Games are won in the trenches and defense wins championships. It’s no coincidence that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense was a strong unit in 2020. This was due in part to the stellar play of the defensive front. The Buccaneers’ defensive ends and tackles set the tone for each game, especially in the playoffs and Super Bowl.
Returning On Contract: Defensive Tackle
The key to a strong playoff run and the anchor for the defensive line, Vita Vea returns. His ability to absorb double teams and completely collapse the pocket was amazing upon his return. He was a difference-maker that drove this team to victory. Next season is his fourth year, and the team will exercise their fifth-year option without a doubt.
Behind him are two camp and practice squad bodies in Khalil Davis and Kobe Smith. These players will enter the season with the ability to fight for a roster spot. Davis, a sixth-round selection, saw only 3.7% of the defensive snaps. His Pro Football Focus grade (PFF, subscription required) on limited stats was a respectable 57.4 overall.
Returning On Contract: Defensive End
Much like the tackles, there is one returning player on the contract of starting caliber. William Gholston will bring his run-stopping capabilities back for 2021. His presence coupled with others on this roster forces offenses to abandon the run. His return is good for the Buccaneers.
Sitting behind Gholston is Benning Potoa’e. An undrafted free agent acquisition in 2020 he saw extremely limited time at the end of the season. Graded on his 21 total snaps he earned a PFF grade of 67.1. He just may have a future with the team if that grade is any indication of ability so long as he can consistently put it together. The other player is Sam Renner, a relative unknown as he saw no snaps this previous season.
Prediction: Davis will at the least be on the practice squad to start the season. Potoa’e will replace either Steve McLendon or Rakeem Nunez-Roches.
Free Agent: Ndamukong Suh
A key piece of this defensive front, Ndamukong Suh is a free agent again. Luckily Suh has already stated he wants to return as reported by Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated. The question becomes, at what price? Suh could likely see offers to the tune of $7.5 million dollars from other teams for a one-year contract. Registering six sacks, 19 quarterback hits, and nine tackles for loss last season it seems as though Suh still has plenty left in the tank. The Buccaneers would be grateful to have him back…at the right price.
Prediction: Re-signed for one year $5.5-6.5 million dollars. A discount to go for one more ring.
Free Agent: Steve McLendon
McLendon played well this season. He recorded 44.4% of the defensive snaps and filled in when needed. As a run-stuffing lineman, he aligns well with Todd Bowles’s scheme. Even though his stats may not jump off the page he is a solid depth player. Last season he earned three million dollars. He will not be brought back at that price. Especially since he will be 36 years old. Additionally, it should be noted McLendon was brought in due to the injury of Vita Vea. But he seems to have played better than Nunez-Roches.
Prediction: Re-signed for a contract of less than one million dollars. This is a result of the shrinking cap that will affect more veterans than any other group.
Free Agent: Rakeem Nunez-Roches
Another sixth-round draft picks the Buccaneers have discovered as a good stand-in player. Subsequently, one who beat the team that drafted him in the Super Bowl. He did not grade as well as McLendon by PFF he still had an impact. Ultimately it becomes a cap question. He is more costly than other options and pressed for cap space he will have to fight to be on this roster.
Prediction: Allowed to walk
Free Agent: Pat O’Connor
O’Connor has been on this roster for three years. This season he is a restricted free agent. Unfortunately, if this were any other year that may help him out, but not this year. The lowering of the cap hurts underwhelming restricted free agents as their price still gets higher this year. The smaller cap coupled with an increase in pay for marginal players is not good for O’Connor’s chance of staying with this team.
Prediction: Allowed to walk
The Way Forward
Ultimately looking over this roster shows more signs of Jason Licht’s brilliance. There are already players in place to rotate into being the depth players this team needs. The likes of Benning Potoa’e are poised to step up and become, strong rotational players. Secondly, Licht’s can find additional late-round and undrafted rotational players that are inexpensive and only relied on in times of need. An outside free agent may not be the way to go.
Primary Free Agent Target: Morgan Fox Defensive End
Free-agent, Morgan Fox, is quietly coming off the best season of his career. Sitting behind Michael Brockers on the depth chart he has the potential to be the next Shaquil Barrett at his position. Having only two starts this season he found himself in 42% of the defensive snaps for the Rams and he made an impact. With each year he has been given more snaps and continued to increase his production. In 202 he finished with six sacks, eight tackles for loss, and nine hits on the quarterback.
The Rams may not be able to bring him back with the current cap situation they find themselves in. The good news for the Buccaneers is he may be under the radar enough that he can come over on an inexpensive deal. Additionally, he is coming from a 3-4 front and could slide into the scheme nicely.
Prediction: With limited cap space and too many free agents to sign for the Buccaneers there may not be a free agent option to bring in.
The defensive front next season must be as productive as the one from 2020 in order to repeat. Special consideration should be taken to determine who stays, goes, and comes in. This will be an offseason to remember.
For more follow us on Twitter @Bucs_Report and me at @BucSalty