NFL free agency is less than a month away, and with it comes the hope that the Buccaneers, flush with cap space, can quickly reshape their roster.

After releasing Doug Martin and Chris Baker on Tuesday, the Bucs are at least $70 million under the projected $178 million cap. They could save another $12.5 million if they release William Gholston and Robert Ayers.

Wait. Robert Ayers?

Why would the Bucs cut Ayers?

That’s a strange idea.

Other than Gerald McCoy, Ayers was the Bucs’ best defensive lineman last season.

Yes, he recorded only two sacks, but just because you didn’t hear announcers call his name very often doesn’t mean he wasn’t a productive player.

The big knock on Ayers is his health. The defensive end hasn’t played in more than 12 games since 2013. In 2017, he missed two games because of a concussion and two games because of a shoulder injury. And you know what? Even though he missed four games, he still finished second among the Bucs’ linemen in snaps played (589). McCoy led the line with 810 snaps.

What Ayers did on those 589 snaps is worth a closer look. It turns out that he was effective as both a pass rusher and a run stopper.

We should be careful to not fixate so much on sacks. Of course a lineman wants to tackle a quarterback before he throws a pass, but a hurry or hit can be just as effective. Maybe the pressure forces the quarterback out of the pocket and off his first reads. Maybe the pressure results in an interceptable pass. In either case, the lineman might never get credit.

Here is Ayers just missing a sack of Tom Brady in October. If he doesn’t grab Brady’s ankle, the Patriots quarterback likely completes a pass to running back James White crossing over the middle.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

On a third and 12 later in the same game, Ayers prevents a potential touchdown pass. Chris Hogan, Brady’s intended target, is open down the left sideline, but Ayers’ pressure forces an early throw.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

The primary objective is to make the quarterback uncomfortable, and Ayers did that throughout last season. He generated 45 pressures (two sacks, 17 hits and 26 hurries), according to Pro Football Focus. Among Bucs defensive ends, that was by far the most. Among all Bucs players, that was only two fewer than McCoy even though he played more than 200 fewer snaps.

But Ayers wasn’t just one of the most productive linemen on the Bucs; he was one of the most productive linemen in the NFL. His pressure total ranked 20th among defensive ends who play in a 4-3 front. On a per-snap basis, he was about as disruptive as Michael Bennett of the Seahawks and Everson Griffen of the Vikings.

He even compares favorably with a potential prominent free agent that many analysts and fans see as a fit in Tampa Bay. That free agent might command a contract that pays him $45 to $50 million dollars over the first three seasons. That player? Ezekiel Ansah.

Ansah played about 500 snaps last season for the Lions, and 60 percent of them were as a pass rusher. He generated 37 pressures and converted 12 of them into sacks. That conversion rate could be the product of his athleticism, but it also could be good fortune. Last season, two of his 35 pressures resulted in sacks.

This is not an argument that the Bucs should not pursue Ansah. They have enough cap space that they don’t have to decide between Ansah and Ayers. They could have both.

Ayers also rated as one of the best run stoppers in the league. He recorded a “stop” on 8.4 percent of his run snaps last season, the eighth-highest rate among 4-3 defensive ends who played at least 50 percent of their team’s run snaps. Pro Football Focus credits a player with a stop when he prevents a runner from doing one of the following:

• gaining 40 percent of the yards needed for another first down on first down.

• gaining 60 percent of the yards needed for a first down on second down.

• converting a third or fourth down to a first down.

Ayers’ contract is no albatross, either. He will carry a cap charge of $6 million this season, unless the Bucs release him or restructure his contract. That’s a reasonable amount compared with the salaries of similarly productive 4-3 defensive ends. Vinny Curry of the Eagles and Jerry Hughes of the Bills each carry a charge of at least $9 million. And if it doesn’t work out — if Ayers’ production falls off or if he misses several games — his contract expires after this season.

Sources: Pro Football Focus and Spotrac
Sources: Pro Football Focus and Spotrac

Impact defensive ends are scarce, so scarce that a pair of 37 year olds — Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney — found work last season. Heck, even 43-year-old Simeon Rice’s October campaign to play for the Bucs gained enough traction that defensive coordinator Mike Smith fielded questions about it at a news conference.

As general manager Jason Licht said earlier this offseason in his assessment of what went wrong in 2017, “It’s just not easy to go to the defensive line tree and pick guys.” Which is why Ayers should return in 2018, even if he’s part of a rotation. The Bucs certainly could use the depth.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.