FAB 4. Bucs Will Target DEs In 2018 Draft

After spending this offseason loading up on offensive weapons for franchise quarterback Jameis Winston, expect the focus in Tampa Bay to once again turn to the defense in 2018 as Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht will be actively seeking pass rushing defensive ends.

The Bucs know that free agency rarely works when it comes to finding effective pass rushers. Outside of rare instances where Simeon Rice and Greg Spires have made an impact, free agent defensive ends typically have little impact or disappoint. Kevin Carter, Patrick Chuckwurah, Tim Crowder and Michael Johnson are prime examples of that. Licht even traded trading for a defensive end in George Johnson, who failed to record a sack in his lone season on the active roster in Tampa Bay.

Ex-Bucs DE Michael Johnson - Photo by Mark LoMoglio/PR
Ex-Bucs DE Michael Johnson – Photo by Mark LoMoglio/PR

Of course Tampa Bay has struck out in the draft too, with players drafted in the first four rounds, such as Eric Curry, Dewayne White, Gaines Adams, Kyle Moore, Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn all winding up as disappointments through the years. But the draft is where the Bucs have historically found the likes of Lee Roy Selmon, Chidi Ahanotu, Noah Spence and a few other that have contributed to Tampa Bay’s pass rush, and Licht believes in his ability to find defensive ends that can get to the quarterback.

Licht also believes that finding a young, talented defensive end on a rookie contract that can be taught and molded has a higher payoff than an aging veteran who might be satisfied with just looking to cash in on a big payday. That was the case with Johnson, who was signed to a five-year, $43.75-million contract in 2014. He was paid $16 million for 14 games before being released after one year for underachieving.

Licht signed defensive end Robert Ayers, Jr. last year to a three-year, $21 million contract and he delivered 29 tackles, 6.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a safety despite missing time with an ankle injury. Yet through four games this year at age 32, Ayers has underwhelmed with just 10 tackles and no sacks, and has not played like a guy worth $6.25 million this year.

Just as Licht tried to squeeze one more year out of 32-year old Vincent Jackson last year before focusing on wide receiver this offseason with the addition of free agent DeSean Jackson and third-round pick Chris Godwin, it seems as if he’s done the same thing at defensive end with Ayers. Despite my urging, the Bucs did not draft a defensive end this year when there was a bumper crop of pass rushers.

Bucs DE Robert Ayers, Kr. - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs DE Robert Ayers, Kr. – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

The pass rush strategy that Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter were counting on this year was the return to health of injured defensive ends Noah Spence and Jacquies Smith, and counting on one more good year from Ayers. With Spence injuring his shoulder once again, Smith not fully recovering from his knee injury and being released on Wednesday, and Ayers not producing any sacks through the first four games of the season, this plan has clearly backfired as Tampa Bay has four sacks in four games, which is tied with San Francisco for the lowest in the league.

The 2018 NFL Draft appears to have a good, but not great class of defensive ends with LSU junior defensive end Arden Key the headliner as a sure-fire top 20 pick. Boston College senior Harold Landry became a household name as he led the nation last year with 16.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles, while North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb burst onto the scene with 22.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. All three pass rushers are locks for the first round.

Ohio State has two productive pass rushers in senior Tyquan Lewis and junior Sam Hubbard, and Clemson has a dynamic duo in redshirt sophomore Clelin Ferrell and junior Austin Bryant. All four have first-round potential.

But there are more pass rushers than those seven for Tampa Bay to scout this year and consider in 2018 as Ayers needs to be replaced. Here is a list of four under-the-radar defensive ends you need to know about with college football season in full swing and the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl just four months away.

Wake Forest DE Duke Ejiofor – 6-3, 272 – Senior

Ejiofor had 6.5 sacks in his first two years for the Demon Deacons before a breakout season in 2016, recording 50 tackles, 17 tackles for loss 10.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Ejiofor doesn’t have elite quick-twitch athleticism, but he has great body control a nice motor and some tremendous hands to shed blockers. Ejiofor has six pass breakups at the line of scrimmage, which is an indication of his awareness when pass rushing. The Senior defensive end has 20 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and a forced fumble through five games this season.

Louisiana Tech DE Jaylon Ferguson – 6-4, 255 – Junior

Ferguson had 35 tackles, six sacks, two forced fumbles and one pass breakup as a redshirt freshman in 2015 and followed that up with a sophomore season in which he notched 49 tackles, 14.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two passes defensed. Ferguson’s 14.5 sacks set a school record. Through three games this season Ferguson has 17 tackles and three sacks, including one against South Carolina. Ferguson has great acceleration to the quarterback, but needs to be stouter in the run game and play better against top competition as he was handled quite well against Western Kentucky left tackle Forrest Lamp last year. Ferguson had eight tackles against the Hilltoppers and one QB hit, but no sacks in that game.

Washington State DE Hercules Mata’afa – 6-2, 245 – Junior

The reason why the Cougars are undefeated this year isn’t just because of quarterback Luke Falk. Led by Mata’afa, Washington State’s defense has played exceptionally well, too. Mata’afa lines up inside at tackle in nickel rush situations as well as at end and wrecks havoc, recording 76 tackles, 23 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery as a two-year starter prior to the 2017 season. This year, Mata’afa has 19 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble through the first four games and reminds some scouts of Kamalei Correa, who the Bucs liked and was a second-round pick out of Boise State by Baltimore in 2016. Mata’afa has a tremendous get off and a relentless motor.

Oklahoma DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo – 6-1, 240 – Senior

Okoronkwo might be too undersized to play defensive end at the NFL level and may have to move to outside linebacker. But consider the fact that Spence is only 6-foot-2, 243 pounds and the idea is not far-fetched. After recording three sacks in his first two years at Oklahoma, Okoronkwo became a full-time starter last season and recorded 71 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, nine sacks and two forced fumbles. With an explosive burst and tremendous ability to re-direct, Okoronkwo has recorded five sacks through the first four games in 2017 along with two forced fumbles. In his Sooners career he’s sacked the likes of Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahommes and beaten NFL caliber left tackles in Texas’ Connor Williams and Kansas State’ Cody Whitehair and Scott Frantz.

Hey draftniks, here’s one more guy worth keeping your eye on for the 2019 draft as he’s not eligible for the 2018 draft because he’s a true sophomore. His last name might sound familiar to you.

Ohio State DE Nick Bosa – Sophomore – 6-3, 270

While Lewis and Hubbard are the more heralded defensive ends at Ohio State, Bosa, the younger brother of former Buckeyes All-American Joey Bosa, is the one leading the team in sacks this year with three through five games. Bosa posted five sacks, seven tackles for loss and 29 tackles in his redshirt freshman season. He’s already got 13 stops and eight tackles for loss this season and has shown the ability to play with the desire and physicality his brother played with. It’s only a matter of time before Bosa begins to make a name for himself and step out of his brother’s shadow.

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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]
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MudManVA
2 years ago

Nice article and good podcast last night. All good points: Offense choppy play calling can be better Winston being better in the 1st quarter Run Martin more Defense short handed soft coverage All these things are true. All that being said NE didn’t look that much better than the BUCS last night. NE got help with sustaining drives on penalties too. Brady wasn’t great. The difference last night was NE made their field goals & the BUCS didn’t. Period. Missing FG’s and not being able to count on your kicker effects play calling, morale, and momentum. We all believe the… Read more »

Horse
2 years ago
Reply to  MudManVA

You said it all.

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Dman
2 years ago

How great would it be to have 99 coaching the D line.

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MIArmysoldier
2 years ago
Reply to  Dman

I was thinking the same thing…

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Naplesfan
2 years ago

Good Fab 5, Scott, as usual. There’s too many missing pieces in our puzzle right now. Jameis’s ability to read defenses is just not very good, and his accuracy on throws is just all over the place … he’ll make a great ball placement on one throw, then just flat out misses on the next throw leaving us scratching our heads. The defensive line play was better last night, but we still left Tom Brady too many easy throws. Sure, they’re the no. 1 offense in the league, but our objective is to beat offenses like that, like a drum,… Read more »

Julian Pere
2 years ago
Reply to  Naplesfan

I agree with Sapp on the defensive changes that need to be made. I would also like to add that one of the things I’ve noticed that we are lacking on the D-line is speed. We’ve got the size and strength all across the line but we are definitely lagging on speed. If you notice the majority of the teams that have an impressive rush have defensive end speed. And that speed is such a force that it causes the protective O-line to collapse. Bottom line no pressure no take always. Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet.… Read more »

Dman
2 years ago

Patrick Murray, our kicker from a couple years ago, may be a free agent. He beat out Connor Barth but was injured and waived the following year. Be nice to see him back at One Buc…..

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gafikdetail
2 years ago

koetter offense & play calling sucked… never gets his QB into a rhythm early… all low percentage throws down field

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e
e
2 years ago

I wonder if Jameis gets himself too psyched up before the national games? I know he’s the captain his thing is to get everyone pumped; but might he benefit with some kind of medidative focus before he hits the field? Pure adrenaline is great for some of the positions on the field, but maybe he could benefit from a different approach. He’s too fired up early and it shows. As he settles into games and calms down, he seems to play better. I think it would be worth investigating. Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

macabee
2 years ago
Reply to  e

e, You may be on to something. Did anybody see how lathered up Winston was when he was greeting players as they left the locker room? One of the announcers noted how worked up he was. I love the passion, but if/when it borders on frenzy, it’s probably not a good thing. Perhaps it helps him get pumped to perform and motivates his teammates, so I’m hesitant to say he shoulder wear earpods and chill. lol. I just want the guy to succeed by any means necessary. Go Bucs! Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

Cerious
2 years ago

On one hand you want Jameis to be elite and win games, so he gets the majority of the blame for this loss. But on the other hand the kicker misses 3 fieldgoals and I’ll give him the 56 yarder, but that still 6 points left on the floor for no good reason. 6 points wins us the game. On top of that you can’t blame Winston for not being elite when Brate is dropping TD passes in the endzone. That drop was crucial! Not only did we not get 6 points, but Folk went out and missed the gimme… Read more »

buddah
2 years ago

The last play of the game was inexcusable and Jamies knows it. He panicked. His will to win showed big-time in the game. He just needed one more sharp throw. The next eight games will be a challenge. They are all winnable and loseable. Six on the road. We have to split the road games and win the two home games. If we can make it to 7 and 5, we’ve got a shot. I thought all along, the team was being overhyped because it would take time to integrate Howard and Jackson into the offense and to establish a… Read more »

sunshineben
2 years ago

Winston was not the best qb in the draft by most nfl people .Bucs fired 2 head coaches(Dungy,Gruden) who put their vote on M.M. who beat Winston on EVERY category at the nfl combine. Winston has great receivers but look at qb ranking by the nfl. M.M. has been listed ahead of Winston every year since being drafted. Winston may be a local fan fave from a great school but not the best qb drafted, no matter how much he gets praised.( dont hate me:>)).. I am a bucs fan and have season tkts so i will pull for Winston… Read more »

deeznuts
2 years ago
Reply to  sunshineben

Mariota isnt better in # games played, total yards, or touchdowns. Mariota hasnt played a 16 game season yet. Winston grinds every week. Sure, it’s a toss-up between the two at this point. Theyre both quality QB’s. It’s best not to spend too much time looking in the rearview mirror. Winston threw for over 300 yards yesterday without any turnovers.

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cgmaster27
2 years ago
Reply to  sunshineben

OH now we have to listen to your carp again? How is mariota? Not playing again this week I see. Look at the stats this year clown.
60% completion
3 tds
3picks
1 fumble
oh and hasn’t played a full season in 5 years dating back to college.
Get over yourself already, Mariota will never QB this team.

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Naplesfan
2 years ago
Reply to  cgmaster27

It’s not helpful to argue Winston vs. Mariota, period. It’s just not relevant to anything that matters. It’s especially not helpful to argue that based on stats. In terms of total QBR, this season to data Maritoa is ranked #6 in the league at 62.6, while Winston is ranked #26 in the league at 40.2, two spots below Blake Bortles (ouch!). Last night Jameis had a QBR of only 27.4. No matter the stats. Jameis is our quarterback, and he is playing only sort of OK so far, rather than the big leap forward in his third season that PR… Read more »

cgmaster27
2 years ago
Reply to  Naplesfan

Actually Naples, thats’ using ESPN’s corky ass formula. Going to an actual NFL site the ratings are as follows.
Jameis 4 154 94 61.0 38.5 1,198 7.8 299.5 7 4.5 3 1.9 58T 12 2 7 46 92.4
Mariota 4 110 66 60.0 27.5 792 7.2 198.0 3 2.7 3 2.7 55T 11 2 2 5 79.8
The last numbers are NFL ratings. SO yeah I can use stats to back up my claims. Point is, I”m tired of hearing about mariota so I’m going to respond with facts every time I do.

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Naplesfan
2 years ago
Reply to  cgmaster27

Total QBR is the gold standard of quarterback stats. You can cherry pick whatever you like, but 95% of the NFL world relies on Total QBR. The stats aren’t “corky ass” – they reflect everything that a quarterback does, from the basic matters of completion ratios and yards per attempt, to the game conditions (downgrading “garbage time” stats), etc. Per the gold standard of QB stats, Jameis is a bottom tier (bottom one third of the league’s starters) player this season to date. Jameis was much better last year, in the upper half, but still far from elite. I’m not… Read more »

cgmaster27
2 years ago
Reply to  cgmaster27

The gold standard? Please. So explain when they show qb stats before a game they don’t be use those stats? And yes they do take into account situation. Jameis quarterback rating isn’t 113 when the team is within7 points. So explain how he has more td, better completion percentage, and and his best qb right when the game is close. SO You can cherry pick and stick to espns “golden standard” I’ll stick to my stats. Golden standard, my goodness you come a crossed as a condescending know it all sometimes. Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet.… Read more »

cgmaster27
2 years ago
Reply to  cgmaster27

Oh and one more thing, your precious QBR has mariota ranked ahead of Mathew Stafford, Drew Brees and Aaron rogers this year, and if you think that, you need to stop watching football.

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Naplesfan
2 years ago
Reply to  cgmaster27

If you think anybody in the league, or who covers the league professional, seriously believes that Jameis is performing well this year, or is “elite”, or is making progress towards becoming elite, you’re smoking crack. You’re letting your garnet and gold slip show, CG. Jameis’s performance this season so far is described by virtually everybody but cracked out Nole homers as mixed, mediocre, up and down, take your pick. Jameis himself describes his performance that way. Bucs fans (as opposed to rabid Nole fans) describe his performance that way. His coaches describe his performance that way. That is not to… Read more »

Buc 1976
2 years ago
Reply to  Naplesfan

Give Jamis a valium before a game.

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deeznuts
2 years ago

Sure, Winston could have played better but he was one of very few bucs who kept us in the game yesterday. You cant have a 23 year old QB throw 47 times a game and expect to win consistently. He missed Jackson on a few deep balls and forced a few others. But the game isnt won and lost on the quarterback. You cant blame winston for missing a throw to a rookie TE as time expires without any timeouts, and no hope that the kicker is behind you. Brate got hit in the chest with two passes in the… Read more »

Naplesfan
2 years ago
Reply to  deeznuts

Your comments makes a lot of sense … that is, until you take account of the fact that our defense limited the number one offense in the league to less than 2/3 of their average PPG in the four prior games this season. And until you consider that our offense only scored 14 points .. virtually nobody can expect to win an NFL game by scoring only 14 points.

The defense didn’t lose this game – the offense and special teams (kicker, really) lost this game.

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surferdudes
2 years ago

The 49ers spent a high first round pick on a D end yet they have a dismal pass rush. Browns did the same, but due to a foot problem he hasn’t been a factor. If you’re counting on the Bucs using their first pick on a D end to solve their pass rush woes, you may be very disappointed. I like the idea of Sapp as our D line coach. He’d bring an intensity, and attitude to a line that is lacking. His comments were enlightening. Why does an offensive minded coach defer to his 30th ranked defense when he… Read more »

Naplesfan
2 years ago
Reply to  surferdudes

Note that only one team in the entire league is allowing less than an average of 14 PPG … Buffalo, at 13.5 PPG … and since the NFL does not allow fractional points, our offense and special teams together managed to score what only one team in the league has allowed.

Offense and S/T simply have to score a lot more points.

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Naplesfan
2 years ago
Reply to  Naplesfan

Sorry, Surfer … my reply was intended to go to deeznuts, not you.

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bEubanks11
2 years ago

It seems to me that both Koetter and Winston play these big games not to lose until they need to play to win. Winston also doesn’t seem to yet be able to handle the pressure of being the guy. He talks the talk but I don’t believe he truly believes in himself to be the guy. Again, seems to be throwing passes like a baseball pitcher who’s struggling to throw strikes. He’s dropping his elbow and wishing the ball to a spot instead of trusting his talent and throwing the damn ball with confidence. Throwing passes in the fourth quarter… Read more »

4girls
2 years ago

I’m wondering if Koetter needs to let his OC call the plays. It’s not easy to be the HC and call the game. Our best offensive season in recent memory was when Koetter was OC. I remember him saying when he became HC that he would call the plays, but would be open to changing if needed. I’m wondering if that might be the case. Might be something to consider sooner rather than later. Thoughts?

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fl0nase
2 years ago
Reply to  4girls

I don’t know enough about Monken to know whether he’s an upgrade to Koetter from a play calling perspective.

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4girls
2 years ago
Reply to  fl0nase

Me either, Fl0nase. But, there’s only one way to find out.

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fl0nase
2 years ago

Loved the points that SR made about his big game ability in college. I don’t watch college but it sounds like he had a sense of belonging, the stage wasn’t too big for him, and he just did his thing like he can. To me with him as a Buccaneer, he’s too amped up. I’m not sure the state still isn’t a bit too big for him in his mind. Tom Brady’s an idol and you heard how excited he was to meet him in some of the pregame commentator chit-chat. He needs to put that out of his mind.… Read more »

Horse
2 years ago

Can we please chill a little; I know we want to win every game, but it’s not reality. The blame can be spread all around from players, coaches, and GM. Time to move on and make adjustments where it’s feasible. Go Bucs! Let’s get this next win?

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chefboho
2 years ago
Reply to  Horse

Horse I’m in agreement with you. I’ve been reading on other bucs sites how our unruly fan base wants a new quarterback already! It’s mind boggling. There’s so many reasons for why and how we lost last night and jameis is just a small part. I enjoy knowing we have a quarterback that has the fire and passion jameis does. This team is behind him and after all the issues we had last night, we still took the super bowl champs down to the last play. This is a young squad and our quarterback isn’t even 25 yet. Rate this… Read more »

XpfcWintergreen
2 years ago

Being an old f*rt …

I have watched the development of some of the best and the “fizzling out” of a few “sure things” in regard to some NFL quarterbacks over the years. I have followed the development of John Elway, Bret Farvre , RG3 and Andrew Luck (?? “jury’s still out”) … just to name a few.

I see Jameis as “right on schedule” so far. He is still up and down in his play. Now, after the end of this season ……?

_____________
Go bucs!!!!

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bigbuc
2 years ago

Elite??
For 3 quarters Winston wasn’t even GOOD

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DrT1066
2 years ago

Free agent pass rushers Ah oh yeah-
Calais Campbell.

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Buc 1976
2 years ago
Reply to  DrT1066

DrT we should have tried harder to sign Campbell.

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bucballer
2 years ago

Like all, I’m disappointed that the Bucs lost this game and with a national audience watching. Thought it was a statement game for the Bucs. Having said that… we played one of the premier teams in the NFL with HOF QB and almost pulled it out had we made a kick or two. I think with the key Starters missing we made it a close game! If we have those 4 Starters playing… I think we win the game! We are 2-2 and will get our Starters back next week. While I cuss Jamesis at times with his inconsistent throws…… Read more »

76Buc
2 years ago

Please end all discussion about Clemson defensive ends!!! Can’t we learn the lessons of history?

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Jordan Chavez
2 years ago

All the Winston crap can stop…. Yes he didn’t have a perfect game. But the dude is 23 and still got us to a point where we had an opportunity to win the game against the world champs…. Instead of us fighting for a top 10 pick like we did however many years in a row we are now all playoff hopefuls! That’s what Winston is doing. He is developing and learning. He led the game winning drive against NYG and I’m sure he will have a few more this year. With that being said.. Yes, he did get off… Read more »