At various points during this countdown of the big moves that helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers build a championship roster, we have mentioned the twin goals with which the team approached free agency in 2020. Plans 1A and 1B were to keep the core of a rising defense intact and pursue the improbable dream of signing quarterback Tom Brady . Through the first two weeks of the countdown, most of the moments we've examined have been ancillary moves that continued the build and deepened the roster after those two main pursuits.
Now we're actually getting to Plans 1A and 1B, and the specific players and dates that were involved. At the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, which wrapped up about two weeks before the start of free agency, General Manager Jason Licht made it clear that the Bucs were equally intent on keeping defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and outside linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett. All three were potential unrestricted free agents.
"We like all of them and I don't want to tell you who the priority is because there really isn't," said General Manager Jason Licht, speaking Tuesday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "The priority is getting them all back."
And the Bucs managed to do so, in three different ways and on two different dates. The first was March 16, just a couple days before free agency. That's where we start the final five moves in our countdown.
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
5. Re-signed OLB Jason Pierre-Paul to a Two-Year Deal, March 16
The disclaimer in the paragraph just above has been included in each entry in this countdown, so in case you skipped it this time, let's repeat it now. This is not meant to be taken as a strict ranking of the roster moves from least important to most important. We could easily rearrange several segments of the list, and that's especially true this week, and specifically in relation to the three big defensive stars the Bucs made a successful effort to keep around in 2020. All three were critical to the plan and all three played huge roles in the Bucs' run to the Super Bowl.
One of those three was Pierre-Paul, the potent edge rusher who had racked up 8.5 sacks in just 10 games in 2019, finishing that season with a flourish. His five sacks in the season's last two games were fresh on the minds of Arians and Licht when it was time to start prioritizing the potential 2020 free agents. And he was the first of those three critical free agents to be locked in for 2021.
On Monday, March 16, shortly before 9:00 p.m., the Buccaneers announced the re-signing of Pierre-Paul to a new multi-year contract. That announcement came on the same day as some other big news regarding free agency, which we will discuss later this week. It also came just two days before Pierre-Paul could have hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent.
The new deal continued a relationship that had begun when the Buccaneers sent a third-round pick to the New York Giants for Pierre-Paul and a small swap of fourth-round picks in March of 2018. Tampa Bay had famously not had a player hit double digits in sacks since the days of Simeon Rice and were seeking an impactful edge rusher for their defense. Pierre-Paul, who had 58.5 sacks through eight seasons in New York, immediately ended that drought with 12.5 QB takedowns in 2018. An offseason neck injury in a car accident caused him to miss the first six games of 2019 but he returned triumphantly to add a spark down the stretch and form a potent edge-rushing duo with NFL sack leader Shaquil Barrett.
When the Buccaneers re-signed Pierre-Paul prior to free agency, they were looking forward to a full season of Barrett and Pierre-Paul together. They would not be disappointed. The two only missed one game between them, and that was the regular-season finale when Barrett was briefly on the reserve/COVID-19 list after being in proximity to a teammate who tested positive. Pierre-Paul would just miss another double-digit sack season with 9.5 but he led the team in that category and helped the team tie for fourth in the NFL with 48 sacks. The Bucs' defense also ranked seventh in sacks per pass play (7.78%).
As usual, Pierre-Paul also rarely left the field, playing 88% of the team's defensive snaps, playoffs included. He started the season on a tear, with at least one sack in five of the Bucs' first six games. But he soon proved to be more than just a pass-rusher, intercepting passes in two consecutive games against the Panthers and Rams in November as he dropped into coverage. He would finish the season with six passes defensed to go with his 55 tackles, 14 quarterback hits, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. All of that production led to his selection to the Pro Bowl, the only Buccaneer to receive that honor in 2020.
In the postseason, Pierre-Paul was a key part of a pass-rush that helped the Buccaneers run through a quarterback gauntlet that included Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. His two sacks of Rodgers in Green Bay were critical to the team's 31-26 win in the NFC Championship Game. He also had three more passes defensed in the playoffs, including one in the Super Bowl.
Just as they do this year, the Buccaneers had a lot of work to do in 2020 as free agency approached. The goal was to keep the defense together and they succeeded, beginning with the re-signing of Jason Pierre-Paul before free agency began.