TAMPA, Fla. — Help wanted: A defensive end immediately.
If there’s one glaring need for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they enter the offseason, a defensive end opposite Adrian Clayborn is it. The former regime of coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik let Michael Bennett walk to the Seattle Seahawks in free agency, which proved to be a serious misjudgment of Da’Quan Bowers’ ability, and the Bucs paid for it with anemic production from that side of the defensive line.
So yes, assistance is needed now.
Even with that glaring weakness, the line also includes one major strength, tackle Gerald McCoy. The four-year veteran took a major step forward last season, posting career-best totals in tackles and sacks. As a result, it was no surprise he earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl berth.
"I think he has qualities to be a dominant defensive lineman," Bucs defensive line coach Joe Cullen said of McCoy. "He’s big, he’s powerful, he’s strong, and those are great qualities. He has all the qualities that you look for, he really does. Some guys come in right away and have a major impact. Some guys, it takes time."
Here’s a closer look at the Bucs’ defensive line situation …
Adrian Clayborn, DE — The third-year pro started all 16 games and had a career-high 64 tackles with six sacks and two forced fumbles. He was Tampa Bay’s most effective defensive end, but he has yet to live up to his first-round potential. He must take another step next season.
Akeem Spence, DT — A fourth-round pick last year, he had 29 tackles with one tack and one fumble recovery. He started 14 games, and the former regime was high on his mental and physical attributes. However, the Illinois product was arrested in January for possession of marijuana in Alabama. Not the right way to introduce yourself to a new coach and general manager.
Gerald McCoy, DT — He had a career year in his fourth season, earning the most tackles (50) and sacks (9.5) since he entered the league third overall from Oklahoma in 2010. Last year, McCoy was the undeniable heart of the defensive line, and a double-digit sack season should be the goal for him next season. Greg Schiano’s staff didn’t play to his strengths at times — remember all the stunting? — so it should be interesting to see how he fares next fall.
Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, DE — He started 16 games for the second consecutive season, but he was practically invisible. He had no sacks and 14 tackles, 26 fewer than in his 2012 campaign. The Bucs expected Da’Quan Bowers to play this spot opposite Clayborn, but a misjudgment of Bowers’ ability proved to be one of the largest mistakes of the Schiano/Mark Dominik era.
Steven Means, DE — A fifth-round pick last year, he had five tackles in 10 games. The Buffalo product has potential, but he he’s also raw in his pass-rushing skills. With more experience, he could become a serviceable reserve at a position of need.
Gary Gibson, DT — The 31-year-old veteran had three tackles in 13 games. He only had one start, which matches the amount he had in 2012 with the Bucs and 2011 with the St. Louis Rams.
Derek Landri, DT — The 30-year-old veteran had nine tackles in nine games. He was released Feb. 10.
William Gholston, DE — A fourth-round pick last year, he had 30 tackles and two sacks in 12 games. The Michigan State product started in two games and had three passes defensed.
Da’Quan Bowers, DE — Thought to take over Michael Bennett’s vacated spot, he was a major disappointment. He played in 13 games but only started two, earning seven tackles and one sack. There’s blame to go around with Bowers’ issues — some directed at him and some at Schiano’s staff. Still, the former second-round pick has failed to live up to his second-round billing.
POSSIBLE FREE-AGENT TARGETS
There are a few possibilities at defensive end. It’s unlikely that the Carolina Panthers will let Greg Hardy walk, but he would be a game-changing addition for any team that snags him if they do. Also, Jared Allen and Justin Tuck could be veteran difference-makers to fill the need opposite Clayborn. This much is obvious: Something must be done this offseason, and it must be done decisively.
BEST DRAFT OPTIONS
Defensive end should be the focus, and there are some intriguing options possible. Jadeveon Clowney, of course, is the top prize, but it’s hard to see a scenario where he falls to the Bucs at the seventh pick. Trent Murphy, Marcus Smith and Jackson Jeffcoat could be worth grabbing in the second or third rounds. And what about Michael Sam? Sam would come with a lot of peripheral interest — hello, media circus — but he would be a solid addition in the middle rounds. If Tampa Bay is open to the possibility, why not pursue him?
McCoy was good, but there’s room to improve at almost every other position on the line. Look for coach Lovie Smith and his staff to explore options in free agency to fill the hole at defensive end. Bowers was a disaster, and in retrospect, letting Bennett sign with the Seahawks in free agency was one of the past year’s largest blunders. The good news: McCoy has a chance to be elite in this league, and if he can develop within Smith’s scheme, the future is bright for him.