Barber said. “That’s eight hours total of your opponents, which is a full day, divided by five defensive tackles in this case. It’s an hour and 20 minutes per guy – at least. Is that even enough time? That’s breaking down what they do and breaking down what we do and how I’m going to make it relate to whatever coverage we had in that week. It’s a lot of time in the film room just doing that.”
Different players have different body types and do different things well. McDonald is strong and fundamentally sound with his technique. Spence is wide and powerful. The 6-foot-6 Gholston is massive with long arms and a great bull rush. Ayers attacks with quickness and ferocity. McCoy is simply McCoy, and the four-time Pro Bowler has all of those traits, plus one of the quickest get-offs in football.
“I said this on the broadcast the other day – this Bucs defensive line has the potential to be one of the deepest and most dynamic defensive lines in football with the additions of Noah Spence and Robert Ayers,” Barber said. “We know what we have with Jack Smith on the other side, too. When you take those outside guys and then have all of the options inside – it’s scary. It’s going to be fun to watch from a Buccaneers’ perspective.”
And not so fun for Tampa Bay’s opponents to study for.
FAB 4. TAMPA BAY MAY KEEP 5-6 DEFENSIVE ENDS ON 53-MAN ROSTER
In the months leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft I lobbied hard for the Bucs to draft Louisville’s pass-rushing defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins in the first round. Rankins wound up being the alternate first-round pick if cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III was off the board. As it turned out, when the New York Giants selected cornerback Eli Apple over Hargreaves with the 10th overall pick, Hargreaves fell to Tampa Bay with the 11th selection.
Rankins would be taken by New Orleans with the next pick at No. 12, and unfortunately suffered a broken leg this week in training camp that will sideline him for the first half of the season. The reason I campaigned for Rankins was because the Bucs were thin at defensive tackle after not re-signing backups Henry Melton and Tony McDaniel, and because Akeem Spence is entering a contract year.
As it turns out, new defensive coordinator Mike Smith had plans to play defensive ends Will Gholston and Robert Ayers inside on pass-rushing downs in nickel defense, essentially giving Tampa Bay five players that could play inside at defensive tackle, in addition to Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald and Spence. Because of the way Smith planned to utilize some defensive ends as tackle, had the Bucs drafted Rankins it might have been out of luxury because Rankins is a gifted tackle and not necessarily out of necessity from a numbers standpoint.
The Bucs have kept eight or nine defensive linemen on their 53-man roster in years past with at least four of those players being defensive tackles. If Tampa Bay elects to keep eight this year, it will almost certainly come down to five defensive ends – Gholston, Ayers, Jacquies Smith, Noah Spence and either Howard Jones or Kourtnei Brown – in addition to three defensive tackles in McCoy, McDonald and Akeem Spence.
If the Bucs decide to keep nine defensive linemen, the ninth defensive lineman would come down to either an extra end in Jones or Brown, or another defensive tackle like Cliff Matthews, A.J. Francis or rookies Travis Britz or DeVonte Lambert. Considering the fact that the Bucs will be in nickel defense at least 60 percent of the time due to the fact that the NFL has become more of a passing league than ever, keeping more defensive ends makes sense due to the versatility of Gholston and Ayers.
Matthews and Francis, a 6-foot-5, 330-pound run stuffer, really need to impress to win a roster spot and force the Bucs to keep nine defensive linemen. Back in the day, having a specialty run defender like Francis was common. But now it’s a luxury due to the fact that there are likely to be fewer traditional goal line and short-yardage defenses as more and more teams try to spread defenses out with multiple wide receivers in those situations. Francis would only factor into 35-40 percent of the team’s snaps in regular base defense, where a defensive end like Brown or Jones could see the field on any down.
Keep in mind that reserve defensive ends like Jones and Brown can also contribute on Tampa Bay’s special teams on kickoff and kick return and punt and punt return, which increases their value and versatility. Francis and Matthews would be relegated to the field goal block team, but the Bucs already pull offensive linemen like the 6-foot-9 Demar Dotson to help out with that unit.
The stated goal for Smith’s defense is to get more pressure on the quarterback, and in the age of the quick passing game where QBs get the ball out of their hands much quicker, having a greater number of faster defensive ends certainly makes more sense.
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• Before he sustained a season-ending hip injury, defensive end George Johnson was performing well and was going to make it difficult for the team to essentially choose between he, Kourtnei Brown and Howard Jones for a roster spot. Like Robert Ayers and Will Gholston, the 274-pound Johnson, who was viewed as a disappointment last year, was moving to defensive tackle in nickel pass rush situations and thriving inside.
“He came back and recommitted himself to his craft,” Bucs assistant defensive line coach Paul Spicer said. “He came back in shape, ready to go, and his game was elevated. The coaches have taken notice, especially Jay [Hayes] and myself watching him take the transition of moving now inside and playing both spots. He showed mentally he can do it and that the calls aren’t too big for him.”
Johnson’s injury trims the fight for a final roster spot at defensive end down to Kourtnei Brown or Howard Jones as a backup behind Robert Ayers, Jacquies Smith, Noah Spence and Will Gholston. The reality is that Johnson’s injury was likely a blessing in disguise for him financially. He was not a lock to make the roster after failing to register a sack last year, and now Johnson’s $2 million base salary becomes guaranteed with his placement on I.R.
• When the Bucs signed strongside linebacker Daryl Smith in the offseason it reunited him with Tampa Bay assistant defensive line coach Paul Spicer. The two played together for years with Jacksonville and Smith is happy to see that Spicer got into coaching.
“His story, his journey to league, the type of player he was – he was one of the hardest workers on our team,” Smith said. “He’s just a hard-nosed, tough, gritty guy. He earned everything he got, and that shows you the type of work he put in to get the job done. I’m proud of him and what he’s done and it’s great to be back with him.”
Smith has known Spicer for years, but Tampa Bay’s newcomers are finding out how special he is to be around.
“He brings a lot of energy,” Bucs defensive end Robert Ayers said. “Every day he’s the same guy. He coaches us hard and tries to make us better. He’s had a lot of experience playing in the NFL and I’m definitely learning a lot from him every day.”
• One of the more pleasant surprises in Bucs training camp is the development of defensive end Kourtnei Brown. The former Houston Texans 3-4 outside linebacker has gained 15-20 pounds since arriving in Tampa Bay last year after roster cutdowns and is now in the 270s as a 4-3 defensive end, which is the position he played at Clemson.
“He was here last year and we had to let him go early, but he came back finished the season with us,” Tampa Bay assistant defensive line coach Paul Spicer said. “We are grateful we have him because he has some great attributes to him – height, length, size and speed. He hasn’t played a lot at this level and he still has a little rookie in him. He knows he has to continue to get better and that’s what Kourtnei is doing.”
The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Brown is an imposing figure athletically, and is currently working as the third-string strongside defensive end behind Will Gholston and Jacquies Smith. Brown is battling Howard Jones for the final defensive end spot on the roster.
• The Bucs have been overjoyed with how safety Chris Conte has picked up Mike Smith’s new defensive scheme. Conte has picked off plenty of passes in practice and has been a force in coverage in addition to run defense. The same can’t be said of the team’s other starting safety Bradley McDougald.
Both Conte and McDougald are in one-year contracts, but McDougald, who entered 2016 as a restricted free agent, isn’t seizing the opportunity. McDougald hasn’t been making enough plays in training camp and seems to have plateaued, which is disappointing. The problem is that reserve safety Major Wright has limitations in coverage, while the team thinks Keith Tandy seems better suited for special teams.
The Bucs drafted Ryan Smith in the fourth round to eventually either replace Conte or McDougald, but Smith isn’t ready to make the leap from a small school like North Carolina Central to the NFL quite yet. That means that Tampa Bay may be forced to start the unspectacular McDougald in the 2016 season and work Smith in situationally so that he can gain some valuable experience to prepare him to possibly the starter next year – unless McDougald raises his level of play, makes more plays and earns a contract extension.
• The launch of the new PewterReport.com took place this week, which prevented me from going to Jacksonville to see the Buccaneers practice against the Jaguars. That’s why there isn’t any practice analysis in this week’s edition of SR’s Fab 5. However, Mark Cook did make the trip, so be sure to check the front page of PewterReport.com for the multitude of stories he filed from Jacksonville.
• PewterReport.com would like to welcome a new advertising partner in Sports Legends Bar & Grill, which is located at 2571 Drew Street in Clearwater, Fla. With 42 TVs to watch all of the sports action, Sports Legends Bar & Grill is the place to be for lunch, happy hour or dinner, and certainly the place to catch all of the big games.
I haven’t had a chance to visit their new establishment yet, but will be doing so soon. The pictures and the food on the new SportsLegends.biz website look amazing. Check out Sports Legends Bar & Grill’s terrific new website and their daily specials by clicking here.
• And finally, the new PewterReport.com website launched a week earlier than expected, which is why there wasn’t much of a head’s up. The database foundation of the previous version of the website was on shaky ground and we were not satisfied with the hosting service and the problems it was creating, which was the reason for the immediate launch.
However, we are thrilled with the work Kyle Theil and Visual Realm have done in such a short period of time and most of the feedback to the new, updated version of PewterReport.com has been very positive, which is good to hear. We do appreciate all the feedback – good and bad – and have already implemented some of the changes that many of you have recommended. Please bear with us as we are still making some tweaks and additions to the website – the majority of which will be done before the start of the Bucs’ regular season in a few weeks.
The main reason we went with a newer, updated design is you – the avid Buccaneers fan and loyal PewterReport.com visitor. We appreciate you and your patronage. This is your website as much as it is ours, and the PewterReport.com staff and the staff at Visual Realm felt it was time to give your viewing experience the upgrade it deserved.