Buccaneers positional analysis: Defense

One category was strong, the other searching. One put the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense among the clouds, the other placed the unit in the league’s basement without a sliver of light.

This fact falls under the “go figure” category: Last season, the Bucs finished first in the NFL in rush defense by surrendering 82.5 yards per game. Meanwhile, they ranked last in the league in pass defense by allowing a whooping 297.4 yards per game. Yin, meet yang.

Because of their split personality, the Bucs have an interesting offseason dilemma: Preserve what made them great on the ground, all while adding pieces that will make them more of a nuisance against attacks from the air. Easier written, of course, than done.

There are some key names that could shape their free-agency efforts: defensive end Michael Bennett, defensive tackle Roy Miller and veteran safety Ronde Barber. Many choices, many possible outcomes, all with one goal in mind: Achieve more balance.
Defensive line
Michael Bennett (unrestricted free agent) — He played a full 16-game schedule for the first time in his career in 2012, earning 41 tackles and a career-high nine sacks. His improved pass-rushing skills became an asset at defensive end for a unit that reached the quarterback 27 times.
Daniel Te’o-Nesheim (restricted free agent) — His first season with significant playing time resulted in 40 tackles. Now at age 25, this defensive end has time to show his potential.
Gerald McCoy — He’s a strong, physical presence inside. The Oklahoma product had five sacks last season, but he could earn more in future years as he grows at defensive tackle.
Roy Miller (unrestricted free agent) — A consistent veteran, he has only missed a combined two games over the past four years. But the defensive tackle has become less of a threat in recent seasons, after earning a career-high 47 tackles in 2010 (he had 24 in 2012).
Aaron Morgan — He appeared in seven games and earned two tackles as a situational backup at defensive end.
Corvey Irvin — He saw action in 12 games and earned a career-high six tackles in a reserve role at defensive tackle.
Lazarius Levingston — He produced two tackles in three games as a reserve defensive end.
Gary Gibson — He earned consistent playing time again arriving at Tampa Bay following a three-season stint with the St. Louis Rams. The defensive tackle appeared in all 16 games for a third consecutive season and earned 18 tackles, tying a career-high from 2010.
Da’Quan Bowers — The Clemson product had a less successful sophomore campaign, earning 13 tackles in 10 games last season as opposed to 22 tackles in 16 games his rookie season. The defensive end was arrested on Feb. 18 at LaGuardia Airport on a gun charge.
Final analysis: The league’s best run defense from last year would be better off with Bennett back. Tampa Bay’s front four is among the league’s best, and preserving that continuity as much as possible would be wise. Miller is worth re-signing as well, but Bennett should be the Bucs’ focus at defensive line.
Quincy Black — He’s the Bucs’ biggest question mark of the offseason. The six-year had surgery to repair nerve damage in his left shoulder last month, following a serious collision with San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews in Week 10 that ended his season. The surgery’s effect won’t be known for a few more months.
Lavonte David — He led the team in tackles his rookie season, earning 139 with two sacks. The Nebraska product proved to be a savvy pickup, especially with Black’s future unknown.
Mason Foster — He’s a maturing middle linebacker who earned a career-high 105 tackles in his second season. If Black remains out, he’ll be expected to do more.
Adam Hayward — Entering his seventh NFL season, he provides a veteran voice, one that could be more valuable if Black doesn’t return. He has only missed one game in the past five campaigns.
Jacob Cutrera (restricted free agent) — He appeared in eight games and earned three tackles in a reserve role.
Najee Goode — The West Virginia product played in three games as a rookie and didn’t record any stats.
Dekoda Watson — He played in all 16 games and earned 10 tackles as a backup for Hayward at strongside linebacker.  
Final analysis: What will become of Black? That’s the largest unknown surrounding the defense in the offseason, and general manager Mark Dominik has made it sound like the veteran linebacker’s future is tenuous at the moment. There’s much to be learned in this area.
E.J. Biggers (unrestricted free agent) — The cornerback appeared in 13 games last season and remained in the starting lineup after Aqib Talib was suspended for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. A Miami product, he snagged an interception for the third consecutive season.
Mark Barron — The Alabama product learned his craft as a rookie opposite veteran safety Ronde Barber. He had 88 tackles, second among secondary members behind Barber.
Ronde Barber (unrestricted free agent) — A 16-year veteran, the sage safety has spent his entire career with the Bucs. He led Tampa Bay’s secondary with 92 tackles and four interceptions. He should be a large offseason priority.
Eric Wright — The cornerback was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances last November. An Achilles tendon injury also hampered him throughout the fall.
Leonard Johnson — He was an undrafted rookie from Iowa State who replaced Wright after the suspension. He appeared in each game, earning 41 tackles and three interceptions.
Danny Gorrer — The cornerback appeared in six games and had 11 tackles. It was his first year with the Bucs after spending the previous season with the Baltimore Ravens.
Brandon McDonald (unrestricted free agent) — The reserve cornerback had 24 tackles and one interception in 11 games. It was his first season with Tampa Bay after spending the previous two with the Detroit Lions.
Ahmad Black — The second-year safety had 36 tackles and two interceptions in 16 games.
Keith Tandy — A rookie cornerback from West Virginia, he had three tackles in nine games.
Anthony Gaitor — The reserve cornerback had seven tackles in four games.
Final analysis: Suspensions to Talib and Wright hurt this group last season. Still, major improvements are needed to give the Bucs a chance at threatening for the NFC South lead. Tampa Bay wants Barber back, but it’s uncertain if he’ll return.
Special teams
Connor Barth — He made 28 of 33 field-goal tries, including a long of 57 yards.
Michael Koenen — He averaged 45.3 yards per punt, a career high, in his second year with the Bucs.
Roscoe Parrish (unrestricted free agent) — He led the team with 30 punt returns for 298 yards, a 9.9-yard-per-return average, with a long of 39 yards.
Arrelious Benn — He led the team in kick returns with 13 for 306 yards, a 23.5-yard-per-return average, with a long of 55 yards.
Final analysis: Koenen showed improvement, and Barth’s 28 conversions are the most of his career. More firepower in the return game could be a plus, if the Bucs happen to find someone who fits that role.
After struggles against the pass last year, expect the Bucs to try to take steps to strengthen that area. An attempt to re-sign Barber will be a priority, and it also will be interesting to see what becomes of Biggers after his performance in Talib’s absence last season. Although improving the pass defense will be a focus, expect Tampa Bay to move to maintain what made the rush defense the NFL’s best in 2012.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.