The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have several needs on their team, but sometimes, I just can't make sense of what analysts are saying.
Evan Silva of Rotoworld has produced a big ol' list of teams, ranked by the quality of their teams and their remaining needs. I'm not sure why, but he apparently thinks that the Buccaneers have fewer pieces to work with than all but seven teams in the entire league. He has them ranked behind such talent-filled squads as the Cleveland Browns, the Buffalo Bills, the Philadelphia Eagles, the San Diego Chargers, the Miami Dolphins and even the Carolina Panthers.
That's fairly ridiculous on its face, although all of those team rankings generally are. But the Bucs did have three Pro Bowlers this season -- and that was with Carl Nicks, Davin Joseph and Adrian Clayborn on injured reserve. Doug Martin was one of the best running backs in the NFL, while Vincent Jackson was clearly a top 5 receiver. on defense, Gerald McCoy is a tremendous building block, while Da'Quan Bowers looks like a future star and Lavonte David and Mark Barron looked very promising. Sure, there are some holes at cornerback -- but this team isn't that far off from being a playoff-caliber team. But I can deal with that ranking. It's not that important. What annoys me, is the asinine assumption that the Buccaneers must find MOAR DEFENSIVE ENDS:
DE: Top defensive end Michael Bennett is scheduled for free agency, and would-be bookend Adrian Clayborn is coming off a torn ACL. 2011 second-round pick Da'Quan Bowers has yet to establish himself as a capable starter. The Bucs finished the season last in the NFC in sacks, exacerbating deficiencies in the back end. They must find a core pass rusher this offseason.
CB: A combination of no pass rush and utter lack of reliable cover men can quickly torpedo any pass defense. So it isn't surprising that the Bucs surrendered the most passing yards in the league in 2012. Top corner E.J. Biggers is up for free agency, and Eric Wright is expected to be released. Tampa Bay currently does not have a cornerback it can count on to be a 2013 starter.
QB: After a 2012 season that wasn't nearly as good as his stats suggest, Josh Freeman will enter a contract year without any plans from the Bucs to give him an extension. Freeman still struggles with accuracy and when surrounded by bodies, even if his vertical-passing arm is among the league's elite. GM Mark Dominik plans to upgrade the backup quarterback spot on Dan Orlovsky.
DT: Gerald McCoy is a difference-making three-technique tackle, but nose guard Roy Miller is an unrestricted free agent and defensive tackle already had depth concerns. Even if Miller re-signs, the Bucs could use a third interior lineman to bolster the rotation and provide productive snaps.
Now, to be fair, defensive end is indeed a need when you assume that Michael Bennett is going to walk. That's unlikely to happen, and I would frankly be pretty angry if it did happen, but it seems that Silva made the assumption that a team's free agents would walk for the purposes of his article. That's fine. Also: note the lack of tight end as a need. Luke Stocker's amazing as a starter, everyone!
Here's the thing, though: the Buccaneers have plenty of talent on the defensive line. No, that talent has not turned in amazing production, but if you look at what's actually happening up front it's only a matter of time before it does and before the team as a whole starts producing more sacks. Do you know what priority one for that purpose should be? It should be making sure that the team stops giving up 10-yard passes on three-step drops every other third down. That would certainly help, wouldn't it? It would also help if the Bucs could learn how to design blitzes so as not to have two people running into each other on damn near every snap.
Talent isn't the issue here. Da'Quan Bowers looked like a monster despite never being fully healthy. Gerald McCoy was disruptive throughout the season, though I do think he lacks that closing speed to the quarterback needed to rack up huge sack numbers. Michael Bennett was a disruptive force while playing with a shoulder injury. And then the Bucs were even lacking Adrian Clayborn for all but two games (and a few snaps in a third game).
What stands out when you look at the Bucs' sack numbers is the fact that only eight people managed sacks. Eight people, despite a constantly rotating secondary, multiple injuries along the defensive line and relentless blitzing. Mark Barron never got a sack (although I can't recall him blitzing much), and the secondary as a whole managed a ridiculous two sacks: one from Ronde Barber, and one from E.J. Biggers, who may be one of the worst blitzing cornerbacks I have ever seen.
See, the issue isn't really talent, here. When you look at the names and status, they're all good players. And when you watch those players individually, they're all good, too. The tackles for loss show this quite obviously: Michael Bennett had 18, Lavonte David had 20, Mason Foster had 13, Gerald McCoy had 9 etc. etc. etc. For reference's sake: Aldon Smith had 18 tackles for loss, Chris Long had 15, Justin Smith had 9, Haloti Ngata had 7, Von Miller had 28. Here's another fun statistic: both Michael Bennett and Gerald McCoy had a whopping 16 quarterback hits. Von Miller had 25, Haloti Ngata had 13, Chris Long had 19.
Or, you can just watch the games and pay attention to the defensive line to see the simple truth: the Bucs' defensive linemen can beat their opposite numbers. That is not the issue, and I'll keep saying that until I'm blue in the face because it is the truth. Does that mean I'd say no to some sack master in the draft? Of course not! Every team wants as many freakish defensive linemen as they can find. Bring it on! But I wouldn't call defensive end a need at all, provided the team re-signs Michael Bennett.
But the Bucs can do several other things to help their sack numbers improve rapidly. One thing would be to get better in coverage. When the quarterback can always get rid of the ball before a lineman even has a shot at being in his face, that quarterback simply isn't getting sacked. The other thing would be to drill the stunts, games and blitzes to death. Too many of those plays are simply executed extremely poorly. All too often I'd see two linemen get in each other's way trying to shoot the same gap. I'd see what was supposed to be an overload blitz get blocked up perfectly. That has everything to do with the design of those blitzes, and the coaching these players are getting. If the Bucs can improve in those areas, those sacks will come.
First things first, though: re-sign Bennett already.