The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may still be seeking clarity on the quarterback situation and what will or will not be behind "Door Number Two," but there's no mystery about their strategy regarding the defensive front. There are seven outside linebackers and defensive linemen on the Buccaneers' list of 19 pending unrestricted free agents, and they'd like to keep as many of them as possible.
"We like all of them and I don't want to tell you who the priority is because there really isn't," said General Manager Jason Licht, speaking Tuesday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "The priority is getting them all back. We've been in contact with all of them and we'll continue to do that this week."
In particular, that list includes outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett and his league-leading 19.5 sacks in 2019, outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul (8.5 sacks) and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, who was a key part of the Bucs' top-ranked rush defense. Head Coach Bruce Arians memorably said that Barrett "ain't going anywhere" after a game in December, and he repeated that thought on Tuesday. However, Arians also seems to think it's possible that the Bucs can keep Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Suh.
"I hope so," said Arians. "I think so."
The Buccaneers have the option of using a franchise tag on one of those players, and that would almost certainly be Barrett if it is necessary. Either way, Barrett is sure to be paid extremely well in 2020, but Licht could have the means and the motivation to get the other deals done, as well.
"With the cap you plan three years, four years in advance," said Licht. "Last year, I was hearing that we didn't have any cap room and we were in cap hell. But now we have a lot. It's a good position to be in for us to make decisions and be able to keep this core together."
In fact, Arians said that negotiations with Pierre-Paul and Suh are going "very, very well," and both he and Licht said that Suh had indicated a desire to stay with the Buccaneers. Of course, the Licht and Arians and a phalanx of Tampa Bay scouts and coaches happen to be at the Combine in Indianapolis this week to study the next group of players headed to the NFL. The Buccaneers may very well be able to replace a departing free agent with a very talented rookie, perhaps even with the 14th overall pick. But Arians clearly prefers the bird in the hand because he's confident the same defensive front would produce at the same level in 2020. He said there would be "no surprises" with that group.
"I don't think there's any doubt [about the defensive talent in the draft]," said Arians. "There's a bunch of pass-rushers, and there's a bunch of big guys. But to me it's still, can we get our guys? Then we'll fill in the gaps."
As for the notion that the Bucs might want to reconsider investing heavily in Barrett lest they overpay on a "one-year wonder," Arians clearly isn't worried about that. While Barrett did have 5.5 more sacks last year than he did over four seasons in Denver, he also got a much bigger playing-time opportunity after serving as a rotational player in a deep Broncos front. The Bucs thought he could make the most of more reps, and he did.
"You don't get 19 and a half [sacks] being a one-year wonder," said Arians. "He's not a fly-by-night guy. It's going to be real for a long time."
And the Bucs hope he's in Tampa for a long time, surrounded by the same players who helped him excel in 2019.