1) Under the microscope: Da’Quan Bowers got a gift of sorts this offseason. No, I’m not talking about his narrow escape from New York. Michael Bennett’s departure not only gifted Bowers with the starting slot at SDE, it also removed all speculation well in advance of camp and gave him a very clear mission statement. I spoke to the potential competition between those two players last season and stated that it was my feeling that Bowers was going to win the job.
Then, of course, Michael Bennett came in last season with the starting job in hand thanks to Bowers’s pre-camp injury. He led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss by a defensive linemen. That second category of statistic is exactly why I didn’t think Bennett could best Bowers in a head-to-head competition for the starting job. Run defense had always been his weakest trait, but Bennett handed out a full sized serving of crow.
Some will say that Bowers being handed the starting spot via elimination of near competitors doesn’t equate to earning that spot. I don’t subscribe to that line of thinking. I think the Bucs were far more comfortable letting Bennett walk because they know what they have in Bowers. At the end of the day, none of that matters; that speculation is all irrelevant. What remains relevant is that Bowers is now going to be under the microscope. He will not disappoint.
2) Fresh meat: Derek Landri comes in from the Eagles. He’s entering his seventh season and has had stops in Jax and Carolina prior to Philly. His most productive season was 2010 when he was a 16 game starter for the Panthers. Andre Neblett comes in from the Panthers where he worked primarily as a backup and rotation guy. The Bucs dedicated three picks in a 47 pick span to the DL, selecting Akeem Spence (Illinois), William Gholston (Michigan St.) and Steven Means (Buffalo) in the 4th and 5th rounds.
3) Lingering pain: Adrian Clayborn returns after missing almost all of last season with a torn ACL. In the three games he did play, the rumblings had already begun about him not being the force he had been as a rookie. Clayborn is absolutely critical to this unit, and what was missed in that criticism of Clayborn was the difference in this system and the system Morris ran. When he was out last season, the way offensive lines schemed against the Buc DL completely shifted. They were able to split their attention between Gerald McCoy and Bennett and could effectively rely on man-on blocking for the rest. Clayborn coming back, changes that math for offensive lines and hampers their ability to shift into a favorable matchup.
4) Wildcard: The other area of notable neglect this past offseason for this unit was the fact that the front office also let Roy Miller leave town via free agency. Miller had his best season as a pro last year, despite the fact that he didn’t show as well on the stat sheet. Much has been made of the “stat sheet” issue around these parts and in nearly every other venue that covers Buc-ball. What Miller’s stats last season (or lack thereof) are evidence of, is the role of the NT in this system.
The NT in this scheme is more of a technician than what we saw in the Raheem Morris years, even what we saw in the late Monte Kiffin years at times, and hearkens back to what we saw in the Brad Culpepper days. The NT in this scheme is responsible for occupying space and bodies. He’s the fullback of the unit. That fact is the reason I say Miller had his best year as a pro last season. It’s also why the Bucs were content to let Miller walk and the thing that will determine the starter as well as the rotation at the NT position this season.
5) What to expect: Understanding what the Bucs will do to fix the third worst pass rush in the NFL requires us to circle back through the four topics we’ve discussed thus far. Obviously, the most pressing need is identifying someone to get after the QB. Satisfying that need is 100% on Bowers and Clayborn. The Bucs are counting on those two to be a factor and force offensive lines to pick their poison. Bowers and Clayborn are up to that task and the Bucs will throw in Gholston (who should be a guy that can man either side) and Daniel Te’o Nesheim (as a pass rush specialist) to assist. Neither of those other two are going to force offenses to make tough choices and that’s why the Bucs have a prototype for their developmental projects in Means, Earnest Owusu and Markus White. They are looking for guys who are highly athletic, capable of penetration and blowing up plays, and strong enough to deny the edge run. Look for Gholston and Te’o to be on the 53-man and the best one or two of the other three to wait in the wings and develop.
The riddle of who will start on the inside is answered in similar fashion. The Bucs are looking for a technician and they’ll be comfortable with Gary Gibson starting at NT to begin the season. Landri offers exactly the same resume as Gibson. He’s a smart player with good recognition of what an offense wants to do and he’ll be in the rotation along with Gibson. Akeem Spence is awfully similar to the departed Miller. He’s probably stronger than his two competitors, but doesn’t offer top tier get-off to be a factor as a pass rusher. He’s also a little raw and will need some seasoning to accomplish what the Bucs want the NT to do in this system.
1) Spotlight: After Doug Martin, the best steal of the 2012 draft was easily Lavonte David. David has few flaws in his game, proved to be a very quick study and was a TFL machine last season. He played his gaps exceptionally well for a veteran, much less a rookie, and he had moments of absolute brilliance on the field. The most written about flaw in David’s game is pass coverage. I chalk that up more to communication than any shortcoming of ability. David will only get better this season and his instincts will begin to show through in the pass game just as they did last season in the run game.
2) Fresh meat: Jonathan Casillas comes in from the Saints to compete for the Sam spot.
3) Weak link: The weak link on this unit is exactly the same as it was last season – Sam. With Quincy Black out of football, the Bucs will turn to the combo of Dekoda Watson and Casillas to fill that void. Watson is a guy who has all the athleticism in the world and hasn’t shown the headwork to keep himself on the field. Casillas has similar physical gifts and will push hard for the starting spot. The bright side of this battle is we aren’t talking about a whole lot of snaps. The Bucs tend to run a lot of nickel and dime, almost as much as they run their base package.
4) Good problem to have: Like the starting OL, there really isn’t much debate within this unit. David will hardly, if ever, come off the field and Mason Foster has pretty well established that he can, in fact, play Mike. Foster played well enough last season to propel himself into this season in tweak mode. He’s got some areas of his game that need some work, most notably communication between he and David in pass responsibilities, but he turned a corner last season (quite literally) and started getting up field better in the run game. He honored his gaps far better than he did as a rookie. Better secondary play on the corners will allow the safeties to play the middle part of the field a little more tightly and that should help shore up some of this unit’s deficiencies in pass coverage.
5) What to expect: The only position that is unsettled is the Sam. I look for the Bucs to let Watson prove he can’t handle the position. He’s been around long enough that he should have things well in hand. Unfortunately, I don’t believe he does and I look for Casillas to win this job. While I don’t think Casillas is the best answer on the planet, I think he’s suitable, especially given the de-emphasized nature of this role in the Buc defense. The backups will include Adam Hayward and Najee Goode, and I look for Joe Holland (who has speed similar to our WR corps) to make a push for a roster spot.
Source: OBP Expectations: Front Seven