The Bucs' 'oldest' unit on defense is the front - with an average age of 27 years old. Just two players are older than 30 and both of said players are first-year Buccaneers. Not that it matters. The 3-4 base defensive system is new for everyone. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles came to the Bucs this offseason under Head Coach Bruce Arians and with him, came a defense, the likes of which Tampa Bay hasn't seen in quite some time. Overall, it stresses confusion and speed, the latter of which Tampa Bay has plenty of with the addition of this year's draft class. They have two rookies that ran the fastest 40-yard dash of their respective positions at this year's NFL Combine. Linebacker Devin White clocked an insane 4.42 40 at 6-foot and nearly 240 pounds. Cornerback Jamel Dean ran a 4.3-flat, good for the best among defensive backs and the second-best at the Combine, period.
Youth and speed - see how that all shakes out by position below.
Defensive Line (5)
In a base 3-4 defense, which the Bucs now identify as, the three comes from the three down linemen with four linebackers (two outside and two inside) alignment. Those three down linemen will be taken from the above group, with the other two serving as rotational players and depth. Which three it will be will depend on the package and what the defense is anticipating on that particular play.
Vea has been kept out of most of the preseason with a knee injury. He avoided surgery and Head Coach Bruce Arians had some encouraging words to say about the second-year player potentially returning for the start of the season.
"Yeah, he’s progressing very nicely,” Arians said last week. “I’ll know more by Tuesday and he’ll be here all weekend working out. It’ll be close, but I think he’ll be there."
The team signed 10-year NFL veteran Ndamukong Suh as a free agent and he adds a ton of experience along with attitude to the front. Known for his physicality, Suh will be a major contributor both in his on-field abilities and how he helps others along the line with his plethora of experience. Allen is – and has been – extremely effective against the run. He joins Suh as one of two players with Super Bowl experience. Suh played in last year’s game while with the Los Angeles Rams and Allen won the Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles the year before.
Will Gholston was previously classified as a defensive end with the Buccaneers in their 4-3 base defense. After putting on some weight this offseason, he will now help occupy the interior. Rakeem Nuñez-Roches had a strong camp and led the team in sacks with 2.0 across the four preseason games. He’s an extremely physical player and will be a great rotational guy on the inside.
Outside Linebackers (4)
A year after being released by Cleveland and subsequently signed by the Bucs, Carl Nassib is emerging as the leader of his position group. He’s long and physical, making him ideal to come off the edge and get to the opposing quarterback. He had the second-most sacks of any Buccaneer last year with 6.5 and his new role as outside linebacker seems even more conducive to his playing style. It makes it very likely that he registers at least as many sacks as last year, if not more. Of the other four outside linebackers on the roster, only Barrett has any experience at that particular role at the NFL level. He was with Denver for the last five seasons before the Bucs scooped him up in free agency. Rookie Anthony Nelson was drafted in the fourth round out of the University of Iowa, where he played defensive end in the Hawkeyes’ 4-3 collegiate scheme. Nelson has a very similar body type to Nassib and should fit in well with a guy like him to learn from.
Devante Bond played an off-the-ball linebacker position last year and even started camp this preseason as an inside linebacker. After seeing his natural rush abilities, however, the staff decided to move him instead to outside linebacker, a role he was familiar with from his days at Oklahoma in college. In his first game at his new position this preseason, Bond registered a sack and batted down a ball at the line. He is nursing an injury that kept him out of the last preseason game but should be good to go in the relatively near future. Harris was on the team’s practice squad last year and after getting in his fair share of reps in the preseason, will now help provide depth at the outside linebacker position in 2019.
View photos of the Buccaneers' 53-man roster.
Inside Linebackers (5)
The longest-tenured defensive player on the Bucs’ roster was looking great in camp before having a knee procedure that sidelined him for the rest of the preseason. Like Vea though, Coach Arians had some encouraging words about the veteran linebacker’s status, saying he will be practicing this coming Tuesday and should play in the Bucs’ season opener against the 49ers. In this defense, inside linebackers do a lot – including getting pressure on the quarterback. That should provide for some gaudier stats for David this year, hopefully propelling him into the Pro Bowl again.
Devin White is the rookie with responsibility, calling the defense on the field this year. He’s immediately stepped into the leadership position thrust on him and he should only continue to get better and more comfortable – especially in tandem with David.
Both Bucannon and Minter have been privy to the way Coach Arians does things and subsequently, the type of system Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles employs. They were both in Arizona under Arians and Bowles before he departed to take the Jets’ head coaching post. As a result, they’ve looked very comfortable in this system so far in camp and provide viable depth behind both David and White. Cichy is coming off an ACL injury suffered in Week Six of last season. Armed with two ‘bionic’ knees as he calls them, Cichy’s energy is palpable. All preseason he was flying around and looked like he was having so much fun doing it. He’s got great football IQ too and rounds out the inside linebacker group well.
Part of the Bucs’ new defensive scheme is its propensity for more press-man coverage for cornerbacks. It means they can be a little more physical and run with their receivers. It relies mostly on speed and skill – which is exactly what these guys do best. Early on this offseason, Bowles and his assistant coaches preached the importance of speed in this system. Hargreaves, when healthy, can stick with his man and make plays by anticipating the ball with some of the best of them. Davis has made strides from his rookie year last season and should expect to be opposite Hargreaves. Dean has gotten his fair share of work in the preseason and showed off his speed and ball skills – nabbing himself an interception in the end zone against the Dolphins in the Bucs’ second preseason game.
Both M.J. Stewart and Sean Murphy-Bunting should be used in the nickel corner position, but Murphy-Bunting learned both the nickel and outside corner positions during camp – and played both in preseason games. The two positions, while both under the cornerback category, have different responsibilities in this system but experience at both can only be beneficial to the young player.
Third-year safety Justin Evans returned to practice last week and had it not been for some soreness, would have played in Thursday’s preseason finale. He’s been learning the system from the sidelines and should have a good understanding of his role as a result. As a naturally gifted athlete, translating his responsibilities from paper to the field should end up coming easy for him. Rookie Mike Edwards has been out for the past couple weeks with his own injury but proved he had a pretty firm grasp on the system prior to being sidelined. In practice, he made plays on the ball, living up to his ball-hawk reputation from college at Kentucky.
Second-year safety Jordan Whitehead had a great preseason learning his second system in two years. In the Bucs’ third preseason game against the Browns, Whitehead had the first preseason interception of his career as he picked off Baker Mayfield to end the half, preventing a Cleveland touchdown. He had a team-high four tackles that game along with two passes defensed in addition to the interception. He’s ready to make it count in the regular season. Stewart is a guy the team signed in the preseason as a free agent who was most recently with the Broncos. The ninth-year NFL vet brings a ton of experience to a very young room and very young secondary, period.