Last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' strategy for free agency, in the larger sense, consisted of Plans 1A and 1B: Pursue Tom Brady and keep the core of a promising defense intact. And that latter plan involved three primary targets for retention: Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh.
As we count down the 15 most significant moves in building the Buccaneers' Super Bowl-winning 2020 roster, we'll eventually get to all of those cornerstone transactions. But when it came to holding the defense together, the Bucs actually did more than retain their three biggest potential free agents. There were some ultimately significant depth signings last spring, too, such as the return of Kevin Minter that we examined on Thursday.
Minter became a special teams captain in 2020 and also kept the middle of the defense solid when Devin White was out for two crucial weeks in January. Four days after the Bucs got Minter's signature on a new deal last March, they were able to bring back another reserve from the 2019 defense, and he ended up filling an even more critical role. General Manager Jason Licht, Head Coach Bruce Arians and their respective staffs made a lot of moves along the way to the Super Bowl and some of them, like this one, ended up being even more important than they seemed at the time.
Note: The countdown we will be constructing over the next three weeks does roughly progress towards the most impactful moves at the end, but it is not strictly a ranking. There's not much of a distinction to be drawn between moves listed near each other in the countdown, and we're not trying to say that any particular re-signing on defense was more important than the next. There is, however, a clear number one. These are also not in chronological order.
Countdown: Top 15 Transactions in the Buccaneers' Pursuit of the 2020 Championship
11. Re-signed DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches, March 24
The Buccaneers actually re-signed two defenders on that day in late March, Nunez-Roches and safety Andrew Adams. Neither was expected to be a starter in 2020 but Adams had proved to be a very useful bit of depth in the secondary in 2019, starting 11 games. This time around, it would be Nunez-Roches' chance to step up.
The 6-2, 307-pound lineman known as 'Nacho' actually first arrived in Tampa in October of 2018, about a month after he had been waived by the Colts. A former sixth-round draft pick out of Southern Miss, he had spent three seasons with the Chiefs, most notably starting 11 contests in 2017. However, Kansas City waived him the next May and he was claimed by Indianapolis.
Nunez-Roches didn't play much in his first half-season with the Buccaneers, getting into three games and on the field for 52 defensive snaps. However, the team re-signed him in March of 2019, two days after he had been allowed to hit the free agent market. The Bucs had a new coaching staff, including Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles, and Nunez-Roches was able to carve out a bigger role with that crew, appearing in all 16 games and playing roughly a quarter of the defensive snaps. Once again, the Buccaneers chose to bring him back the following spring on a one-year deal.
The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the NFL's offseason program in 2020 but Nunez-Roches used that time to build upper-body strength and improve his quickness. The work paid off as he was one of the standouts of training camp, not only because he had emerged as one of the biggest trash-talkers on the field, but because he was backing it up on a daily basis. First, Defensive Line Coach Kacy Rodgers called Nunez-Roches "the most improved player" in his group in late August. A few days later, Bowles said the same thing.
"He's more explosive, he looks more powerful right now and he's adapted to the scheme and understanding things well," Bowles added. "He's taking advantage of the situation – he's always the first one out stretching, he's always the loudest one in practice on the field. He gets the other guys going [and] he's been a joy to be around. He's been great. I can't say enough good things about him."
Thanks to his efforts in training camp, Nunez-Roches was ticketed for a somewhat larger role on defense in 2020. The Bucs envisioned him as the primary backup at nose tackle and they wanted him to soak up some more snaps and help keep Vita Vea fresh. As it turned out, the Bucs would need Nunez-Roches for a lot more than that.
Through the first five games, he played about 37% of the team's defensive snaps, which was indeed up a tick from 2019. However, Vea sustained a fractured ankle near the end of the Bucs' Week Five loss in Chicago, an injury that was expected to keep him out for the remainder of the season. That made Nunez-Roches the starting nose tackle, and the Bucs then traded for Steve McLendon to back him up.
Vea surprisingly returned in January to play in the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl, but Nunez-Roches still started the Bucs' last 15 games, including the postseason, at nose tackle. He would play approximately 50% of the defensive snaps the rest of the way, contributing 20 tackles and three quarterback hits during the regular season. He added three stops and a QB hit in the playoffs.
The Buccaneers' run defense, which finished first in the league rankings in 2019, was once again at the top of the list through five games when Vea went down. The 2018 first-round pick was a big reason, quite literally, for that extra-stout run defense, and it seemed likely to suffer with him out. However, when the season came to an end, the Buccaneers were still ranked first in run defense in 2020. Nunez-Roches kept the interior of the Bucs' rugged defense strong despite the loss of one of its most important players.
The Buccaneers re-signed Nunez-Roches in March and gave him a shot at a bigger role in his second full season with the team. He grabbed it, and then proved to be even more important than expected as the Bucs made their run to a championship.