TAMPA — On the final day of minicamp last year, Gerald McCoy was annoyed. He hit the kill switch on all the buzz about the new additions to the defensive line. Help for McCoy, as it was being billed by fans and media, made it sound like a selfish plea.
“It’s not about me. It’s about the team,” McCoy said of the addition of five new linemen, including end Jason Pierre-Paul and rookie Vita Vea. “Stop saying it’s about ‘Gerald got help.’ No, the Bucs got help.”
It wasn’t nearly enough and hasn’t been for years.
Pierre-Paul did his part with 12.5 sacks and 20 quarterback hits. The Bucs added Carl Nassib off waivers from the Browns and he played well with 6.5 sacks. But Beau Allen? Vinny Curry? Mitch Unrein? No, nope and missed the year on injured reserve. Even Vea only had modest success with 3.5 sacks in 13 games.
This year, it seems pretty clear that the 31-year-old McCoy won’t be back with the Bucs. He’s owed $13-million and hasn’t reported to the team’s offseason program. It’s possible the Bucs will try to trade him sometime during the draft.
Since winning Super Bowl XXXVII in the 2002 season, the Bucs have only finished in the top 10 in sacks three times. The high-water mark for sacks during that span was 45 in 2004, which tied for third. Twice they have finished last in the league with 22 in 2017 and 23 in 2011.
Bill Walsh, the late 49ers head coach, used to say "a pass rush late in the game is the key to NFL football."
Well, if that’s true, the Bucs have lost their key.
Once known for their defensive line play with Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice, the Bucs went 13 years before a player had double-digit sacks in a season when Pierre-Paul did it in 2018.
But Pierre-Paul is 30 and will earn $12.5-million this season. His arrival says more about what has been wrong about the Bucs than what they finally got right. In five seasons, Bucs general manager Jason Licht has selected only three defensive linemen — defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (7th round in 2017), defensive end Noah Spence (2nd round in ’16) and Vea, who went 12th overall last year.
Spence battled a recurring shoulder injury his first two seasons. Last year, he had trouble earning playing time. He appeared in 12 games, mostly on special teams, and had only three tackles and one quarterback hit.
The big question is, how did the Bucs get here? How does a franchise who’s biggest moments — the NFC Championship game in 1979 and the all the playoff appearances and Super Bowl in the late 90’s and early 2000s — are so synonymous with defense lose its identity?
Really, it’s as simple as the Bucs’ focus on finding a franchise quarterback and surrounding that player with talent on offense.
Also, the game is changing. With all the rules limiting contact to defenseless receivers and protecting the quarterback, the NFL has become a game that requires an explosive, high-scoring offense.
With the selection of Jameis Winston first overall in the 2015 draft, the Bucs loaded up on offensive players. His class also included left tackle Donvan Smith and guard Ali Marpet. In fact, linebacker Kwon Alexander was the only defensive player in Winston’s class.
In 2016, the script flipped and Licht selected Florida defensive back Vernon Hargreaves (11 overall) and Spence (39th). Then came the cataclysmic decision to move back into the second round for Florida State placekicker Roberto Aguayo.
In 2017, it was back to offense, with two of the first three draft selections spent on tight end O.J. Howard and receiver Chris Godwin.
With the Bucs switching to a 3-4 alignment, Spence will play outside linebacker this season, where he will be used primarily as an outside pass rusher. The Bucs also signed Broncos free agent linebacker Shaq Barrett to a one-year contract in hopes of adding more pass rush.
Coach Bruce Arians believes the system of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will provide a lot of flexibility for the pass rushers on this roster.
“(William) Gholston put on maybe a little more weight and will do his natural thing. Nassib, stand up, get down, I mean he’s a cat we can put anywhere. JPP hasn’t played over a guard much, but he’s going to, and I think he’s going to like it. I mean, there’s a bunch of pieces there. Shaq Barrett is a slippery guy that I really like because not only is he a really good third-down player, he’s a good special-team player.’’
But it’s not nearly enough, and the Bucs know it.
Fortunately, the draft is loaded with defensive talent, particularly in the early rounds.
At No. 5, the Bucs are in position to select a great defensive player. Ideally, if a quarterback or two, like Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray or Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, goes ahead of the Bucs’ choice, that means a great defensive lineman like Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams or Kentucky defensive end Josh Allen may fall to them.
“Is it more important to have a better corner or to have pass rushers? Pass rushers get there first, so they make the guys on the back end’s job a little easier,’’ said Cardinals general manager Steve Kiem. “Anytime you can get two pass rushers are who are dynamic, it’s critical to the whole defense.’’
The Bucs have made no secret about their interest in Louisiana State linebacker Devin White. But even if he is their choice at No. 5, it’s hard to imagine the Bucs not coming out of this draft with a pass rusher or two.
“I would tell you that it’s a great year to be looking for D-Linemen in general. I hear people talking, I’ve been doing this for a couple of years, but they’re talking eight years, this is as strong of a class as the last eight years at the defensive line,’’ 49ers general manager John Lynch said. “I concur. It’s not just exclusively at one position. There’s inside guys, there’s outside guys.’’
The Bucs need help on the defensive line. And having given up 29 points per game last season, they need it now.