The NFL's 2021 free agency period begins on March 17 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers figure to be busy before and after that date as they confront a list of two dozen players on their championship roster who could become unrestricted free agents.
Fortunately for their title defense hopes, the Buccaneers have a very recent track record of navigating those waters very well. Their run to victory in Super Bowl LV may have started (symbolically if not necessarily chronologically) with the signing of quarterback Tom Brady last March, but that was just one of many moves that helped create a champion.
As a new league year approaches, we're looking back at some of the biggest moves on that list. General Manager Jason Licht, Head Coach Bruce Arians and their respective staffs kept shaping the 2020 roster bit by bit before and during the season. Not all of the moves made as big of a splash as the signing of Brady, but eventually they all fit together in a puzzle that looks like the Lombardi Trophy. We're counting down 15 of those moves, headed to towards the biggest one of them all.
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
13. Traded for DL Steve McLendon, October 20
October 18 was a very good day for the Buccaneers, who got good work done on and off the field that afternoon and evening.
The Bucs were coming off a pretty terrible Week Five. Not only did they lose in Chicago in front of a Thursday night national audience in a mistake-filled contest, but they also lost rising-star defensive tackle Vita Vea to a fractured ankle. Things turned around in a big way in Week Six when the Green Bay Packers, undefeated at the time, came to Tampa.
First, in a game that kicked off at 4:25 in the afternoon, the Buccaneers utterly dominated Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in a 38-10 win. Not only was it a blowout win against a top NFC contender, but the Bucs did it without committing a single penalty or turnover and without allowing a single sack. It was the NFL's 'cleanest' game in 21 years.
The Buccaneers were still enjoying that outcome when reports surfaced that Licht had swung a trade with the New York Jets to acquire McLendon, the veteran defensive lineman who had previously played under Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. That deal would not become official until two days later, after a physical was completed, but it was a nice way to finish what was already a great day.
It didn't cost much. Licht sent a sixth-round pick in the 2022 draft to the Jets for McLendon and a seventh-round pick in the 2023 draft. What Tampa Bay got was a solid, dependable and very professional nose tackle to back up Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who had graduated to the starting lineup in Vea's absence.
"We all know Steve – he's really a quality human being and a hell of a player," said Arians the next day. "Losing Vita, we just needed to shore up against some of these big-time running teams [with] another nose-guard type player. Jason was able to make it [happen] and hopefully we can get him past the physical and get the trade through."
McLendon got to Tampa in time to join the team on its trip to Las Vegas the next weekend and play 25 defensive snaps just seven days after his last game as a Jet. He played extensively in the weeks to come, getting more than 40 snaps in three of the next six outings, though a stay on the reserve/COVID-19 list cost him two games in December and January. Even after Vea's surprise return for the final two games of the playoffs, McLendon still saw 69 defensive snaps in the three playoff games for which he was active.
As a nose tackle who excels at clogging the middle and occupying blockers, McLendon was never going to have an eye-catching stat line with the Bucs. He had 17 tackles and two tackles for loss in the regular season and another five tackles and three QB hits in the playoffs. He was part of the deep front-line rotation that put constant pressure on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl.
McLendon also brought some less tangible value to the Bucs' defense, which Bowles had anticipated would happen.
"He's not just a great locker room guy – he has a great motor," said Bowles. "He's a very good nose tackle. We need some depth down there at that position because it's a long season. He brings energy, he brings toughness [and] he brings strength to us. He'll fit in quite well with the guys."
McLendon did indeed fit in with the trophy-hunting Buccaneers, and he was able to help the defense maintain its number-one ranking against the run for the rest of the season even after Vea was lost. And he got a Super Bowl ring out of it. Licht's well-targeted trade in October was one of those moves that was not planned months ahead but rather executed to address a sudden problem. It was a success, as were most of the Buccaneers' moves in 2020.