Da’Quan Bowers is still learning what it takes to be an every-down defensive end in the NFL. Up until this point in his three-year career, his body nor his circumstance with the team have allowed him to do so.
There was the knee scope prior to the NFL Combine, and then, the torn Achilles last offseason, which forced him to begin the year on the PUP. Now, fully healthy — offseason legal woes behind him too — he is expected to take over as the starting left defensive end and has some serious ground to make up.
“I’ve had an OK training camp,” said Bowers after practice Saturday, admitting he could be in better playing shape, and that getting to the point of being an every-down player has required a lot more out of him physically.
“I think it’s a lot harder than the average person thinks. I think Coach Schiano said it best, that when you’re a starting pitcher you have a whole lot more pitches than a closer, so, you know, you just have to get ready to go. You have to bring your A-game and be prepared.”
So he’s taking everything head coach Greg Schiano throws at him in their first camp together. That includes playing in preseason games long after other starters have been pulled and trying to live up to the billing he had coming out of Clemson as a possible top-five draft pick.
“I felt like I needed it,” said Bowers on his extra playing time against the Ravens. “I’m an unproven defensive end in this league; I felt like I needed the extra work.”
Up until this point in his career, he’s served in a rotational capacity. That was when he had the benefit of Michael Bennett, who became a free agent this offseason and the team chose not to re-sign. Now it’s all him, although he has some rookies who are pushing for playing time behind him.
“I’m a firm believer in that there’s no missed opportunities in this league. If I don’t take advantage of it, then somebody on the street will.” In a way Bennett, once an undrafted free agent, did that. Even when Bowers was recovering from injury, the two competed hard.
Now players like Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, who started 14 games in the absence of Adrian Clayborn last season, speedy edge rusher Aaron Morgan, and rookie Steven Means are doing that for him.
“I’ve been in situations in the past, just coming in on second-and-long, third-and-long, and you know, that’s easy. But being able to play the run on first and second down, third down, and then rushing the passer [is not easy].”
You can say the Bucs took a huge risk letting Bennett walk, even with a rotator cuff injury that may limit him initially in Seattle, even with Bowers facing gun charges after he inadvertently brought a gun to LaGuardia Airport.
Coach Schiano and G.M. Mark Dominik stuck by his side as the legal process unfolded, believing he made an honest mistake. They believed Bowers was too special of a player and they had too much invested in him as a second-round pick. He was cleared of all charges in April and free to focus on football.
“There’s definitely pressure, because if I don’t arrive, the next player will. So I have to get it taken care of. Camp is winding down; I just have to get it done and get on the ball.”
Bowers said he and Coach Schiano are on the same page. He doesn’t view his additional playing time as punishment and doesn’t take Schiano’s criticism of his performances personally.
“Coach is a straightforward guy and I respect him…He said he wanted more out of me, so it’s my job to come out here and give him more, give him all that I have until I don’t have any more.”
“It’s certainly not anything personal,” said Schiano. “We both want the same thing; he wants the same thing; he wants to be an every-down player, and we need an every-down defensive end. We’re just trying to get there.”
When asked to provide specifics on areas Bowers can improve on, Schiano talked about capitalizing on the strength of his hands and being consistent with this pad level.
“Da’Quan has what we refer to as heavy hands, he’s strong. So, when he puts his hands on you, you feel it. When he plays with good pad level and does that, he’s a force. But when he doesn’t, he’s not a force.”
Schiano said he hopes Bowers can be a force inside too when he lines him up at defensive tackle, an area the Bucs are thin and relatively inexperienced at. “You get your four best guys [on the field], and I think he created a bit of a physical mismatch on guards.”
Lining up inside is a new challenge he hasn’t seen since college, but Bowers is all eyes and ears, trying to soak up as much as he can.
“I just have to learn from [defensive tackle] Gerald [McCoy] a little bit more, talk to [guard] Carl [Nicks], talk to [guard] Davin [Joseph], and see what kind of moves work best on that. Everything is happening a lot faster down there, so I don’t have a lot of space to work to.”