Position Group: Defensive Line
Players: William Gholston, Vita Vea, Akiem Hicks, Patrick O'Connor, Rakeem Nuñez-Roches, Logan Hall, Deadrin Senat
2022 Evaluation: In 2022, the Buccaneers' defense ranked ninth in total defense (324.3), 15th against the run (120.7) and ninth in pass defense (203.6). Todd Bowles' crew produced 45.0 sacks (seventh), which is tied for fifth-most in franchise history.
Vita Vea, the club's starting nose tackle, led the Buccaneers with 6.5 sacks in 2022. Despite playing a position that is invariably linked to eating up blocks and two-gapping in order to create opportunities for teammates, Vea became a disruptive force in the interior. He finished the year with a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, 31 combined tackles (15 solo), seven tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hits in 13 game starts. Vea overwhelms at the point of attack and easily dislodges centers and guards with power and quickness. With violent hands and an effective bull rush, Vea became a nuisance for offensive linemen in one-on-one isolated situations.
Three-technique, Akiem Hicks, became a viable free agent pickup for the Bucs in 2022. Although Hicks' production this past season was hindered by injury, he returned to peak form. Hicks tore the plantar fascia in his foot during Tampa Bay's Week Two 20-10 victory over the Saints, sidelining him for a month. In 11 game starts, Hicks accumulated three pass breakups, a sack, 22 combined tackles (13 solo), two tackles for loss and four quarterback hits. Hicks' presence in the line bolstered the unit by creating advantageous matchups. With both Vea and Hicks possessing power-styled games, opponents were forced to double someone, which then created a one-on-one pass rush situation for another teammate. With burst and agility off the snap, Hicks became a menace for the Buccaneers in 2022.
As a stout strongside run defender, William Gholston comes off the field in sub, nickel packages. Against the pass, Gholston uses his length and power to productively shoot gaps. Against the run, he attacks the backfield. The vested veteran can move with tight ends and running backs in the flat and stunt with explosiveness. In his 10th season with Tampa Bay, Gholston tallied 49 combined tackles (24 solo), four tackles for loss and five quarterback hits. He has been a mainstay in the Bucs' defensive line for a decade, achieving both consistency and longevity.
Rakeem Nuñez-Roches primarily served as the backup nose tackle for Vea, and Pat O'Connor provided rotational depth (assisting on special teams). Nuñez-Roches is a high-motor player with first-step quickness, and was a valuable depth option with plug-and-play potential. In 10 game starts for the Bucs in 2022, Nuñez-Roches posted 2.0 sacks, 33 combined tackles, five tackles for loss and three quarterback hits. As a reserve nose tackle behind Vea and Nuñez-Roches in 2022, Deadrin Senat recorded a sack, 17 combined tackles, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hits in 12 games played in 2022.
Logan Hall, the Bucs' 33rd overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, served as a third-down interior rusher in the Bucs' nickel packages. He received increased playing time with Hicks' injury, which yielded sacks against the Packers and Falcons. Hall will continue to develop and strive for a breakout campaign in 2023. At Houston, Hall primarily lined up as the three-technique in Doug Belk's multiple fronts, with experience playing the five-technique during his collegiate career. In his first year in the NFL, Hall totaled 2.5 sacks, 12 combined tackles (seven solo), five tackles for loss and six quarterback hits in 17 games played.
2023 Outlook: Of the seven players listed in the position group, five are set to become free agents in March: Akiem Hicks, William Gholston, Rakeem Nuñez-Roches, Pat O'Connor, and Deadrin Senat. For the second offseason in a row, the Buccaneers will have several decisions to make on piecing together their defensive line. With two starters and three reserves on the free agent list, Tampa Bay is poised to lose both key pieces and depth options. Hicks was acquired last offseason to help fill the void left by Ndamukong Suh and when he was healthy, made a significant impact for the Bucs on the interior. The Bucs will vie to sure up the defensive line this offseason and with salary-cap restrictions, tough decisions loom.