As we began the third and final week of our countdown of the moves that made the biggest impact in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' successful chase of the Lombardi Trophy, we finally homed in on Plans 1A and 1B that were at the center of the whole thing. Together, those plans were one half an incredibly bold gambit (pursuing quarterback Tom Brady) and one half an extremely daunting task (getting all of the defensive free agents to re-sign).
And one thing is for certain, it didn't all happen in one day.
The pursuit of Brady aside, the Buccaneers were hopeful they could keep the veteran defensive trio of Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh in the fold. In fact, it only made sense to go all-in with Brady if the team was going to have a defense that was also playoff caliber.
"I think that was the number-one goal for me coming out of last season, to continue to build on defense," said General Manager Jason Licht last March. "The only way to build is to keep everyone in place and grow. It's huge."
At this point, of course, we know that Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Suh all did in fact return, and the defense was as good as expected in 2020, especially in the postseason. But the process took some time, and it wasn't without the possibility of free agency taking its toll. The move we'll examine today happened after the player in question had a chance to hit the open market.
Note: The countdown we are constructing over 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
4. Re-signed DL Ndamukong Suh to a One-Year Deal, March 26
Free agency began on March 18 in 2020, and by that point the Bucs already had Pierre-Paul under contract to a new multi-year deal. Barrett's situation was more complicated but the Bucs were sure he'd be back in 2020. Suh, on the other hand, was free to sign with any team in the league for more than a week. Given the strength of his 2019 season, he surely had multiple suitors.
Originally the second-overall pick in the 2010 draft, Suh had played five seasons in Detroit before using his first shot at free agency to land a big deal with the Miami Dolphins in 2015. As is often the case with such deals, he finished three seasons in Miami before being released for cap reasons. Suh's next move was a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Rams, which led to his first Super Bowl appearance, though the Rams lost to Brady's New England Patriots. In 2019, he signed another one-year contract to join the Buccaneers, who had released Gerald McCoy eight days earlier.
Suh had 2.5 sacks in his first year with the Buccaneers, the lowest single-season total of his career, but that single stat did not come close to representing his impact on the Bucs' defense. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Suh pressured the opposing quarterback 43 times in 2019, tied for third most among all interior defensive linemen in the league. In addition, he was a key part of a very strong run defense. The Bucs knew how important Suh was to the middle of their defense and badly wanted him to come back.
"Yeah, I wanted the entire defense, if we could, to stay together," said Licht. "They played so well together; each piece of the puzzle knew each other. Suh was a big, big part of it obviously – not as much in the sack game as much as his interior pressure and the great job he did against the run. We were number one against the run in the league last year and a lot of it was because of him and Vita [Vea]."
Eight days into free agency, Suh chose to come back to the Buccaneers, and the team's signing of Brady on March 20 was a factor.
"Definitely Brady, knowing who the quarterback was going to be [was important], as I knew that was going to be a big decision," Suh would say later.
As much as Licht wanted to keep Suh and Vea together in the middle of the defense, the return of the veteran lineman proved even more important when Vea was felled by a fractured ankle in Week Five of the 2020 season. The Buccaneers were ranked first in the NFL in rush defense at that time – just as they had finished in 2019 – and by season's end they were still in the top spot. Reserve Rakeem Nunez-Roches stepped up admirably at nose tackle after Vea's injury but there's little doubt that Suh was one of the main reasons that run defense remained stout.
Suh also upped his sack total to 6.0 in 2020 and had 19 quarterback hits, second on the team only to Will Gholston's 20. He also contributed 44 tackles, nine tackles for loss, two passes defensed and a forced fumble. According to Next Gen Stats, he recorded another 36 quarterback pressures in 2020. In the playoffs, he added four more quarterback hits and saved his best for the Super Bowl, in which he recorded 1.5 of Bucs' five sacks of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Given the chronology of the signings in pursuit of the aforementioned Plans 1A and 1B, the possible loss of Ndamukong Suh came the closest to messing up those plans. He was actually on the open market for more than a week. But in the end Suh returned and it was one of the most important moves the Bucs made all year in their Super Bowl hunt.