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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

State of the Bucs: Defensive Line

Taking a position by position look at the Buccaneers heading into the 2021 season, continuing with the defensive line.


Position Group: Defensive Line

Players (as of Feb. 7): Vita Vea, Rakeem Nuñez-Roches, William Gholston, Steve McLendon, Patrick O'Connor, Ndamukong Suh, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Khalil Davis

2020 Evaluation: Despite the fact that one of the unit's most key pieces went down in Week Five when Vea was injured against the Bears in Chicago, the defensive line still set the tone for the players behind them all year and continued Tampa Bay's dominance against the run. The Bucs allowed opponents an average of just 80.6 yards per game on the ground in the regular season and a league-low 3.43 rushing yards per attempt.

But that was nothing new, rather, it was a continuation of the foundation set a year prior in 2019. Where the defensive line took the biggest step forward was in their interior pressure – and yes, doing it without Vea for much of the season. The Bucs tallied the second-most pressure per game with 10.9 in 2020 and much of it came from the line. When it came to getting to the quarterback, the guys up front did well, too. Defensive linemen accounted for 50 of the Bucs' 116 quarterback hits in the regular season. The front runners on that list? Will Gholston with 20 and Suh with 19.

Those were two players that had their best years in a Buccaneer uniform in 2020. In the regular season, Suh had 6.0 sacks, marking his most since 2015. In the playoffs, Suh now has the fourth-most quarterback hits of any player with 14. He is also tied for the third-most playoff sacks with Denver's Von Miller at 6.5.

Saying Gholston had his best year in red and pewter is perhaps even more impressive given that he's been with the franchise since getting drafted by Tampa Bay in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. His three sacks matched a single-season career high but as was mentioned before, he led the team in quarterback hits, causing disruption for opposing signal callers in addition to remaining stout against the run. According to his tackle chart on NFL Next Gen Stats, not only did Gholston have seven tackles for loss, but he also managed nine tackles at the line of scrimmage.

Then of course, there was Vita Vea. Yes, he went down in Week Five after breaking his ankle in the Bucs' first primetime game of the season, but he made the most miraculous return again in the Midwest – this time for the NFC Championship against the Packers in Green Bay. Despite his 15-week absence, Vea played 46% of the team's defensive snaps in that first game back. He was then taken off the injury report entirely by the time the Super Bowl rolled around, where he remained part of a fully healthy defensive line rotation, playing 41% of the team's defensive snaps. Oh and he added three snaps on offense, too. His stats aren't overwhelming of course, but his impact and presence was felt in his return. Vea is a guy that teams have to account for with two blockers most of the time. In the Super Bowl against the Chiefs, the Bucs used that to their advantage, even sticking Vea and Suh on the outside will rushing Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett from the interior. They moved Vea and others around so much that the Chiefs and their patchwork offensive line couldn't keep up. The defensive line as a whole was perhaps one of the biggest difference makers in what ended up being a dominant defensive performance in Super Bowl LV.

2021 Outlook: The Bucs are now looking to pick up where they left off with the unit – though that won't come without its challenges when three of the players within the defensive line rotation are set to become free agents: Suh, Nuñez-Roches and McLendon. O'Connor and Ledbetter were part of that group until Tuesday, when the Bucs extended exclusive rights tenders to the pair. The tender allows teams to keep players with under two years of accrued NFL service and forbids them from negotiating with other teams. All that's left is for O'Connor and Ledbetter to now sign on the dotted line.

The former trio will be a bit more challenging with limited cap space. The Bucs announced that they are franchise tagging wide receiver Chris Godwin, which is likely to eat up a significant chunk of cap. There are still a lot of questions there.

Once those questions are answered, the Bucs will know how big of a need defensive tackle is in the upcoming draft. Many draft analysts have paired guys like Washington's Levi Onwuzurike and Alabama's Christian Barmore with the Bucs at No. 32 to help solidify the defensive line. Even if the Bucs are able to keep Suh and at least one of either Nuñez-Roches or McLendon, they could still benefit from a first-round talent added to the rotation. There may be other pressing needs though dependent on what happens officially in free agency.

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