American Football

Bowles talks individual and team defense at Scouting Combine


NFL Combine
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Buccaneers head coach touched on several points during his first media availability of the year.

Todd Bowles spoke on a variety of topics related to the Buccaneers Tuesday as part of his media availability at the NFL Scouting Combine.

While he talked about the offensive coordinator position, rebuilding that side of the ball, and potentially rolling with Kyle Trask as QB1, Bowles spent a majority of the time speaking about his forte: the defense.

While it’s understandable that moving on from Tom Brady and overcoming a difficult cap situation lead the headlines, there might be more overall question marks for a defensive unit that took a step back in 2021 and might be facing further serious upheaval.

Bowles spoke about there being several opportunities for growth next season.

“I don’t think we had the turnovers we’ve had in the past – we’ve got to get better from a turnover standpoint,” he said. “We can get a lot better in red zone defense. Obviously, getting better revitalizing stopping the run.”

On the last point, Tampa regressed from an elite unit the prior two years to one that fell to the middle of the pack (15th in total yards allowed per game, 18th in yards per attempted allowed). It’s particularly frightening when the team has many free agents on the defensive line, including Akiem Hicks, William Gholston, and Rakeem Nunez-Roches.

While it’s not guaranteed that they leave, the team will still need better development from last year’s top pick Logan Hall as he likely makes the leap to full-time starter. The 6-foot-6 22-year-old definitely needed time to hone his obvious talent, but Bowles remains hopeful.

“[I] expect him to be more of a steady presence on the defensive line,” he said of Hall. “I thought figuring out the run game defensively and the blocking schemes slowed him down a little bit. I thought he started showing up at the end of the year, probably not in the stat column, but he showed up in the defensive meeting rooms and he started making a positive effect on us. So, I just look for him to trend upward.”

Bowles spoke less optimistically, however, about the team’s edge group. After Shaq Barrett tore his achilles tendon, the team struggled immensely to generate pressure on the edges with four-man rushes. In fact, nose tackle Vita Vea led the team in sacks with 6.5 in only 14 games.

While it’s encouraging to see Vea respond to a slow start with his most statistically productive season, that’s not a sustainable formula for any pass rush. Bowles himself said as much.

“This is the first 3-4 [defense] team I’ve been a part of where the outside linebackers have not led the team in sacks,” Bowles said. “We’ve got to get better in that area, I think.

“No disrespect to Vita – I’m glad he did and we had some good interior rushes with Vita, ‘Nacho’ (Nuñez-Roches), Hicks and Will [Gholston] and all those guys, but when Shaq went down, it was kind of a letdown. I thought [Anthony] Nelson did some good things as did Joe [Tryon-Shoyinka] but from an experience standpoint, just getting back there consistently – I think we’ve got to get better there.”

Tryon-Shoyinka actually led the team in QB hits. He showed positive growth in Year 2, but he absolutely can stand to improve his finishing skills and generate concrete sack numbers. Nelson has also shown good development as a rotational edge but is a free agent.

While no coach or GM is going to outwardly talk about their views on various draft prospects at the Scouting Combine, Bowles stating his blunt interest in improving the edge play is about as close to an admission as possible that outside linebackers will be a large focus in the draft. As an existing player, you don’t want to hear your play described as a “letdown.”

Finally, the secondary will need to be addressed as well, very likely within the first three rounds of the draft. Jamel Dean has been one of the better corners in the last two years, but he’ll draw heavy interest on the open market.

Even then, it sounds like Bowles might be more interested in keeping Sean Murphy-Bunting, who he has worked hard to develop over the last four years and finally showed encouraging steps when he was pushed into action after Dean got hurt.

“I thought Sean came in and he had a heck of a second half of the season,” Bowles said. “I thought he played man-to-man well, he played zone well, he had great vision, he was confident, and he looked like he did two years ago. He’s finally healthy, and I thought he had a heck of a year.”

SMB will be significantly cheaper to keep as well, so it makes sense that the team may view him as a clear successor to Dean’s job opposite Carlos Davis.

The team still has Antoine Winfield, Jr., who took another step into elite territory last season playing all over the secondary. That said, Bowles expressed his desire to have Winfield play more at one position so he can become a true master of his craft.

“Since he was so young, he gets better mentally every year,” Bowles said of Winfield. “His tackling is outstanding, his intensity is outstanding, what he does for the team is outstanding. I think he’s one of our top three defensive players. He can only get better with experience, you know? I don’t want to move him around as much this coming season than I have this year – I’ll try to leave him at one spot as best as I can. I think he’ll master that spot and get even better for us.”

The safety and nickel cupboard could feature completely fresh faces outside of Winfield, as every other player who saw significant playing time — Dee Delaney, Keanu Neal, Logan Ryan, and Mike Edward — will be a free agent in some form. It’s another position that is almost certain to see at least one drafted prospect.

Overall, Bowles said some notable nuggets that could clue in the general populace to the team’s upcoming plans. With only three picks inside the first two days, Bowles and GM Jason Licht will need to carefully consider the value of available prospects and how they align with the current roster construction.

You can’t fill every hole in one swoop, but the scouting combine will be critical for Licht and Bowles in identifying the best fits and setting this roster reload on the fast track.

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