In the immediate aftermath of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' victory in Super Bowl LV – most vocally and colorfully at the boat parade three days later – Head Coach Bruce Arians expressed his belief that the champions would be able to keep at bay the threat of free agency depleting the roster.
Last Wednesday, Arians discussed that topic again, and this time from the perspective of beginning a new season rather than in the still-warm glow of a fresh championship. Arians first noted that it was time to turn the page. He said goodbye to his players after the parade, and that was also goodbye to the 2020 season.
"Congratulations but this team is history; next year is a whole new ball club, man," he said. "We ain't done [nothing]."
However, Arians' optimism about keeping the teams' core intact has not waned as February has given away to March and, soon, the start of free agency. Arians knows that some of the team's potential free agents are necessarily going to get lucrative contracts, but he predicted that the Bucs and those players would "get the dollars right and hopefully keep this core together."
The Buccaneers currently have 24 players who could become unrestricted free agents at 4:00 p.m. on March 17. Some of them are sure to be higher priorities than others but the Bucs also demonstrated last year the value of maintaining depth at some key positions. As free agency approaches, we're looking at 10 of those 24 potential free agents, all of whom played significant roles in 2020:
February 16: ILB Lavonte David
February 19: WR Chris Godwin
February 23: RB Leonard Fournette
February 26: K Ryan Succop
March 2: DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches
March 5: QB Blaine Gabbert
March 9: WR Antonio Brown
March 12: TE Rob Gronkowski
March 15: OLB Shaquil Barrett
March 16: DL Ndamukong Suh
This list is subject to change based on potential roster moves in the coming weeks. Today we examine a player who stepped up into a starting role out of necessity during the team's run to the title.
Player: Rakeem Nunez-Roches
Position: Defensive Lineman
Experience: Entering seventh NFL season
How Acquired: Signed as a free agent on October 2, 2018 after he was released by Indianapolis one month earlier
Previous Contract(s): After his midseason addition in 2018, Nunez-Roches subsequently agreed to one-year deals to stay in Tampa near the start of free agency in both 2019 and 2020. A sixth-round draft pick by Kansas City in 2015, he originally signed the standard four-year contract that is mandated for each player drafted in the second through seventh rounds. The Chiefs waived him at the start of his second season and eventually re-signed him to a new two-year contract near midseason. He was a restricted free agent when that contract expired and got a one-year tender offer, a contract inherited by Indianapolis after he was waived and then claimed by the Colts.
Rank in Pro Football Focus Top 200 NFL Free Agents for 2021: Not ranked.
2020 Performance: Nunez-Roches signaled that he was in line for a somewhat larger role in 2020 with an outstanding performance in training camp. With the offseason program wiped out by the pandemic, Nunez-Roches used his time in the spring and summer to work on his quickness and add upper-body strength, and it paid off. That became even more important when starting lineman Vita Vea was downed by an ankle fracture in Week Five.
Nunez-Roches began the season as the primary backup to Vea at nose tackle and played about a third of the defensive snaps through the first five games of the season. He became the starter after that and saw his playing time rise above 50% of the snaps the rest of the way. He started each of the Bucs last 15 games, including all four in the playoffs.
The sixth-year veteran finished the regular season with 20 tackles and three quarterback hits. He also played a key role in keeping the Buccaneers' run defense in the first spot of the NFL ranks for the remainder of the season after Vea was injured. Nunez-Roches had three more tackles and one more quarterback hit in the playoffs.
Career Accomplishments: Nunez-Roches has played in 69 games with 27 starts, split almost evenly between the Buccaneers (35 and 11) and the Chiefs (34 and 16). His career totals thus far include 82 tackles, 1.5 sacks, six tackles for loss, eight QB hits and one fumble recovery. In addition to his postseason work this year, Nunez-Roches also appeared in one playoff game for the Chiefs after the 2016 season, contributing one stop.
Before this season, Nunez-Roches saw his most extensive playing time in the 2016-17 seasons with the Chiefs, starting 16 of the 27 games in which he played and recording all of his 1.5 sacks.
Other Potential Free Agent Interior Defensive Linemen: Leonard Williams (N.Y. Giants), Dalvin Tomlinson (N.Y. Giants), Shelby Harris (Denver), Sheldon Rankins (New Orleans), Tyson Alualu (Pittsburgh), Kawann Short (Carolina), DaQuan Jones (Tennessee), Lawrence Guy (New England), Derek Wolfe (Baltimore), Johnathan Hankins (Las Vegas), Roy Robertson-Harris (Chicago), Abry Jones (Jacksonville)
Top Interior Defensive Line Prospects in 2021 NFL Draft: Christian Barmore (Alabama), Levi Onwuzurike (Washington), Daviyon Nixon (Iowa), Marvin Wilson (Florida State), Jerome Johnson (Indiana), Jay Tufele (USC), Jaylen Twyman (Pittsburgh), Tommy Togiai (Ohio State), Mustafa Johnson (Colorado), Dayo Odeyingbo (Vanderbilt)