In the middle of every defense is the linebacker corps. They must be versatile and be able to adapt to every situation. They are required to analyze each snap a quickly judge their responsibilities. Coupled to that are edge defenders who can either be an extension of the defensive line or fall back into a traditional linebacker role. For the Buccaneers, the 2020 season saw them blessed with talent across the spectrum in these roles. Some are free agents this offseason. Some will be brought back, and others will walk.
Returning On Contract:
Headlining the returning group are two players who need little introduction. Devin White and Jason Pierre-Paul. After a stellar sophomore season, White will be entering the third year of his rookie contract. Posting 140 combined tackles, nine sacks, 16 quarterback hits, and 15 tackles for loss, he has not even peaked yet. Pierre-Paul continued his dominance in 2020 with a 9.5 sack performance and 14 quarterback hits. These two will surely be bringing pressure again in 2021.
Behind Pierre-Paul currently are two relative unknowns outside linebackers/edge defenders and Anthony Nelson. Nelson played well in a limited role. With 32% of the defensive stats, he was able to muster a very respectable 18 tackles, a sack, seven hits on the quarterback, and two tackles for loss. His depth is needed for another run at the Super Bowl.
The other two players are Cam Gill and Quinton Bell. The Buccaneers are keen on Gill’s upside as evident by the three-year commitment they made to him last season. With a stacked roster it was hard for him to find a playing time. With only 36 snaps he still put together six combined tackles. Bell on the other hand did not see the field. The small school product will get another chance to stick to the roster in 2021.
Prediction: All these players stay with the team. Bell will likely be a practice squad member pending any huge jump in play during the offseason.
Free Agent: Shaquil Barrett
An integral piece of the Buccaneers defense, Shaq Barrett was reborn when he joined the team. No longer behind another starter, Jason Licht hit it out of the park in one of the best free-agent signings possible. In 2019 he jumped off the stat sheet and became the league leader in sacks. Though his numbers dropped in 2020 he was still extremely productive. In the 2020 season, he generated more quarterback hurries (24) than he did in 2019 off fewer blitzes. According to spotrac.com, he should be pressing to have a contract to the tune of $19 million a year. For the Buccaneers, this will be hard to come by.
Prediction: The Buccaneers will be outbid. Barrett will not be able to turn down the money offered elsewhere.
Free Agent: Lavonte David
Mr. Derrick Brooks is often referred to as Mr. Buccaneer. Lavonte David is likely right behind him for that moniker. Since 2012 David has played at a high level and at times been a lone bright spot during some dreadful years. His fate should be much like Ronde Barber’s in being that he should never suit up for another team. He means far more to this team than any advance stat could cover. Pro Football Focus (PFF, subscription required) ranked him 4th out of 83 qualifying linebackers in 2020. He has great grades in coverage (83.1), run defense (73.6), and overall (78.8). He is the heart of this defense.
Prediction: Re-signed with a small hometown discount and it will push him further towards the Ronde Barber path.
Free Agent: Kevin Minter
Kevin Minter’s primary role was on pass-rushing downs. It was there he shined. Earning a PFF grade of 75.4. It’s role rotational players like Minter that fill out a roster. Last season he earned a little over one million dollars. Given his age, playing time, and the cap squeeze that will affect players like him he will have to take a little less to come back.
Prediction: Re-signed to another one-year contract under one million dollars.
Free Agent: Jack Cichy
What was once thought to be a possible rotational player with a high motor, Jack Cichy has not been able to stay healthy. Each year he has been placed on injured reserve. It has drastically hampered his growth and capped his potential.
Prediction: Allowed to walk
Free Agent: Deone Bucannon
Deone Bucannon is somewhat of an enigma. The former first-round pick started his career well. But buried by a deep roster and splitting starts he started to falter. Additionally, a rash of injuries caused him to slip into a spiraling path that had him bounce around from team to team. He eventually returned to Tampa in January 2021 for a second stint. Ultimately, his path is not clear. There is talent there it is just a matter of if it can be pulled out. Bruce Arians drafted him and had some insight on his true ability, but does he return?
Prediction: Bucannon is allowed to walk. Though I would not be surprised to see him on the roster again at some point in 2021.
The Way Forward
Two huge pieces of this defense are free agents. Of the two David is the one most likely to be retained. Given Barrett’s price, he will be hard to bring back. The Buccaneers could find themselves a free agent, but the better option may be to look towards the draft. They can add a piece to keep on the defense for the long haul. Some may argue that the team cannot find a replacement of his caliber in the draft. What they seem to forget is Barrett was an undrafted free agent. There will be talent available that can be plugged in there.
Primary Free Agent Target: Tyus Bowser
To replicate the success of signing Barrett the Buccaneers could take that model to heart again. Tyus Bowser found himself behind a starter just like Barrett did. When he got playing time he looked impressive. Bowser has played a similar ratio of passing downs to rundowns and has graded out well. In 2020 PFF assigned him a grade of 71.7 in run defense (Barrett: 66.1), 62.2 in pass defense (Barrett 78.2), and 66.7 in coverage (Barrett 62.2). Todd Bowles could certainly get more out of Bowser.
Prediction: The Buccaneers will have to be smart to sign Bowser, but can he fill Barrett’s shoes? I fully believe the Bucs will find Barrett’s replacement in the draft.
With two of the biggest names in free agency coming from this group of players, it will be interesting to see how the Buccaneers handle this. Additionally, other players will require attention. It most likely comes down to the most expensive player who is going to walk. In this case, unfortunately, that is Barrett.
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