Clinton McDonald is one of the least talked-about but perhaps most important signings the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made this offseason. The defensive tackle is disruptive, notching 5.5 sacks last year while playing 50.8% of the Seahawks' defensive snaps. He'll provide an extra pass-rushing threat next to Gerald McCoy, someone to close down escape routes and prevent quarterbacks from stepping up.
But it's not entirely clear which position the Bucs expect him to play. His profile says he's a three-technique defensive tackle -- but he's not about to displace Gerald McCoy. Would he be a nose tackle, then? Perhaps a backup three-technique, and second inside pass-rusher on passing downs? Would he do both? What about Akeem Spence, who showed some potential as a run-stuffing nose tackle last year?
Lovie Smith's comments when they signed him weren't overly illuminating, either. "We can put different titles to it, but, yeah, it will be our nose (tackle) position. Gerald (McCoy) is our three-technique. We play with an under tackle and a nose in our base defense. From there, there are nickel situations where you want to get two inside path guys that can pass rush that will both line up over the guard."
"That's where Clinton - 5.5 (sacks), did I get that right, Clinton? When you have an inside guy who can get pressure like that and rush, we're not just going to play him in that position. We'll move him around a lot; do some different things with him."
In part this lack of clarity reflects the current NFL, where defensive formations are highly dependent on offensive personnel and formations. But if the Bucs face a run-heavy personnel group, will Clinton McDonald line up at nose tackle? At defensive end, which is what the Seattle Seahawks often did with nose-tackle-sized players like Red Bryant? Will he even be in the lineup?
If we look at what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used to do, back when Monte Kiffin was still the defensive coordinator, the answer is kind of obvious: Clinton McDonald will be the team's main nose tackle. Because that's what the Bucs used to do.
"We wanted two three-techniques on the field, one of them just had to play nose guard," Booger McFarland told Ross Tucker on his podcast. "You want guys that can get vertical. Because theoretically, the nose tackle, the shade, and the three-technique are the same guy, one of them just gets double-teamed more."
"If you think about it, the three-technique is lined up on the outside shade of the guard. Well, if you take the ball away, where is the one-technique lined up? On the outside shoulder of the center. So they're playing the same technique, just doing it from a different position."
That podcast featured McFarland going a lot deeper into these issues and techniques and is well worth a listen.
Now, this isn't 2002 anymore. The defensive philosophy is largely the same, but versatility along the defensive line and defensive reactions to offensive have become much more important. Defensive linemen are more versatile, and have to be able to play multiple positions. And rotations across all defensive line positions have become the dominant theme. No defensive linemen plays 100% of the defensive snaps.
But the approach to the nose tackle position really hasn't changed. Lovie Smith and his fellow Tampa 2 acolytes still prefer disruptive, quick nose tackles. They still prefer pass rush ability over stoutness. And that means Clinton McDonald will almost certainly displace Akeem Spence as the team's primary nose tackle.