“We can’t cry about what we don’t have,” Tampa Bay Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter says.
Don’t get Koetter wrong. He wants what is best for the Bucs, but says you have to go about it a different way these days because of the salary cap.
“No team has depth at every position. You’ve got to bring your young guys along and you’ve got to develop them,” Koetter says.
This is the time of year NFL coaches affectionately call the underwear season, which makes Koetter’s job even more difficult. Players practice in shorts with no pads, there is no contact and coaches often see what they want to see.
Coming off a 6-10 season that ended in Lovie Smith’s firing and saw a defense that was one of the most porous in the league, the Bucs are searching for answers.
“We’re getting better as a football team, which is what this time of year is all about,” Koetter says after two weeks of Organized Team Activities. “We try to say: No winners, no losers right now, but that’s something easier said than done.”
Energy is one of the few things left that can be judged by the eyeball test. It might not satisfy the analytic geeks, but coaches have a good feel for it and Koetter likes what he has seen — particularly from his maligned defense.
“I like how hard our guys are working. They are coming to work every day with a lot of enthusiasm and the attitude that they want to get better,” Koetter says. “That’s all you can ask for. What we want to see is to keep getting better every day.”
The Bucs are focusing on a defense that needs to fill holes upfront and in the secondary. Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith are trying to compensate for some poor drafting, trading and free agent acquisitions in the front four for more than a few years.
“I see improvements with our defense in general and our defensive scheme, how well our defensive players are running to the ball, how well they are embracing the volume that (coach Mike) Smith and the defensive coaches are putting in,” Koetter says. “Our offense should be a little bit ahead of our defense right now because they are in the same system, but we’re just real happy with how our defensive guys are taking to the new scheme.”
Defensive tackle A.J. Francis is one of those young guys Koetter hopes to develop, and new acquisition defensive end Robert Ayers also is slated to play on the interior defensive line. Ayers was a solid pass rusher last year, when he was credited with 48 combined pressures (23 knockdowns) and ranked eighth overall among defensive ends, according to Pro Football Focus.
A big plus could be second-round pick Noah Spence, the defensive end from Eastern Kentucky who has first-round talent, but fell because of his off-field misdeeds.
“I like all the schemes we’re doing and all of the packages they’ve got me in so far, so it’s been good.” Spence says. “I feel like I came in with a couple of moves I really liked that I’m just trying to perfect now. I don’t know the playbook all like that yet, but when it comes to pass rushing I think I’m pretty good.”
The Bucs have question marks in the secondary, which is one reason they are not getting a lot of love from multiple pre-season prognosticators. Two free agent acquisitions who previously played for Mike Smith, cornerback Brent Grimes and linebacker Daryl Smith, appear to be on the downside of their careers.
Last season with Miami, Grimes gave up six touchdowns and quarterbacks had a 103.2 QB rating when they targeted him. A 12 year veteran, Smith had a poor 46.9 overall grade last year.
Rookie first pick Vernon Hargreaves III figures to start as the slot receiver cornerback, with Grimes at one cornerback and Alterraun Verner at the other, though that could change. Jonthan Banks is another option, but appears to have fallen into disfavor with the Bucs. The likely starters at safety, Chris Conte, Bradley McDougald and Keith Tandy, do not put fear into opposing defenses.
The knock on the Bucs’ cornerbacks is their lack of size. GM Jason Licht, who has spent a good amount of time defending his choice of kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round, has been doing the same about his smallish cornerbacks. Among the group only Banks is taller than 5-foot-10, and he isn’t listed as a starter.