There has been nothing normal about the NFL's last two offseasons, but one thing remained the same in 2020 and 2021: The start of free agency came well before the draft.
That annual progress of the open veteran market in March and the college infusion in late April informs every team's strategy on how to build it's depth chart. In the case of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that was particularly evident when it came to the team's veteran-heavy defensive line.
With the help of his scouting staff, General Manager Jason Licht got a picture of a 2021 draft class that wasn't particularly deep in blue chip big men on defense. Licht also had his eye on another list, that of the Buccaneers' potential free agents, which as of February was 24 players long and notably included three defensive linemen. What followed was part of the team's efforts to keep as much of their Super Bowl-winning roster intact, which was particularly difficult but ultimately successful at that position. Among the many players to get new deals to stay with the Bucs were down linemen Ndamukong Suh, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Steve McLendon.
"It's not as deep as it has been in some years," said Licht of the defensive tackle talent pool before the draft. "We've known for that some time. Now, there still are some that we like. But it went into our thought process of re-signing Nacho [and] Stevie. We're excited about where Jeremiah [Ledbetter] was last year when he had to play. Khalil [Davis] made some big strides for us and we feel like he's going to get even better. And then of course we have Vita [Vea]. So we've got depth for this year; in the future that may be a position that we're going to have to look at and it could come out of this year's draft. We feel good about going into this year with the group that we have."
Subsequently, the Buccaneers did not, in fact, select any defensive linemen in the 2021 draft. But that's more of a concern for future seasons because the team is definitely not short at the position this season. In addition to all of those mentioned above the Bucs also return dependable veteran Will Gholston, special teams ace Patrick O'Connor and a handful of young hopefuls like 2020 undrafted free agent Benning Potoa'e. It is true, however, that Suh, Gholston, McLendon, Ledbetter and O'Connor are all currently slated to become free agents next March.
The Buccaneers are now fully into their final pre-training camp break and won't get back together until late July. However, they already have their 90-man camp roster in place, one that could potentially see a few minor changes but not likely any more major additions. The draft was more than a month ago and there is little left to be done across the NFL in free agency. That makes this is a good time to do a position-by-position review of the Bucs' depth chart heading into camp, an exercise in which we are now three weeks in and are now switching from offense to defense. We start on that side of the ball where every good defense itself starts, up front and in the trenches. Below is a full schedule of all the positional reviews, including the ones already completed:
View the top photos from the Bucs final day of mandatory mini-camp.
- Tuesday, May 25: Quarterbacks
- Friday, May 28: Running Backs
- Tuesday, June 1: Wide Receivers
- Friday, June 4: Tight Ends
- Tuesday, June 8: Offensive Tackles
- Friday, June 11: Guards & Centers
- Tuesday, June 15: Defensive Linemen
- Friday, June 18: Outside Linebackers
- Tuesday, June 22: Inside Linebackers
- Friday, June 25: Cornerbacks
- Tuesday, June 29: Safeties
- Friday, July 2: Specialists
In a way, the Buccaneers may feel as if they are adding to the position heading into this year's training camp because they only got seven games out of budding star Vita Vea last year. A first-round draft pick in 2018, Vea was playing his best ball yet to start his third season but then caught a bad break with a serious ankle fracture in Chicago in Week Five that sent him to injured reserve.
At the time, that appeared to be a season-ending injury and in fact it would have been if the Buccaneers hadn't kept extending the season. When Tampa Bay left New Orleans with a Divisional Round win, that extended it long enough for Vea to return for the last two games. Vea didn't put up any notable statistics in those two outings but multiple teammates and coaches insisted his presence had made an enormous impact.
"It meant the world to us," said linebacker Devin White of Vea's efforts to make it back before season's end. "It meant how much of brotherhood we are – defense especially. At the end of the day this is a league that's about availability. For him to put his body through so much just to get back and help his teammates, that says a lot about him as a teammate, as a brother, as a man. In this league especially. This [is] a league that's driven by getting the big bucks, so imagine if he came out there a little too early and now he has setback. That would take him away from getting a payout. People on this team don't think like that. They're just doing whatever to help the team. He knew, 'If I [come] back and I take less reps, I'm still giving my team help and giving us a better chance to win.'"
Vea's injury did allow the Buccaneers to discover the true value of Nunez-Roches, who went from reserve to starting nose tackle for the remainder of the season, even after Vea's return. It's worth noting that the Buccaneers were leading the NFL in run defense when Vea went down and then never lost that top spot in the three months that followed.
- Khalil Davis…Entering the second season of the four-year rookie deal he got as a sixth-round draft pick in 2020; Played in four games as a rookie, two each in the regular season and the postseason, and recorded two tackles and two quarterback hits.
- William Gholston…Headed into the final year of the five-year contract he signed to remain with the Buccaneers in 2017; Played in all 20 games in 2020 with 12 starts, finishing with 44 tackles and a team-high 20 quarterback hits during the regular season plus another four QB hits in the playoffs.
- Jeremiah Ledbetter…Re-signed on a one-year contract on March 9, prior to becoming an exclusive rights agent; Spent the first 12 weeks of 2020 on the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster and appearing in two games.
- Steve McLendon…Inked a new one-year deal on May 14 after originally arriving in Tampa via a trade with the New York Jets on October 20, 2020; Saw action in 12 games after the trade, picking up 17 tackles in the regular season followed by five stops and three QB hits in the playoffs.
- Rakeem Nunez-Roches…Came back on a new two-year deal signed on March 20; Played in all 20 games of 2020 and started the last 15 after an injury to Vita Vea, recording 23 tackles and four QB hits, playoffs included.
- Patrick O'Connor…Signed a one-year deal on March 9 prior to becoming an exclusive rights free agent; Played in all 20 games last season, primarily on special teams.
- Benning Potoa'e…Picked up a new two-year deal on February 10 after finishing the 2020 season on the practice squad; Spent entire season on that unit but was elevated twice and saw action in one game each in the regular season and the postseason.
- Kobe Smith…Brought back on a two-year contract on February 10; Spent most of the 2020 season on the Bucs' practice squad
- Ndamukong Suh…On February 5, signed what is essentially his third straight one-year deal with the Buccaneers, though the current one technically includes four additional years that automatically void after 2021; Started all 20 games (still has not missed a game due to injury in his 11-year career) and had 44 tackles, 6.0 sacks and 19 quarterback hits in the regular season, adding 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks and four QB hits in the playoffs.
- Vita Vea…Entering the fourth season of his rookie contract (the Bucs have already picked up his fifth-year option) signed after he was drafted 12th overall in 2018; Missed the last 11 games of the 2020 regular season following an ankle fracture but returned to play in the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl.
- Sam Renner…Signed a two-year reserve/futures contract with the Bucs on February 12; Started training camp with the L.A. Rams last summer after signing as an undrafted free agent but was not with a team during the regular season.
- Elijah Ponder…Signed a three-year contract as an undrafted free agent on May 13; Won first-team all-conference honors as a junior at Cincinnati.
The Buccaneers mostly ran with six defensive linemen on the 53-man roster during the 2020 season, in part because O'Connor was a core special teams player. They briefly dipped to five for a week after Vea's injury (but still had six on game day with the elevation of Ledbetter from the practice squad), then traded for McLendon after Week Six. Ledbetter got a promotion late in the year to make it seven and the Bucs actually had eight down linemen for the final two games of the postseason after Vea returned.
Everybody who got playing time on the line during the 2020 season is back for 2021. That continuity will help, as will the coaching staff remaining intact.
"You're only as strong as the collective unit versus being a bunch of individuals," said Suh. "If we can all be on the same page and have clear expectations, and be able to meet those – and they be fair on both sides – I think that's where you create a great atmosphere. Coach [Bruce Arians] does an amazing job to do that. I think that's one of my excitements of continuing to be here, being a Buc and wanting to play for a coach like that. It's not seen as I have to do certain things – it's more or less a partnership versus a dictatorship is how I view the whole situation here. It's something exciting that I'm happy to be a part of."
One of those six throughout the season was Davis, the sixth-round pick out of Missouri who showed enough as an interior disruptor to earn and keep a roster spot. However, he was put on the game day inactive for all but four weeks, including the playoffs, and finished with just 55 snaps on defense. That puts his final rookie totals of two tackles and two quarterback hits in a better light, and one of his veteran teammates thinks he could contribute significantly more in 2021. So in addition to getting Vea back for, hopefully, a full campaign, the Buccaneers do have something like a new draft pick to develop for the near future.
"I'm not sure if it stunted his growth or anything of that nature," said Suh of the truncated 2020 offseason that made the NFL transition harder on Davis and other draft picks that year. "What I would say is it made it a lot more difficult because he would get a lot more attention during OTAs, during mini-camp and all those particular opportunities. I think Khalil got a lot of great work and when he was put on the football field he was expected to make plays, and he made plays and created havoc. As I look at him going into his second year, he has an opportunity to continue to do that, and it's part of my task and the collective defensive line to bring him along and keep getting him to get better each and every day that he's out there."
First and foremost, the Buccaneers defended their 2019 title as the league's best run defense and a great deal of the credit for that goes to Suh and company up front. According to Football Outsiders, Tampa Bay's defensive line ranked first in adjusted line yards allowed per carry (3.60), first in average yards per carry by opposing running backs (3.35), first in second-level yards allowed per carry (0.85) and second in stuffed rate (22.3%). Put all of that together and it paints a picture of a defensive front wall that is very hard to crack or push backward.
The Buccaneers also ranked seventh in sacks per pass play on defense at 7.78%, and the defensive linemen contributed quite a bit to that as well. Most directly, the down linemen combined for 13 of the team's 48 sacks, led by Suh's 6.0. Gholston and Suh also ranked first and second on the team in quarterback hits, with 20 and 19, respectively. Indirectly, the interior linemen helped push that sack total towards the top of the league rankings by eating up multiple blockers and creating more one-on-one opportunities for the edge rushers and more open lanes for blitzers like Devin White (9.0 sacks).
Suh felt he made a bigger impact in both ways in his second year with the team than he did in 2019, which was the first year in Tampa for not just him but also Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles.
"Yeah, without question I think I had a better year," said Suh. "I think I found ways to be more successful in the particular defense that we're running. I understand how I'm kind of put into the defense in a lot of ways, where sometimes I have to be a decoy to free up other guys, which I have no problem doing and I've done that a lot in my career. But also I like to join the party and have fun myself. At the end of the day, I'm really focused on what's best for the team but at the same time I've got to be able to continue to produce and make plays."
Three Key Questions:
· Can the Bucs make it three years in a row as the NFL's best run defense?
The Buccaneers are already the first team to lead the NFL in run defense in two consecutive seasons since the Minnesota Vikings did so in 2007 and 2008. Now they have a chance to join the 2006-08 Vikings to do so in three consecutive seasons. That would be pretty remarkable for a franchise that only topped the league's run defense rankings one time in its first 43 seasons.
There's reason to be optimistic about that potential accomplishment, particularly after the Bucs maintained that top spot after Vea's injury last year. While Vea has been one of the main reasons the team has been so hard to run on the past two years, that continued success in his absence indicates that it also has a lot to do with scheme and other strong run defenders like Suh, Gholston, Nunez-Roches and McLendon. Still, the Bucs chances of staying at the top will be stronger if Vea is in the lineup for the entire season.
The Bucs' defensive philosophy helps here, too. Even in a league that is increasingly pass-oriented, the Buccaneers go into each game determined to stop the run first in order to make the opposition one-dimensional for most of the game. Oh, and having Devin White and Lavonte David patrolling the middle of the field behind that stout line doesn't hurt either. Even Tom Brady is a factor here, and a positive one. The Buccaneers scored 31 points per game and won by an average margin of 8.6 points in 2020, fourth-best in the NFL. Any time the Bucs can get ahead early and build a wide lead they will force the opposition to pass more often in an attempt to come back.
· Can Ndamukong Suh approach double digits in sacks again?
He certainly believes he can, and in fact he wasn't that far from the second 10-sack season of his career in 2020. Compare his ratio of 19 quarterback hits to six sacks with that of, say, Shaquil Barrett (16 to eight). As Suh notes, he simply has to turn more of those hits into full sacks to get back into double digits.
"Even just being able to have six sacks in the regular season and one-and-a-half in the Super Bowl, I still left a lot of things out on the table," said Suh. Myself and Coach Kacy [Rodgers] talked about that, especially before we went into the playoffs and as we went into the offseason after we got done. Just having that conversation and understanding there's no question you can get double-digit sacks and whatnot. I've just got to continue to finish and find ways to do it. You look at the Minnesota game, that sticks out in my head. I missed three sacks in that game. So imagine that and I'm at nine and it's a different ballgame. It's just about continuing to finish. It's not easy in this league but I know I still have the ability to do it."
Suh had his first 10-sack season as a rookie in 2010 after he was the second player drafted overall. He collected 53 sacks over his first seven NFL seasons and his two-way dominance against the run and the pass in that stretch earned him five Pro Bow invitations and three first-team Associated Press All-Pro selections. From 2017-19, he played for three different teams (Dolphins, Rams and Buccaneers) and had a total of 11.5 sacks in that season, including 2.5 in his first year with the Buccaneers. That might look like a downward trend for a player now in his 30s, but Suh's 2020 campaign suggested his big sack seasons might not be completely in the past.
· How much difference will it make if Vita Vea is in the lineup for the entire season?
Vea's early-career momentum was slowed by a training camp leg injury in his rookie year but he came on strong at the end of that campaign. He played in all 16 games in his second season and built on his good finish to 2018 but finished with middling pass-rush numbers (2.5 sacks, 12 hits). He had nearly that many in his first five games of 2020 and was starting to get recognition as one of the brightest young defensive line stars in the league.
Obviously, his injury in Week Five put that momentum on ice but when he returned for the last two games of the playoffs he didn't seem to miss a beat. The Buccaneers put a lot of pressure on both Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game and especially Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl and no one considered it a coincidence that it happened after Vea returned.
And that's the point: Vea might have some robust sack seasons in his future but the Buccaneers will be a lot better on defense in 2021 whether or not he personally gets to the quarterback very often.
"We're ten times better defense with him on the field," said White. "He's just that good. Even if he's not making a big play, trust me, if you turn on that film and watch what he's doing you'll see why I said that. I respect him and I really need him on the field. I hope everything works out for us, and we're going to ball."