It didn’t take a genius to figure it out. You didn’t need to be an expert or a guru. The Buccaneers defensive line, formerly among the weakest positions on the team, has been dreadful. Terrible. Awful. Elderly, and at times, embarrassing.
All of a sudden, they’re young. They’re fast and forceful, strong and versatile, and they’re poised to anchor a defense in desperate need of stability and leadership. A unit that finished 27th in total defense last season. A once feared defense, among the league’s best year after year for most of the decade, that sacked the quarterback just 28 times in 2009, among the league’s worst, and finished dead last against the run, allowing over 152 yards per game.
Help comes in the form of rookie defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, both expected to make immediate contributions. Hope surfaces in Maurice Evans, a second-year defensive end from Penn State who the Buccaneers stole from the Giants’ practice squad. Meanwhile, the leftovers from the 2009 campaign provide a blend of youth and experience the Buccaneer defense hasn’t seen since the late 90s.
Is this unit comparable to the Super Bowl defense of 2002? Not quite, but it has some familiar symptoms of a younger version. As is the case with any draft class or young team, we’ll have to wait an see.
With his reputation and perhaps his job riding on a single draft, general manager Mark Dominik is happy with his weekend.
"Im sure a lot of general managers stand in front of the podium and feel really good," Dominik said. "I certainly feel great about this class that we put together. We do feel like we did a good job filling a lot of needs defensively in this draft."
Sure, safety and cornerback were other issues addressed in the draft, but the real excitement is on the defensive line, and mostly in the athleticism and versatility the young draft class gives Raheem Morris’s defense.
For instance, linebacker and seventh-round selection Dekoda Watson. Some thought the motivation behind the pick was to convert him to safety, but Morris turned that idea around, saying Watson could eventually see some time at defensive end.
"You’re talking about a 6-1, 240-pound man," Morris said. "Kind of a clone of Quincy (Black), but he has put his hand down a little bit and rushed off the edge. He’s a potential speed rusher as well. You’re talking about a guy that runs and hits. You’re talking about one heck of a leader down at Florida State."
Another important criteria for Morris and Dominik during the draft process: Leadership. All three seventh-round picks were captains of their respective teams, something Dominik said is increasingly important in the later rounds.
"I think we took advantage of our picks and where we had them," he said. "I think we added quality teammates. I’m excited about the group that we have."
And with this exciting group comes a much different attitude. You can see it in Dominik’s eyes and hear it in Morris’s voice. You can see more than a dozen defensive lineman, many of them under age 24, fighting for a handfull of spots. You can feel Sabby Piscitelli sweating in the weight room and studying film, trying to hold on to his job. You can see fans piling into One Buc Place for a training camp that will feature position battles across the defensive board.
And you can see a defensive unit trying to become the pride of a franchise once again, and doing it with youth and righteousness.
"It’s about bringing this town together," Morris said. "Bringing this team together. Uniting. Going over there and taking pictures in front of those fans, and having people that you guys can rally around, you can grow with, you can develop."
Defense wins championships, goes the cliche, and it starts with the defensive line. It starts with Gerald McCoy. It starts with Brian Price. It starts Roy Miller and Styles G. White. It starts with Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik and with the NFL Draft.
We’ll just have to wait to see where it all ends. Training camp begins the first day of August.