The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are facing a list of potential unrestricted free agents that is 23 players long, which is a daunting task if the team hopes to keep its playoff-caliber core intact like it did a year ago. Featured prominently on that list are four players the Buccaneers drafted in 2018: Ronald Jones, Carlton Davis, Alex Cappa and Jordan Whitehead. The team has already re-signed its first-round pick from that year, defensive tackle Vita Vea, to a new long-term deal, and the fact that they would like to keep as much of that class around as possible is a sign of some good drafting four years ago.
Drafting well and then retaining key contributors on a second contract is the ideal outcome. The Bucs have accomplished that with the likes of Vea, Mike Evans and Lavonte David. David is a bit different than the other two, however. Last March, on the day that free agency began, he signed a third contract with Tampa Bay, one that makes it more likely he could spend his entire career in red and pewter. That's not a given, of course; David's five-year deal is, in function, actually just a two-year contract that runs through the upcoming campaign, with three more years on the end that automatically void at the end of that season. Still, David still feels like a Buccaneer lifer, like Ronde Barber or Paul Gruber.
Defensive lineman Will Gholston could be in the same boat. He has already played nine seasons, with 136 games played and 78 starts, which is an outstanding return on a fourth-round pick. He is clearly comfortable in his current surroundings and has seen something of a career rejuvenation since the arrival of Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. Gholston, like David, will be seeking a third contract in Tampa, which if it comes to pass will be something to celebrate for both team and player.
The Bucs won't be able to keep all 23 of their potential free agents, but they'll try to keep as much of their playoff-caliber core intact as possible. And so, in the weeks leading up to the start of the new league year, we are going to look at 10 key players who are currently poised to become unrestricted free agents in mid-March. This is the full schedule of our 2022 Free Agent Focus rundown:
February 15: TE Rob Gronkowski
February 17: G Alex Cappa
February 22: CB Carlton Davis
February 24: QB Blaine Gabbert
March 1: DL Ndamukong Suh
March 3: RB Leonard Fournette
March 8: DL Will Gholston
March 10: WR Chris Godwin
March 14: S Jordan Whitehead
March 15: C Ryan Jensen
This list is subject to change based on potential roster moves in the coming weeks. However, today we will focus on a player who, if he does return for more in Tampa, would soon crack the top 10 in the franchise's all-time list for most games played.
Player: Will Gholston
Position: Defensive Linemen
Age at the Start of the 2022 Season: 31
Experience: Entering 10th NFL season
How Acquired: Selected in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft
Previous Contract(s): Gholston has played through two full contracts since joining the Buccaneers, covering all nine of his NFL seasons so far. He played the first four years on the standard deal given to draft picks not chosen in the first round. In March of 2017, he signed his second NFL deal, this one covering five seasons.
Rank in Pro Football Focus Top 100 NFL Free Agents for 2021*:* Not ranked.
2021 Performance: Gholston played in all 17 regular-season games with 10 starts and recorded a career-high 4.5 sacks while also providing outstanding work against the run. The Buccaneers ranked third in the NFL in rush defense in 2021 after topping that list in both 2019 and 2020. Gholston was one of three down linemen, along with Vea and Ndamukong Suh, who started in the base package, though he occasionally wasn't on the field for the game's first snap if the opposition's personnel dictated that the Bucs start in a sub package.
In addition to his 4.5 sacks, Gholston was credited with 11 quarterback hits and 17 pressures, along with 36 total tackles. In the playoffs, he appeared in both games, with one start, and contributed two tackles, one for a loss.
Career Accomplishments: Gholston's 136 games played ranks 11th in franchise history and are four behind Warren Sapp's 140 for 10th. He has 19.5 career sacks, including 7.5 over the past two seasons, the most productive stretch of his career in that category. Gholston also has 352 tackles, 54 of them for losses.
Gholston was a spot starter in his first two seasons (2013-14) before becoming a regular from 2015-17. After seeing his playing time decline in 2018, Gholston found a much more prominent role in Bowles' defense, which has similarities to the one he was drafted to play in under Greg Schiano in 2013. During his three seasons with Bowles, Gholston has played in every game and made 30 starts and has racked up 38 quarterback hits. His 20 QB hits for the Bucs' 2020 Super Bowl-winning squad were the most among all the team's defenders.
Gholston has also proved to be extremely reliable. He has only missed nine games in his career and none over the last four seasons and has never had a stint on injured reserve. In fact, until he spent three games on the reserve/COVID-19 list last year (without missing a game), Gholston had exactly three entries on his career list of transactions: his selection in the draft, his first contract signing and his second contract signing.
Other Potential Free Agent Interior Defensive Linemen: Akiem Hicks (Chicago), Calais Campbell (Baltimore), Folorunso Fatukasi (N.Y. Jets), B.J. Hill (Cincinnati), D.J. Jones (San Francisco), Linval Joseph (L.A. Chargers), Sebastian Joseph-Day (L.A. Rams), Maliek Collins (Houston), Sheldon Richardson (Cleveland), Tim Settle (Washington), DaQuan Jones (Carolina), Harrison Phillips (Buffalo), Maurice Hurst (San Francisco), Derrick Nnadi (Kansas City)
Top Interior Defensive Line Prospects in 2022 NFL Draft: Jordan Davis (Georgia), Devonte Wyatt (Georgia), DeMarvin Leal (Texas A&M), Perrion Winfrey (Oklahoma), Phidarian Mathis (Alabama), Travis Jones (Connecticut), Haskell Garrett (Ohio State), Logan Hall (Houston), Josh Paschal (Kentucky), Neil Farrell (LSU)