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.
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.
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.