Buccaneers Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Analysis
But as much as the scheme has changed, so has the roster. The Bucs should have at least three new starters on defense with the potential for more fresh blood to unseat underachieving incumbents.
Tampa Bay does have two of the top young defenders in the league returning in Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David, and free-agent additions like Michael Johnson and Alterraun Verner hope to give Smith and new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier the weapons they need to combat an NFC South division full of explosive offensive attacks.
Let's take a look at how the depth chart is shaping up on defense for the 2014 Bucs.
Right Defensive End
The Starter: Michael Johnson
Desperate for a jolt to their weak pass rush, the Bucs acted quickly to sign Johnson at the start of free agency, signing the former Bengal to a five-year deal worth close to $43 million.
Johnson's 3.5 sacks in 2013 obviously don't move the needle much, but he proved his ability to get after the passer in 2012 when he posted 11.5 sacks. Johnson also used his massive frame and impressive wingspan to knock down nine passes last season.
The Bucs obviously have sizable expectations for Johnson after handing him such a fat contract. Lining up next to a two-time Pro Bowler in Gerald McCoy should help him return to double-digit sacks in 2014.
Next in Line: Da'Quan Bowers
A former second-round pick who was thought to be a possible steal, Bowers has never returned to his college form, thanks in part to his inability to stay healthy. The Clemson product has made just eight starts over his first three seasons, managing just 5.5 sacks.
A fifth-round pick out of Buffalo in 2013, Steven Means didn't see the field much as a rookie. But he's big, athletic and fits what Lovie Smith wants in his defensive ends. Scott Solomon, in his third year out of Rice, was a seventh-round pick by the Tennessee Titans in 2012, then spent 2013 with the New York Jets before signing with the Bucs.
The Starter: Clinton McDonald
One of multiple signings the Bucs made right out of the gate in free agency, Clinton McDonald signed a four-year deal this offseason worth $12 million.
A seventh-round pick in 2009 by the Cincinnati Bengals, McDonald was traded to the Seattle Seahawks in 2011. McDonald had his best season last year for the Super Bowl champs, posting 5.5 sacks despite being just a rotational player in Seattle's deep defensive front.
McDonald's perspective fresh off a Super Bowl title will be a welcome addition to the Bucs locker room. He's already impressing the coaching staff with his leadership qualities, and he should benefit on the field from lining up next to Gerald McCoy.
Next in Line: Akeem Spence
A fourth-round pick out of Illinois in 2013, Spence made 14 starts as a rookie and showed flashes of playmaking ability. The signing of McDonald will push him back into a reserve role, but new defensive line coach Joe Cullen plans to build a deep rotation, which should give Spence plenty of quality snaps.
A January arrest on drug charges wasn't the best way for Spence to endear himself to the new regime, but it appears head coach Lovie Smith is willing to give Spence a second chance.
The Starter: Gerald McCoy
After overcoming multiple injuries early in his career, McCoy has started to tap into his potential over the past two seasons. The former third overall pick from Oklahoma has been voted into the last two Pro Bowls, posting a career-high 9.5 sacks last season.
After missing 13 games over his first two seasons, McCoy has made all 32 starts over the past two years. He slimmed down prior to last season, and it showed, improving his quickness and explosiveness.
McCoy has been vocal regarding how excited he is about Lovie Smith's defensive scheme, and he should thrive in the 3-technique tackle role that was made famous by Buccaneer Hall of Famer Warren Sapp.
Next in Line: Matthew Masifilo
The Stanford product has yet to appear in a game during his two seasons in Tampa Bay but should get plenty of action in 2014 as new defensive line coach Joe Cullen plans to rotate his front four with regularity.
Euclid Cummings signed as an undrafted free agent this offseason and looks to have a decent shot to make the final roster. At 6'4", 275 pounds, his lean frame should keep him at the under tackle spot, and it's possible he could kick outside if needed.
Left Defensive End
The Starter: Adrian Clayborn
The Bucs' first-round pick in 2011, Clayborn is still chasing a breakout season. The Iowa product missed most of the 2012 season with a torn ACL, but despite starting all 16 games in 2011 and 2013, Clayborn has managed just 13 career sacks.
The Bucs aren't expected to pick up Clayborn's fifth-year option, and Lovie Smith has already had some strong words regarding the need for him to step up his game. He'll get first crack at the starting job, but he's got young talent nipping at his heels.
Next in Line: William Gholston
One of two fourth-round picks the Bucs spent on defensive linemen in 2013, Gholston improved slowly over his rookie season and was particularly impressive over the final third of the season.
At 6'6", 281 pounds, Gholston has the size and length prototypical of what Lovie Smith is looking for in his defensive ends. He's only scratched the surface of his potential, and it wouldn't be a shock to see the former Spartan supplant Clayborn as the starter at some point during the season.
An undrafted free-agent signing this offseason, Chaz Sutton is maybe best known for being the "other" defensive end at South Carolina, lining up across from top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. The former Gamecock was given the largest signing bonus of any undrafted free agent signed by the Bucs, so they clearly have a strong interest.
The Starter: Jonathan Casillas
A former NFC South foe, Casillas left the New Orleans Saints to join the Bucs on a one-year deal last offseason. The Wisconsin product made four starts in 2013 but ended his season on injured reserve thanks to a torn ACL.
Casillas re-signed on another one-year deal for 2014, and with Dekoda Watson departing for Jacksonville via free agency, he inherits the starting gig on the strong side. The Bucs figure to play plenty of nickel coverages, which should keep the Sam backer off the field for a decent percentage of snaps, but Casillas should be their first option in base formations.
Next in Line: Ka'Lial Glaud
After starting 17 games at Rutgers, Glaud joined the Bucs as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2013 season.
Glaud played sparingly as a rookie, appearing in seven games and registering just two tackles on the year. With the departures of Watson and Hayward this offseason, Glaud could be in line for a bigger role in 2014, depending on his performance in training camp.
The Starter: Mason Foster
The Bucs' third-round pick in 2011, Mason Foster earned the starting job in the middle as a rookie and hasn't looked back. The former Washington Husky has been the Bucs' most consistent performer from that draft class, starting 44 games over his three seasons in Tampa Bay.
Foster has averaged 93 tackles a season as a Buccaneer, adding six sacks and five interceptions for his career. Foster will handle the play-calling duties for the defense, a role he handled as a rookie that was given to Lavonte David last season.
He's not the flashiest defender on the field, but Foster has proved he can get the job done, and he has a firm grip on his starting spot.
Next in Line: Dane Fletcher
After losing both Watson and Adam Hayward to free agency, the Bucs brought in Fletcher to help deepen a thin linebacking corps. The former New England Patriot signed a one-year deal after the Bucs kept him from getting on a connecting flight to meet with the Oakland Raiders this offseason.
Fletcher was particularly useful on special teams while in New England, a role he should continue in Tampa Bay. He's versatile enough to play any of the linebacker spots, which gives him added value as depth for the Bucs.
The Starter: Lavonte David
The Bucs caught lightning in a bottle when they traded up for David in the latter part of the second round in 2012. David has quickly become one of the best young defenders in the league, being named first-team All-Pro last season.
The Nebraska product has started all 32 games since entering the league, lighting up the stat sheet in 2013 with 145 tackles, seven sacks and five interceptions.
David has already proved his value as a defensive playmaker, and many believe he can rise to even greater heights in Lovie Smith's defense. He's as entrenched in his starting role as any Buccaneer on the roster.
Next in Line: Nate Askew
Another undrafted free agent with a decent shot to make the final roster as a rookie, Askew spent his first three years at Texas A&M on the offensive side of the ball. Switching from receiver to linebacker as a senior, the former Aggie made two starts last season, tallying 33 tackles and grabbing a pair of interceptions.
Though he's obviously still raw as a defender, Askew's athleticism is the perfect fit for what Lovie Smith wants out of his outside linebackers. His ability to contribute on special teams will have plenty to do with chances of making the team.
The Starter: Alterraun Verner
Tampa Bay released Darrelle Revis after just one season, but it'll get more bang for its buck with his replacement in Alterraun Verner this season.
One of the Bucs' early free-agent additions this offseason, Verner signed a four-year deal for less than half of Revis' yearly salary. The former Titan is still just 25 years old and is coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance.
Verner is a better fit for Lovie Smith's defense, and he comes younger and much cheaper than Revis. He'll be the Bucs' top corner and should thrive in his new surroundings.
Next in Line: Leonard Johnson
A local high school product out of Clearwater, Florida, Johnson has been thrown into the fire fairly often since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2012.
The former Iowa State Cyclone has made 14 starts over his two seasons in Tampa Bay, posting 103 tackles, 17 pass breakups and four interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. The additions of Verner, Johnthan Banks and Mike Jenkins will keep him from needing to start, but he provides solid depth and special teams help.
A fourth-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 2009, D.J. Moore signed with the Bucs this offseason after a one-year stop in Carolina. He's undersized but could end up being a good fit at the nickel corner spot. Rashaan Melvin brings size and length to the position at 6'2", 193 pounds, but he's more likely to be counted on as a special teams contributor.
The Starter: Johnthan Banks
The Bucs' second-round pick in 2013, Banks started all 16 games as a rookie, posting 55 tackles, three interceptions and five pass breakups.
The Mississippi State product had his rookie struggles but showed flashes of his size and athleticism with a one-handed interception against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 4 and again with a game-saving pick against the Detroit Lions in Week 12.
Banks faces some stiff competition to retain his starting spot, which will only make him better, whether he wins the battle or not.
Next in Line: Mike Jenkins
A former USF Bull, Jenkins has played plenty of home games in Raymond James Stadium, but now he'll get to do it at the NFL level in a Bucs uniform.
After being chosen in the first round of the 2008 draft, Jenkins spent five seasons with the Dallas Cowboys before playing 2013 with the Raiders. He signed a one-year deal with the Bucs this offseason, bringing plenty of experience along with him with 63 starts over his six NFL seasons.
Jenkins has dealt with a few injuries, but he brings much-needed experience and depth to the Bucs pass defense. Even if he doesn't win the starting job over Banks, he'll push the sophomore to improve and give Tampa Bay a valuable veteran presence.
Of the rest of the group, Danny Gorrer brings the most experience to the table, having spent five years in the league with four different teams. He's appeared in 13 games over his two seasons with the Bucs, making one start back in 2012.
Deveron Carr was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013, playing in nine games in his rookie season but failing to register anything on the stat sheet. Keith Lewis joined the team as an undrafted free agent following this year's draft and brings some impressive workout numbers for his size. Both will have to contribute heavily on special teams to stick.
The Starter: Mark Barron
The Bucs moved down two picks in the 2012 draft and selected Barron, one of many playmakers on an Alabama defense full of NFL talent.
Entering his third season, Barron has yet to develop into the playmaker you'd expect a top-10 draft pick to be, but playing under Lovie Smith might just be the perfect catalyst for him to reach his full potential.
Barron has imposing size and is an impressive overall athlete who excels in the box more so than in coverage. He showed some growth in his second season and could break out in his first year under Smith and new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
Next in Line: Major Wright
Another new face on the defense, Wright signed with the Bucs as a free agent this offseason after spending the past four seasons with the Bears.
Wright is already familiar with Lovie Smith, having been drafted by his regime in the third round of the 2012 draft. After playing sparingly as a rookie, Wright has started 42 games over the past three years, tallying nine interceptions and 18 pass breakups.
The former Florida Gator brings plenty of experience and a working knowledge of Smith's defensive scheme to the secondary. He should be a valuable depth piece and will contribute immediately on special teams.
Mycal Swaim was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan. The junior-college transfer rung up 81 tackles last season and was invited to play in the Medal of Honor Bowl All-Star game at season's end. He should be a long shot to make the final roster, barring a spectacular training camp.
The Starter: Dashon Goldson
A high-priced free-agent signing last offseason, Goldson has become more famous for his fine-inducing hits than anything else over the past year. The former 49er took action this year, hiring a tackling coach to help him avoid the hits that have left him a little light in the wallet.
Still, Goldson is as talented as any defensive back on the Bucs roster, and he's got plenty of NFL experience with 77 starts under his belt. The Washington product has 15 career interceptions and 42 pass breakups over his seven seasons in the league.
Goldson will definitely need to adjust his game to fit the new contact rules the NFL has put in place, but if he's able to do so, he should thrive in Lovie Smith's defense.
Next in Line: Keith Tandy
A sixth-round pick by the Bucs in 2012, Tandy has been a serviceable depth player over his two seasons in Tampa Bay.
After dressing nine times as a rookie, the West Virginia product appeared in all 16 games last season, making five starts. Tandy posted 40 tackles, three interceptions and three pass breakups in his sophomore campaign.
Tandy has already exceeded the expectations one might have for a sixth-rounder, and he's performed admirably when counted on as a spot starter. He'll continue to provide needed depth and special teams help this season.
Bradley McDougald was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent last year but was claimed off waivers by the Bucs in November. He appeared in three games for Tampa Bay last season without registering on the stat sheet. If he sticks, it'll be on the practice squad.