As we near the end of our countdown highlighting the moves that built a Super Bowl championship roster in Tampa in 2020, we also wrap up the Buccaneers Plan 1A for free agency last year. We'll get to Plan 1B on Friday to finish the list and, yes, you know who we're going to be discussing.
As Head Coach Bruce Arians noted before and after the Bucs' successful execution of both of those plans, the aggressive pursuit of Tom Brady only made sense if it went hand-in-hand with retaining the core of the team's very promising defense. While a good part of that core is young players coming out of recent drafts, it also included three veterans who were set to hit free agency and would be very difficult to replace if they departed.
We've already examined two of those returning players, with outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul signing a new multi-year deal before free agency and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh agreeing to another one-year pact about a week after the new league year began. That leaves just one more of those three equally important deals to discuss, and that's our topic for today.
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
2. Placed the Franchise Tag on OLB Shaquil Barrett, March 16
March 16 was a very important day for the 2020 Buccaneers. A little before 9:00 p.m. that evening, the team finalize the new deal with Pierre-Paul, one of its top two edge rushers. Earlier that day, the Bucs had already made the move that would keep their other top edge rusher, and the NFL's reigning sack leader, around for the 2020 season as well. That was 28 sacks worth of pass rushers in 2019, and both would turn in excellent 2020 campaigns as well.
The Buccaneers waited until the last day of the franchise tag window to officially use it on Barrett, who had led the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2019, but there was little doubt they would make that move in the absence of a long-term deal. That was the second of two good moves the Bucs made with Barrett, who they had signed to a one-year "prove-it" deal in free agency the year before. Barrett had played five seasons in a rotational role in Denver but was looking for an opportunity to earn a starting job. He did just that with the Buccaneers and ran with the opportunity.
Both sides had hoped that the franchise tag would simply be a transition to a long-term deal before the July deadline, and Barrett made it clear that his preference would be to stay in Tampa. However, the two sides never came together on a deal, which Barrett suggested was due in part to the difficulty of operating within a pandemic. As such, he eventually signed the franchise tag on July 16 and played 2020 on the one-year tender offer.
Not surprisingly, Barrett was unable to match his incredible sack total from the year before, but he still ranked as one of the NFL's best pass rushers. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Barrett recorded 59 quarterback pressures during the 2020 regular season, ranking third in the league in that category for the second straight year. He missed the regular-season finale after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list due to proximity with a teammate who tested positive but still racked up 8.0 sacks along with 57 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 16 quarterback hits, three passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
Barrett followed that with a team-leading 4.0 sacks in the postseason, also pacing the team with eight quarterback hits. All four of his sacks came in the last two games, including three of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game. He had four QB hits in each of those two games as the Buccaneers' defense turned up the heat to beat the reigning NFL MVP and last year's Super Bowl MVP (Patrick Mahomes) in consecutive outings. According to Next Gen Stats, Barrett finished with eight of the team's 29 pressures on Mahomes, the only Buccaneer defender to have more than three in the Super Bowl.
Barrett, who won both an NFC Defensive Player of the Week and an NFC Defensive Player of the Month award in his first season in Tampa, earned Player of the Week honors again in the third game of 2020 after racking up 3.0 sacks in a win over his former team, the Broncos. He also had a two-sack outing in a Week 14 victory over Minnesota that began the eight-game winning streak with which the Bucs closed out their season.
Barrett saved his best for last with his two monster performances in the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl. It's exactly what the Buccaneers were hoping for when they used a franchise tag for the first time in eight years to make sure a key difference-maker would stick around for a run at the title alongside Tom Brady. Speaking of which, there is exactly one entry left in our countdown of the biggest moves the Bucs made in 2020.