Bucs Training Camp Position Battles: Defensive Line

In two weeks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have their first training camp practice, and a lot of eyes will be on one particular unit that got a lot of attention this offseason — the defensive line.

During free agency, Lovie Smith and Jason Licht went hard after Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, who was seen as one of the top-tier free agents, signing him to a five-year deal worth $43.75 million. They also signed defensive tackle Clinton McDonald to a four-year deal worth $12 million.

The team needed to do something to energize an anemic pass rush that generated 35 sacks last season — 23rd in the league. It should be noted that 15 of those sacks came from players who weren’t defensive linemen, showing that the team could not consistently generate pressure with its front four.

Johnson will be your starter at right defensive end and McDonald will line up alongside two-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy, leaving the left defensive end spot up for grabs. Adrian Clayborn, Da’Quan Bowers, William Gholston and Steven Means will all be competing for it, although with defensive lines, and last year’s Super Bowl winner, Seattle, is a prime example – you need a healthy rotation of guys to keep your pass rush fresh.

At this point in time, Clayborn appears to have the edge, even though in this defense, he’ll be lining up at left end. He produced 5 ½ sacks last year flip-flopping where he lined up, but with Johnson solidified on right, Clayborn will be forced to contend with tight ends and he’ll have to use more of his right arm, which could be an issue due to his Erb’s Palsy (he’s told me numerous times that he doesn’t believe the arm’s an issue, and the previous coaching staff even tinkered with his stance so it wouldn’t pose limitations on him).

Despite being at a natural disadvantage there, Clayborn is a violent hitter, he’s worked hard to improve his pass rushing moves, he’s relentless and above all — he plays to the whistle on every down. Will that be enough to secure a starting job and a new contract for next year after the team chose not to exercise its fifth-year option? Only time will tell with that, but it should be enough to at least hold off the competition this year.

Da’Quan Bowers has continued to disappoint. He showed up this offseason out of shape, the worst possible first impression you could make on a new coaching staff.  Last year, after the team parted ways with Michael Bennett, Schiano rode Bowers hard during camp for the same issues he’s facing this year — to get him conditioned and try to make him an every-down player. It didn’t work. Will defensive line coach Joe Cullen, a protégé of Rod Marinelli, who’s one of the best defensive line teachers in the business, be able to get through to him?

Personally, I think I’ve seen more out of Gholston, at least from an effort standpoint. The same goes for Means.

As far as defensive tackles…Akeem Spence, the starting nose tackle from last year, will take a back seat to Clinton McDonald, who was part of that ferocious Seahawks pass rush. Considering Spence had some off-the-field issues this offseason (he was arrested on a marijuana charge) learning from a veteran like McDonald wouldn’t be such a bad thing, especially considering the responsibilities here will be a bit different than last year.

As far as backing up McCoy, Euclid Cummings, a highly-sought after undrafted free agent out of Georgia Tech, who Cullen personally lured to Tampa Bay, could be that guy. He’s one of those players that possesses all the measurables you want at that position — size, speed and pursuit. He just needs some refining and he’ll certainly be one to watch, likely competing for that final spot along the D-line.

— Jenna Laine

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