It’s tough for a group to show what it can do when it can never stay together.
That was the case for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at defensive tackle last season and it’s not an unfamiliar issue in recent years.
The team’s ‘Big Mac’ starting interior duo of Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald couldn’t make it through Week 7 before getting split up. McDonald injured a pectoral muscle during Week 7’s loss at Washington that ended his season early. McCoy’s no stranger to the trainer’s room but he managed to play 15 of 16 games and make his fourth straight Pro Bowl roster.
In two years with Tampa Bay, McDonald’s taken advantage of the opportunity to prove his value on the field and in the locker room. The effectiveness of both only increases while next to each other, but that hasn’t been realized often enough. Only 16 of 32 games have featured an active McCoy and McDonald.
“Health within the whole team is going to be a tremendous help,” McDonald said during last month’s three-day mini-camp. “To get the guys to the gate healthy and everybody is ready to play instead of getting guys back from injury and then having to get them in shape for real football is a big component. So I think by us having a smart and proactive way we approach the game, I think we’ll hit that gate and say, ‘You know what? Everybody is healthy, everybody is in shape, and everybody is ready to go,’ and that’s half the battle in the NFL.”
If keeping on the field is objective No. 1 for the unit, figuring out which players provide the depth Tampa Bay needs to improve a defense that got lit up for 26.1 points per game is a close second. Fourth-year Akeem Spence is back after an injury-riddled 2015 bookended by injuries, as is DE/DT William Gholston.
Not retained heading into training camp, however, were 2015 veteran contributors Henry Melton and Tony McDaniel. Melton’s 513 combined defensive snaps played ranked fourth among all players on that side of the ball and McDaniel was in for 297 plays.
As of right now, Tampa Bay’s looking to replace those two main departures with a collection of inexperienced tackles.
A.J. Francis (6-foot-5, 330-pounds) has been in the league since 2013 but appeared in just three games. Travis Britz (6-foot-4, 293-pounds) and DaVonte Lambert (6-foot-2, 282-pounds) are both undrafted rookies fighting for their first roster spot.
The number of NFL starts among that group of three hopefuls is zero.
Training camp is fast approaching and the team will be scouting out 31 other rosters during that time to make moves prior to Sept. 11’s season opener in Atlanta. McDaniel was a veteran August addition last year and Tampa Bay’s thinness at the position makes DT look like a prime target to address for general manager Jason Licht and the front office.
Considering the current free agent picture, upcoming signings on par with last year’s McDaniel and Melton pickups should probably be expected. Both players also remain without a team and Melton’s 30 tackles last year were only four behind McCoy.
There are some veteran options worth considering for short-term help.
Kevin Williams will turn 36 this August, but the five-time All-Pro managed to play in all 16 games last year with New Orleans while recording 32 tackles, three passes defensed and two forced fumbles. Randy Starks, 32, is a two-time Pro Bowler who posted 29 tackles and a sack in 15 games with the Cleveland Browns last year. Sammie Lee Hill, 29, missed the first six games of the season with Tennessee and finished the last of a three-year contract with 19 tackles.