The sprint to the NFL's 2020 calendar year has cleared another hurdle, with the annual Scouting Combine taking place last week in Indianapolis. Preparations for the 2020 NFL Draft in April will continue ahead at full steam, with dozens of college Pro Days next on the docket, but the next big date on the calendar is March 18. That's the official start of the league year and, thus, unrestricted free agency.
The market opens on 4:00 p.m. on that Wednesday and it will feature hundreds of available players, many of whom will find new NFL homes in the hours and weeks to follow. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could contribute up to 19 players to that unrestricted free agent market, though there is still the potential of franchise tags or pre-deadline deals cutting that list down a bit. Whether or not the Bucs dive deep into the free agent pool, they have a lot of work to do in the month of March thanks to that long list.
Two weeks remain before free agency, which means time is winding down for the Buccaneers and their 31 fellow NFL teams to deal with their own lists and identify potential targets on other rosters. As free agency approaches we're taking a position-by-position look at what the Bucs have, who they could lose and who they could look at from other teams on the open market. Our 2020 Free Agency Primers continues this week with the defensive line position.
January 15: Offensive Line
January 22: Safety
January 29: Running Back
February 5: Cornerback
February 12: Tight End
February 19: Inside Linebacker
February 26: Wide Receiver
March 4: Defensive Line
March 11: Quarterback
March 18: Outside Linebacker
2019 Output: To clarify, we are splitting the players who comprise the Buccaneers' defensive front into the two positions they are listed as on the team's roster: defensive linemen (DL) and outside linebackers (OLB). The former group is made up of players who mostly would have been referred to as defensive tackles in the Bucs' previous 4-3 scheme. Under Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles, the Bucs are labeled a 3-4 front, though of course they put a wide variety of packages into play with three, four and five down linemen.
View pictures from the DL and LB groups at the 2020 NFL Combine.
The Buccaneers' defensive linemen did not account for a large percentage of the team's 47 sacks in 2019, a total that a Tampa Bay team has only topped once, with 55 in 2000. The team's primary three-man front of Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and Will Gholston combined to record six of those 47 sacks. However, with Suh in particular drawing frequent double-team blocks, those down linemen definitely helped create good pass-rushing opportunities for Shaq Barrett and the other outside linebackers.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers' defensive linemen were the driving force in a run defense that allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL (73.8 yards per game), setting a new single-season record for the franchise. Suh contributed 41 tackles, seven tackles, 14 quarterback hits and four fumble recoveries, two of which he returned for touchdowns. Vea had similar production, with 35 tackles, four tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and three passes defensed. Gholston proved to be a good fit for Bowles' defense and added 38 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, seven tackles for loss and two passes defensed.
Under Contract for 2020: Vea, the Buccaneers' first-round pick in the 2018 draft, is just two years into what is at least a four-year deal and will likely be five when the team picks up his fifth-year option next offseason. Gholston also has two years remaining on the five-year pact he struck with the team in 2017, with no roster bonuses scheduled in this offseason or the next.
Jeremiah Ledbetter finished the 2019 season on the Bucs' practice squad and then signed a new one-year deal for 2020 in January. Patrick O'Connor, who split the 2019 season between the practice squad and the active roster, is the fourth defensive linemen currently under contract with the Buccaneers for 2020.
Buccaneers' Pending Free Agents: Suh tops this list and has been mentioned by Head Coach Bruce Arians as one of the team's top priorities on that long list of free agents. Suh has played the last two seasons on one-year deals, first for the Rams and then for the Bucs, and according to Arians he wants to continue his career into at least an 11th season. General Manager Jason Licht said at the Combine that Suh has also indicated he would like to return to the Buccaneers.
Though Suh is the only starting lineman whose contract is expiring, free agency could take a toll on the team's depth in the defensive trenches. In addition to Suh, veterans Beau Allen and Rakeem Nunez-Roches are also due to become unrestricted free agents on March 18. Allen and Nunez-Roches were responsible for only 19 tackles and 0.5 sacks, combined, in 2019 but they did see the field relatively frequently. Nunez-Roches contributed 301 snaps on defense and played in every game while Allen was in on 192 snaps.
Potentially Available Free Agents: As is the case at a lot of positions, this list starts with a name that probably won't be there for long. Chris Jones, perhaps the most important defensive player on the Super Bowl-winning Chiefs' roster, is currently a "potential" free agent but he won't hit the open market. The Chiefs have already made it clear that they will use the franchise tag to retain Jones if necessary. Were he to get a chance to test the market, Jones would undoubtedly land one of the richest deals in the NFL, as he is widely regarded as the second-best player at his position behind the Rams' Donald Jones.
If the Buccaneers wanted to try to duplicate their home run signing of Shaq Barrett from a year ago, they could go back to the Broncos and target Shelby Harris, who has spent three productive years in a rotational role as Barrett did. Barrett actually graduated to a starting role last year and had six sacks but the question remains if he could handle an even larger share of the snaps.
Pittsburgh's Javon Hargrave and Houston's D.J. Reader are two middle-round draft picks from 2016 who seem to be peaking as they prepare to hit free agency for the first time and are thus should be very popular if they hit the market. Both are big men who can handle the nose tackle position in a 3-4 front but also have some pass-rush ability. Hargrave, in particular, had 10.5 sacks over the past two years. At 330 pounds, Reader is a load in the middle but can still get into the backfield.
Leonard Williams and Mike Daniels are two more potential free agents who are looking for career rebounds of varying degrees. Daniels was one of the league's most disruptive interior linemen as recently as 2017 but he's had two seasons of injuries and struggles in Green Bay and Detroit. Williams is a former sixth-overall pick and has shown flashes of the dominance that would suggest but has not yet fully rounded into a star defender. He was traded from the Jets to the Giants midway through last season and his new team is probably motivated to keep him around for that reason.
Teams looking for a run-stopper in particular might go after Baltimore's Michael Pierce, a 340-pounder who hasn't shown much in way of a pass-rush in four seasons but can plug the middle. Alternately, teams looking for more of a pass-rusher might try to land San Francisco's Arik Armstead or Seattle's Jarran Read. Armstead played end for the 49ers but at 6-7 and nearly 300 pounds is also capable of sliding inside. He had a breakout year in 2019 with 10 sacks. Reed had 10.5 sacks in 2018 but otherwise has just five sacks in 40 other games over three seasons, and last year he lost the first six games to a suspension.
New Orleans' David Onyemata started a career-high 15 games in 2019 but his snap count still indicates very much of a rotational role. He might be looking for an opportunity to increase his playing time elsewhere. The Cowboys' Maliek Collins is another player finishing up his rookie deal and hitting free agency for the first time and he could be helpful to a team looking to shore up its run defense. Some additional veterans with proven track records potentially hitting free agency include Timmy Jernigan, Michael Brockers and Gerald McCoy, though a McCoy-Bucs reunion would be surprising.
Bucs' Interest Level: Moderate to High.
This clearly depends on what happens with the Bucs' own list of free agents on their defensive front seven, in particular Ndamukong Suh. The need at this position, at least for front-of-the-rotation players, wouldn't be high with a trio of Suh, Vita Vea and Will Gholston. And there are even depth options with Ledbetter and O'Connor if Nunez-Roches and/or Beau Allen depart, as well.
However, if the Bucs are not able to retain Suh, then they would clearly be in need of a significant addition on the defensive front. It's quite possible that such a players could be found in the draft – many mock drafts pair Tampa Bay with South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw – but as always free agency comes before the draft. If the Buccaneers had a Suh-sized hole to fill and were able to address that issue in free agency, they would have more flexibility at the top of the draft to hit such other needs as offensive tackle or – potentially – edge rusher or quarterback.