When I was looking for Lovie Smith's quote on Gerald McCoy's contract, where he said that extending the defensive tackle was a priority for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I stumbled across another quote on the Bucs' approach to their defensive line.
"We’re going to dress seven defensive linemen and we’re going to play them all," Lovie Smith said at the NFL Owners' Meetings in March.
Those seven defensive linemen will definitely include Gerald McCoy, Michael Johnson and Clinton McDonald. Going by Lovie Smith's history in Chicago (as well as plain common sense), one of the backup linemen is going to be a defensive tackle -- in this case, either Akeem Spence or undrafted rookie Euclid Cummings, who Jason Licht mentioned as one of the standouts in rookie mini-camp.
That leaves just three spots for a slew of talented defensive ends, one of whom will have to be versatile enough to shift inside and play defensive tackle at times. The Bucs have a group of six defensive ends who will compete for those three spots. William Gholston, Adrian Clayborn, Da;Quan Bowers and Steven Means will be joined by new additions Scott Solomon and Chaz Sutton.
His ability to play defensive tackle will give William Gholston a leg up. Da'Quan Bowers also fits Lovie Smith's preferences at defensive end: long-armed, big and disruptive players. Bowers showed more as a pass-rusher on a per-snap basis than any defensive end on the roster last year. Steven Means fits the physical prototype the Bucs are looking for, and Lovie Smith praised him last week. He's also been the primary backup at the right defensive end spot in mini-camps.
And then there's Adrian Clayborn. Lovie Smith sees him as the starting left defensive end going into training camp, and he did note that they're expecting big things out of Clayborn -- but he'll have to stave off William Gholston and Da'Quan Bowers at a position he's never played before, and may not be capable of playing effectively. The fact that the team didn't care to pick up his low-risk fifth-year option also says a few things about how they view the fourth-year defensive end. That's not to say that Clayborn's on his way out, but his spot is far from secure
"We have excellent defensive line coaches in Joe Cullen and Mike Phair working with the guys," Lovie Smith said last week. "But I can't wait of course to see those guys go against the offensive linemen. Our one-on-one battles offensive versus defensive lines should be something to see."
That kind of competition is something we really haven't seen in Tampa recently. Despite a lack of standouts at defensive ends outside of Michael Johnson, the battle for roster spots should actually get fairly heated this season, and no one's playing time is guaranteed. That should make for a pleasant change from previous years.