A year ago, Will Gholston started nine games at defensive end for the Bucs, tying for third on the team with nine tackles for loss in his second NFL season. But as the team seeks more production rushing the passer from outside, Gholston has shifted inside to defensive tackle, where talented depth could put the former fourth-round pick on the bubble to make the Bucs' final 53-man roster.
"If you are a true rush player, we have you here for that reason," coach Lovie Smith said Tuesday, asked whether Gholston was an end or a tackle. "The rest of the guys need to have some flexibility on where they play. But Will, for the most part, (is a) three-technique, maybe a little first-down defensive end."
Gholston is still just 24, younger than second-year pro Jacquies Smith, who took over as a starting defensive end last year and should open this season as a starter, opposite new addition George Johnson. His strength in his two NFL seasons has been as a run-stopper, much more than a pass-rusher -- he had just two sacks last year -- half as many as the since-released Michael Johnson -- in 546 snaps. After getting a sack in his first game against the Rams, he didn't tackle a quarterback (for a loss or gain) until Week 14 against the Lions. Making matters worse, Gholston led all Bucs defensive players with 54 yards in penalties, resulting in a team-high four first downs for opponents.
Gholston's production fell off dramatically after he lost his starting job -- he had 31 tackles in his first seven games, but just 11 in his final eight, and five of those came in a homecoming game in his native Detroit. In three of his final five games in 2014 -- against the Bengals, Panthers and Packers -- he failed to record a single tackle, in a combined 75 snaps.
Especially with the Bucs' signing of ex-Seahawks starter Tony McDaniel, their depth at defensive tackle is stronger than at end, with Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald, Henry Melton and McDaniel locks to make the opening roster. Even with Akeem Spence out due to injury at the start of the season, that leaves Gholston and Da'Quan Bowers as converted ends trying to make the squad as a fifth defensive tackle.
The Bucs likely will change how they stock their roster with defensive linemen -- last year, they opened the season with nine total -- six defensive ends (including Bowers and Gholston, who would slide inside as needed) and only three true defensive tackles, with a combined seven dressing for the season opener. After losing McCoy to injury, they finished the year with 10 linemen, dressing and playing nine in the season finale.
The final defensive end jobs are very much up for grabs -- after starters Smith and Johnson, there are no guarantees, though T.J. Fatinikun and Larry English would likely be the next two, based on how they're lining up in training camp. That leaves veteran Lawrence Sidbury -- who has two tackles in the last three NFL seasons -- and undrafted rookies Ryan Delaire and Jamal Young, and the possiblility that the Bucs would add a player waived elsewhere during final cuts, taking advantage of their priority position in waiver claims.