5. T Demar Dotson
I know offensive linemen aren’t used to being referred to as “intriguing,” so yes, I’m starting the list with a slow idle and will rev it up as we go. Still, I think Demar Dotson’s NFL story – which is already very interesting – has a chance to become even more remarkable (I think I’m going to run out of “intriguing” synomyms before I reach the end).
Let me put it this way: Lovie Smith and Jason Licht came in and completely blew up the Buccaneers’ offensive line, which wasn’t too surprising given how disappointing that unit’s performance was in 2013. When the smoke cleared, only one starter from last season’s finale remained intact: Dotson, the right tackle.
In Week One of the 2014, the Buccaneers will definitely field four different starters on the offensive line, as compared to the 2013 finale, because four of those five are now gone. Jamon Meredith could win one of the guard spots and be something of a holdover, but he didn’t get the call in Week 17 last year. The last time the Bucs had four different starters in Week One of one season as compared to Week 17 of the previous season was in 2002. That’s a little deceiving, as Kenyatta Walker and Cosey Coleman were both 2001 holdovers but they were unable to start in Week One due to injury in 2002. Still, we can’t make those distinctions for one half of the comparison and not the other.
The point remains the same: It’s rare for an offensive line to undergo so much change in the starting lineup in so short a period of time. The Buccaneers have tried and tried over the last decade to build a dominant offensive front – and they’ve periodically had to deal with injuries to such players as Davin Joseph and John Wade – so there has been plenty of turnover in that unit. Just not all at once.
And yet Demar Dotson remains, the anchor for this new group. How far he has come, from an undrafted free agent in 2009 who played all of six college football games to the one indispensible player on a unit that was blasted with free agent additions. He mainly played basketball at Southern Mississippi, and even when he took to the gridiron as a senior it was as a defensive linemen. The Buccaneers liked his size and quick feet in 2009, but he was certainly a long-shot prospect when he arrived in Tampa.
But here’s why he’s on this list of “intriguing” 2014 Buccaneers: There’s a decent chance we haven’t seen the best of Demar Dotson yet. Pro Football Focus loved him in 2013, their grading system putting him tied for 13th among all NFL tackles, and third among players who lined up at right tackle. He had the second-best pass-blocking grade of all right tackles, after the Saints’ Zach Strief. Keep in mind that 2013 was only Dotson’s second year as a starter, and that in his first three NFL seasons he had played a total of 22 games, with two starts coming as a “tight end” in a jumbo-line package.
How good could Demar Dotson be? Obviously, Lovie Smith’s crew wants to find out. There isn’t sneakier Pro Bowl possibility on the Bucs’ entire roster, and I do indeed find that intriguing.
4. LB Dane Fletcher
While the Bucs are my area of expertise, I do believe I have a decent grasp on personnel across the NFL. That said, I have to admit that I didn’t know much about Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher before the Buccaneers expressed interest in free agency.
Tampa Bay definitely had Fletcher on its radar when the market opened on March 11, but they didn’t actually land him until the sixth day of free agency, presumably because he took some time to explore his options. Those options reportedly included a return to the Patriots, but he chose Tampa on March 16 and that prompted some Googling on my (uneducated) part.
You know what you don’t find when you spend some time surfing for info on Dane Fletcher’s NFL career? Anything negative about his play. There have been a couple injuries along the way, and he missed all of the 2012 season with an ACL tear, but the basic storyline of most Fletcher articles is, ‘Hey, he got a chance to play and he made the most of it.’
Then there’s the oft-repeated notion that Fletcher, a former defensive end and sack-master at Montana State, has very versatile skills that could make him a fit at several spots on the Buccaneers’ defense. (His special teams skills are unquestioned, but Fletcher was thinking bigger than kick coverage when he signed in Tampa.) He is expecting to compete with Mason Foster for the starting middle linebacker job, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see him in the mix on the strong side, as well.
Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins were probably the Buccaneers’ two most important additions during that crazy free agency blitz, but Fletcher is just the sort of player who can become the best free agency story. He never quite got a chance to start consistently in his first NFL home, so he hit the market looking for a new opportunity. It’s not quite the Hardy Nickerson story – Hardware had started for three years in Pittsburgh before he came to Tampa in 1993 – but there are some similarities. Both players toiled relatively anonymously for storied franchises; perhaps Fletcher’s move can raise his NFL profile the way Nickerson’s did two decades ago.
3. DE William Gholston
Michael Johnson will be starting at right defensive end for the Buccaneers and is expected to be their best edge rusher. Adrian Clayborn will get the first crack at left end and has shown enough pass-rush ability that anything from five to 10 sacks would be no surprise. After that, however, the Buccaneers’ stable of defensive ends is mostly a matter of tantalizing (some might say, “intriguing”) potential.
There will be a rotation of some kind at defensive end, and the candidates after Johnson and Clayborn include Da’Quan Bowers, William Gholston, Steven Means, Scott Solomon, Ronald Talley and Chaz Sutton. Solomon, Talley or Sutton could surprise but still have to be considered long shots as they are, respectively, a late 2013 street signee, a mini-camp tryout player who got a contract and an undrafted rookie. Bowers’ situation is pretty cut-and-dried – he was a highly-regarded prospect in 2011 who fell to the second round due to injury concerns and has since been trying to recapture his star power. He’s less of a developmental project at this point and more of a guy you hope can suddenly put it all together.
That leaves Gholston and Means as the two most interesting options in that group. Gholston was a fourth-round pick last year; Means a fifth-rounder. Gholston went to a big school (Michigan State), had a solid collegiate career and has the kind of measurables that make you wonder if he could be even better as a pro. Means played second fiddle to Khalil Mack at the University at Buffalo and has undeveloped potential as well.
We’ll go with Gholston as the one out of those two that most intrigues as heading into 2014, if only because he got a chance to show what he might be capable of during his rookie season. Means’ playing time was limited, but Gholston saw increased action in the second half and even worked his way into the starting lineup at left end in December. He’s big and versatile, meaning he could help the team as both an end on first and second down and as a tackle in third-down passing situations.
It wouldn’t be an enormous surprise to see Gholston emerge as the Bucs’ second-best edge rusher in 2014. Or he could be a solid rotational player eating up reps inside and outside. Or he could be passed by Means, Bowers or one of the others. The 2014 outcome for Gholston seems to cover a wide spectrum of possibilities, and I find that intriguing.
2. TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins
This one has been intriguing to me since the moment Seferian-Jenkins’ name was announced on the second night of the 2014 draft. Before the Bucs spent the 38th overall selection on ASJ, they had never used anything higher than a third-rounder on that position. The Bucs’ highest pick used on a tight end in the previous 38 drafts was #69, which landed LSU’s Harold Bishop in 1994. The Bucs (very mildly) enjoyed Bishop’s services for one year and then amazingly were able to send him to Cleveland for a 1996 second-round pick, which ended up being some guy named Mike Alstott.
Until this year, the Buccaneers were essentially the NFL’s most reticent team to draft a tight end. The only team whose highest pick used on a tight end was lower than the Bucs’ #69 was Carolina, which has so far topped out on Mike Seidman at #76 in 2003. Carolina came into the league 19 years after the Buccaneers, so they still had almost two decades to catch up in the tight end-drafting arena.
That changed in 2014. No, the Bucs still haven’t done the Vernon Davis/Kellen Winslow/Jeremy Shockey/Tony Gonzalez thing and gone all-in on a tight end, but that kind of pick only comes along every couple years. Detroit is the latest to give it a try, taking North Carolina’s Eric Ebron 10th overall this spring. And had the Bucs beaten Detroit to the punch on Ebron, I don’t think I’d have him on the list. A top-10 tight end isn’t really a nuanced pick – he’d better be really good or that selection will look pretty bad.
Seferian-Jenkins is a different matter. He’s a high second-round pick, which is something the Buccaneers have never done before at the tight end position but which isn’t unusual in terms of the draft in general. In each of the last five years, and seven of the last eight, somebody has jumped on a tight end in the first 11 picks of the second round. Teams picking in the top 10 of the draft order are often looking for quarterbacks, stud pass-rushers or Calvin Johnson-type receivers, so it’s tough for a tight end to break into that group. But those same teams are more than willing to spend a high second-rounder on what could be a long-term solution at the tight end position, and that’s exactly what the Bucs did in 2014.
To this point, we don’t know as much as we’d like about ASJ. He couldn’t practice with the team during OTAs or mini-camp because the University of Washington’s class schedule extended later than that of most schools. He’s also joining a group that includes key free agency pick-up Brandon Myers and 2013 rookie sensation Tim Wright, so he’ll have to earn his role in the offense. But Seferian-Jenkins has huge potential as a two-way tight end who can block, catch passes downfield and essentially keep the defense guessing when he’s on the field. That’s hard to find, and the fact that the Bucs invested a very significant draft pick in trying to locate one is intriguing, to say the least.
1. RB Jeff Demps
There really was no other choice for the top spot on this list. Twitter tells me that a certain subsection of Buccaneer fans (many of whom are predisposed to wearing a largely blue-and-orange wardrobe) are obsessed with this young man. It’s not hard to understand why.
Demps might be the fastest player in the NFL, and if he’s not he’s certainly in the very upper echelon. He was an Olympics-class sprinter in 2012 so, yeah…hard to argue with the whole speed thing. The question is, can that translate into production the NFL gridiron?
Heck if I know.
Does anyone know at this point? Demps was a very useful player for the University of Florida, mostly as a running back, averaging 6.7 yards per carry and scoring 26 touchdowns on 367 carries. He won national championships both as a football player and a sprinter, but his primary focus after college was on track. After spending his NFL rookie season on injured reserve in New England, the Patriots traded him to the Bucs during the draft in 2013. Demps didn’t join the Buccaneers until after the regular season had started last fall, which made it hard for the team to design a role for him in the offense.
Still, the Bucs seemed determined to use him, throwing the ball to him three times and handing it to him once in two games before he suffered a season-ending injury. Most of the plays were attempts to get him around the edge of the offense, one way or another. He also returned four kickoffs at a rate of 23.3 yards per try.
The Bucs have a wide-open competition for the kick-return job. On offense, they have a crowded backfield, but they may not even be viewing Demps as a traditional tailback. Truth is, we don’t know too much about what Jeff Tedford’s offense is going to look like, but the running backs are expected to have a larger role in the passing attack. Whether you consider Demps a slot receiver or a situational running back, there’s reason to believe that Tedford can find a way to make use of his incredible speed.
Or maybe Demps is just another track star whose skills won’t quite translate to the NFL. We just don’t know yet, and that’s what makes him the most intriguing player on the Buccaneers’ current 90-man roster.