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There’s a Lot to Like About the Bucs’ Defensive Rebuild

Tampa Bay is putting the pieces in place to make a leap with their last-place unit

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The Buccaneers have spent most of the past decade grasping for any semblance of progress, cycling through coaching-staff and front-office shake-ups while watching the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons rotate seats at the top of the NFC South. And on the heels of another last-place finish, GM Jason Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter both know that 2018 is a make-or-break year for their job security. The personnel moves they’ve made over the past few months reflect that.

On its own, the Buccaneers’ draft class—headlined by Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea—doesn’t really stand out as a turn-a-franchise-around type of haul. But combined with the team’s free-agency bounty, Tampa Bay has quietly addressed many of the biggest needs on its dreadful defense over the offseason, turning some of its biggest weaknesses into potential strengths. And with a near-complete remodel on the defensive side of the ball, the Buccaneers may finally be ready to break through in the division.

Tampa Bay’s offense underachieved a little last year, in part due to injuries—most notably to quarterback Jameis Winston, who missed three games—a few too many turnovers, and an ineffective run game. But that unit wasn’t the main factor holding the team back from contention: The Bucs ranked 11th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA—they had the ninth-best pass offense per that metric, by the way—and finished the year eighth in total yards per play (5.6), fourth in passing yards per game (272.9), and 18th in points per game (20.9).

The defense sank any hope for the team to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007: The Buccaneers defense finished the season dead last in DVOA, yards allowed (378.1 per game), yards per play (6.0), sacks (22), sack rate (3.9 percent), pressure rate (24.8 percent), tackles for a loss (71), and third-down stop rate (48.1). Seriously, read that sentence again. But let’s not stop there: Tampa Bay also gave up 7.8 yards per pass attempt (29th), an opposing passer rating of 94.6 (tied for 26th), and a completion rate of 67.6 (29th). This unit registered just 74 quarterback hits (tied for 27th) and finished the year 22nd in points allowed (23.9 per game). In short: The Bucs’ defense was really, really atrocious. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that Tampa Bay doesn’t have to look very far to find an example of a defense that managed a quick turnaround with the right mix of player development, free-agent acquisitions, and draft hits. Coming into last year, the Saints defense had finished second to last in defensive DVOA in 2016, dead last in 2015, and second to last in 2014. But with All-Pro pass rusher Cameron Jordan as the foundation, that squad took an enormous step forward in 2017. A few young players (corner Ken Crawley, safety Vonn Bell, and defensive tackle David Onyemata) showed improvement; the team’s free-agent class (including defensive end Alex Okafor and linebackers A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o) added depth; and most important, key draft picks—notably cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams—brought it all together. Incredibly, the Saints did more than just get themselves out of the defensive cellar, they finished eighth in defensive DVOA.

New Orleans needed a multitude of factors to go just right in order to fix what had been a disaster for so many years, and the Bucs are going to need the stars to align, too, if they have any hope of taking a similar step forward. But the pieces could all be there: Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (both All-Pros) are the foundation, and they should be bolstered by linebacker Kwon Alexander and veteran corner Brent Grimes. Promising safety Justin Evans, inconsistent but talented corner Vernon Hargreaves, and still-developing pass rusher Noah Spence—who missed all but six games last year with a shoulder injury—could all make big jumps next year.

Now, add in a free-agent/trade haul and the team’s draft class: Free-agent pass rusher Vinny Curry, defensive tackles Mitch Unrein and Beau Allen, plus defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (acquired in a trade with the Giants) all bring to Tampa Bay experience and a history of quality play. And early contributions from Vea, along with rookie defensive backs M.J. Stewart (53rd overall) and Carlton Davis (63rd overall), could complete the makeover.

Some Bucs fans questioned the team’s decision to pass up the chance to take Minkah Fitzpatrick or Derwin James with the seventh overall pick, instead trading back with the Bills to select Vea at no. 12 (where they passed on James a second time). I understand that concern, at least on the surface; James or Fitzpatrick could’ve provided a huge boost to Tampa Bay’s woeful pass defense, while Vea never posted big sack numbers (just 9.5 in three years) at Washington. But the former Huskies star isn’t going to be just a run defender charged with keeping Alexander and David clean to chase ball-carriers—I believe he’s still only scratching the surface of his potential as a pass rusher. Sure, he’s still raw in his technique, and at 6-foot-4, 347 pounds, may end up needing to drop 10 to 15 pounds to aid in his quick-twitch explosiveness, so that individual pass-rush upside may not show up right away. But from day one, whether the Bucs line up Vea at nose tackle, 3-technique, or 5-technique, the power and pure strength he brings to the table should command plenty of attention from opposing offensive lines—and could unlock production from the guys around him. As Licht said after the draft, “A guy like that, you have to occupy him; he’s going to take on double-teams and it’s going to free somebody up.”

Vea will not be alone in that task: Lined up next to McCoy on the interior, Vea will give the Bucs a tough combination of playmakers for opposing lines to handle; that defensive line will feature not one but two extraordinarily athletic and fleet-footed big men, both of whom are capable of pushing the pocket, disrupting throwing lanes, and working together on stunts from the inside. Combined, that duo could be just the type of force multiplier this defense needs, particularly for the three main pass rushers the team plans to deploy off the edge.

Curry (who signed a three-year deal worth up to $27 million) could emerge as the team’s top sack grabber. The former Eagle was very efficient playing in a rotation last year, racking up 3.0 sacks and 47 pressures on 333 pass-rush snaps, per Pro Football Focus, and a pass-rush productivity score of 10.8 (which tied for 12th among 4-3 edge rushers—matching the mark set by the aforementioned Jordan). He’ll line up opposite Pierre-Paul, who collected 8.5 sacks, 54 pressures (tied for 16th among 4-3 edge rushers), two forced fumbles, and five passes defensed last year for the Giants. J.P.P. has struggled to regain the elite form we saw early in his career, but he can still cause problems for offensive tackles and now has a chance for a renaissance of sorts in Tampa Bay. Then there’s the X factor, Spence, who missed much of 2017 but showed promise as a rookie in 2016, when he recorded 5.5 sacks and 28 hurries, per PFF.

It’s a copycat league, and the Bucs seem to be adopting the blueprint the Eagles used in building its Super Bowl roster—taking advantage of the money they’re saving with Winston’s rookie contract to drop resources into a deep defensive line and, hopefully, field a strong pass rush. But the front-seven remake is just part of the equation; Tampa Bay is counting on early returns from its investments in the secondary, too. Last year, Buccaneers cornerbacks couldn’t stop much of anything. In part because of its nonexistent pass rush, the team often played with its cornerbacks well off the line of scrimmage, giving receivers big cushions underneath. This made the team susceptible to the quick passing game, and according to NFL GSIS tracking, Tampa Bay allowed a completion rate of 72.8 percent on passes to the short left (which ranked 26th) and 70.9 percent to the short right (30th). But the Bucs were bad against deep passes, too, surrendering a completion rate of 54.1 percent to the deep left (32nd) and 51.3 percent to the deep right (31st) while giving up 57 passes of 20-plus yards (tied for 28th).

Something obviously has to change for the Buccaneers in coverage. A better pass rush will help make things harder on opposing quarterbacks, of course, and Grimes and Hargreaves should both still factor into the defensive back rotation, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Tampa Bay looks to Stewart and Davis to contribute early on. The über-versatile Stewart could play a little bit of everything, whether that’s in the slot, on the outside, or even as a subpackage safety. And the 6-foot-1, 206-pound Davis, who doesn’t fit the prototype of cornerback the team has normally relied on at the position, could be deployed against the bigger, more physical receivers in the division. Davis thrives up near the line of scrimmage, where he’s adept at muscling opponents off course while disrupting the timing of their routes over the first few steps.

As Koetter put it after the draft: “We’ve been known for having smaller corners. We play in a division with big receivers. We wanted to get a bigger corner.”

“How do people try to shut down our big receivers [like] Mike [Evans]?” he asked. “They try to stop them at the line of scrimmage. … For as fantastic of a player as [Grimes] is, [he] is not going to get up there and press some of these big receivers too often. He likes to play off and have vision on the quarterbacks. We’ve added a guy that can get up there and play physical with them.” Davis could bring the type of ball skills that the team has sorely missed. The former Tiger racked up 28 pass breakups, four picks, and three forced fumbles in three years for Auburn, and gave up just a 48.1 percent completion rate last season. He was strongest on quick in-breaking routes, per PFF, but has the length and makeup speed to challenge on deep throws, too. In other words, he should be a great fit for where Tampa Bay was weak.

The Buccaneers defense has nowhere to go but up in 2018, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily need to re-create the Saints’ magic and quickly transform from disastrous to elite. Hell, even going from terrible to average might be enough for this team to contend. Yeah, average feels like a pretty good goal.

But getting even there is no given. Free-agency gains are incredibly difficult to project, the draft is a crapshoot, and injuries can derail the best-laid plans. For Buccaneers fans, the Chris Baker flop is still fresh in mind, as is Hargreaves’s tough sophomore season—and whether or not Winston, David, Grimes, and a host of the team’s key players miss time again next year really just comes down to the will of the football gods. But until the season starts, we can only judge process—and Tampa Bay’s offseason moves demonstrate a clear, sound plan toward fixing its most glaring holes on defense.