When the Bucs lost starting nose tackle Vita Vea to a broken ankle in Week 5, it was clear that the team was not going to be able to replace him with just one player. Shortly after the Bucs’ big, 38-10 victory over the Packers on Sunday afternoon, general manager Jason Licht made a move to sure up the Bucs’ interior, trading a 2022 sixth-round pick and for Jets DT Steve McLendon and New York’s 2023 seventh-round pick.

The 12-year veteran is still a strong run defender and capable of filling a role for Tampa Bay, even as the oldest defensive tackle to take a snap during the 2020 NFL season. I dove into three things McLendon brings to the Bucs that can help one of the best defenses in the NFL.

1. Versatility against the run

McLendon is primarily an early down player who has had average impact as a pass rusher throughout his career. But he’s not simply a space-eater, either. In fact, keeping his weight up is one of the few things McLendon has struggled with in his career, but even if he’s not as heavy as his listed 6-3, 310 pounds, he’s the perfect size for a modern-day defensive tackle.

Bucs DT Steve McLendon

Bucs DT Steve McLendon – Photo
by: Getty Images

McLendon isn’t an elite athlete, nor is he the powerful freak of nature that Vea is, but he checks both boxes well enough to be deployed at multiple spots along the interior defensive line. McLendon has played everywhere from 3-4 defensive end (5-tech) to head-up nose tackle over the center, and he’s done it all at a high level against the run.

Not many defensive tackles consistently win one-on-ones at the point of attack and have enough quickness and range to make the occasional stop in space or behind the line of scrimmage (41 career tackles-for-loss), but McLendon does. This will allow defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to move him around and keep everyone fresh along the Bucs’ interior defensive line. Given the group’s inexperience of shouldering a full workload (except for Ndamukong Suh and Will Gholston), that’s an overlooked important aspect of this trade.

2. High character player

The Bucs have prioritized adding high character players to their locker room, weeding out the bad apples that once contributed to a cancerous culture in Tampa Bay. McLendon is another move that reinforces the new era in Bucs football.

McLendon has been a core piece of the Jets defensive front for a long time, largely due to his ultra-professional approach to the game. Bleacher Report’s Connor Rogers, a Jets insider, praised McLendon for what he’s brought to the team from a leadership and work ethic perspective.

“McLendon is as good as it gets in the locker room,” Rogers said. “I think he’s probably like 290? He’s been pretty wild about his diet and training as he’s gotten older, so he might even be 285.”

Despite being almost 35 years old, McLendon’s play hasn’t really fallen off, largely because he’s taken such good care of his body. And it shows in his availability, as the veteran defensive tackle has missed just five games in the past six seasons, and none since 2016. McLendon’s three largest workloads as a player have come over the past three seasons, although the Jets have kept his snaps under 500 each year, getting him off the field on a lot of long-and-late downs.

It’ll also help that there shouldn’t be much learning curve in picking up Bowles’ system, as McLendon spent three years in New York under the tutelage of the Bucs defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers. So it won’t be surprising for him to take the field for Tampa Bay as early as Week 7.

3. Cerebral Run Defending

One of the first things I noticed about McLendon when I popped on his tape was how hard it is for opposing offensive linemen to reach block the former Jet in the run game. McLendon is quick to identify an opponent’s technique and attack, driving into the blocker’s chest to create disruption in the backfield. Wide zone teams had a tough time eliminating him last season, when McLendon posted a career-high ten tackles-for-loss.

The other thing I love about McLendon is the way he plays through blocks and finds the football with his eyes. I think one of the hardest things about playing defensive tackle in the NFL is battling off multiple blockers and still being able to find the player carrying the rock to make a play. McLendon’s experience and technique allows him to confidently handle the physical exchanges in the trenches so that he can finish plays too.

McLendon holds his ground against the center’s chip, stacks up the guard with terrific pad level and arm extension, then comes off the block to drop the running back in the hole. Flashing in the B-gap and then getting over in time to cover the A-gap is big-time stuff.
OL/DL expert Brandon Thorn had the following to say to me about McLendon as a run defender.
“McLendon shows impressive play strength and pad level,” Thorn said. “Between hip mobility, torque and strong hands, he can latch into the frame of blockers, play square, stack and control the point of attack. He plays with a good sense of leverage and knowing when offensive linemen are playing outside their frame, which allows him to quickly shed and discard in adjacent gaps for tackles. He’s adept at getting upfield and into the chest of offensive linemen against reach blocks, resetting the line of scrimmage and taking away the cutback lane. I think he’s a good-to-very good run defender. Not the biggest guy but he’s really skilled.”

Rogers added the following:

“The heart and soul of the Jets front seven, McLendon brings top notch leadership and energy. Even at age 34, he is a reliable interior run stopper with flashes of explosiveness to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. He can handle multiple alignments across the DL and reuniting with Todd Bowles in Tampa will help the Bucs fill a portion of the huge loss of Vita Vea for a very cheap return.”

Bucs head coach Bruce Arians echoed these sentiments on Monday afternoon, pending McLendon passing the team’s physical.

“He’s gotta go through the protocols and pass the physicals, but he played in yesterday’s ball game (for New York),” Arians said. “We all know Steve, he’s really a really quality human being and a hell of a player. Losing Vita, we just needed to sure up against some of these big-time running teams and add another nose guard-type player. Jason [Licht] was able to make it happen and hopefully we can get him past the physical and get the trade through.”

What About The Pass Rush?

At age 34 with a lengthy career to draw from, it would be unrealistic for me to tell you that McLendon and his 12.5 career sacks is going to provide the Bucs with an ample interior pass rush boost following the loss of Vea. But he’s also not a dud on passing downs either, posting a decent pressure rate throughout his entire career, especially considering that he always been part of a heavy rotation.

McLendon isn’t overly explosive or bendy, so he relies a lot on power moves to win as a pass rusher. He’s got a solid bull rush and a nice forklift to displace offensive linemen and fight his way to the pocket. McLendon is going to be cycled out often as the Bucs rotate fresh bodies on long-and-late downs, but he’s definitely not a liability when he’s out there. On a team without many stud interior pass rushers, adding even a decent interior option is a step in the right direction. Per Pro Football Focus, McLendon is currently having his highest-graded season ever as a pass rusher.

McLendon’s impact won’t match that of Vea’s, but he’ll be a boost to the team’s current interior run defense situation, and his presence will allow other players to handle a normal amount of snaps and stay fresh throughout the season. For the swap of sixth and seventh round picks two and three years from now, this was a no-brainer move by Licht.

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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1 year ago

Hell of a pickup on the fly, Mr Licht. Nice maneuvering. Onward!

1 year ago

This defense is going to be even more deep.

1 year ago

Good stuff again Led. Love his vision as you noted. Always looking for the ball.

1 year ago

The way Licht wastes 6th & 7th round picks (Scotty Miller the exception), this move is all positive.

1 year ago

The guy was so elated to get out of Jetsville he skipped the team charter back from the Miami game and rented a car and apparently drove up to Tampa. You got to love that.

Reply to  drdneast
1 year ago

The sooner he gets started with the CV-19 protocol, the sooner he gets out of it and is eligible to play. Like the “let’s go” mindset.

1 year ago

I feel that Licht has done a great job building a team full of young talent and of course no one is perfect. He probably will skip on drafting Kickers moving forward yet he has built an impressive team of young upcoming athletes mixed in with great veteran free agents like Suh, JPP, Gronk, & Fournette to balance the team with promising raw talent combined with quality leadership that has excellent work ethic & attitude. Many will not realize this part, but Licht is probably the #1 reason the Bucs are on the winning path currently traveling now. Licht brought… Read more »

1 year ago

FYI, it’s “shore up” not “sure up”.

Reply to  buccaneerNW
1 year ago

You shore about that?

1 year ago

Nice summary of McLendon’s skill set Jon, thank you. Since football is a team sport, player’s performance is always influenced by whom they are playing alongside of, so I can’t wait to see how his games mixes with Suh, Shaq & Golson. This should be fun to watch!

1 year ago

Between McClendon, Nacho, Davis and Ledbetter they can cycle guys in there often enough and hold that Run Defense strong. Guarantee McClendon will play even better next to Suh, everyone seems to. Losing a 6th round pick is nothin, we’ll spent.

1 year ago

This is a smart pick-up. Prior experience with Bowles and Rodgers is a big deal – step in and play. I like it.

1 year ago

The best ability is availability. Somebody said that.

1 year ago

I like vintage players and vintage motorcycles!

1 year ago

This guy was literally the PERFECT interior DL addition right now.

I can’t wait to see your film review of the defense’s blitzes this week!! There was one play in particular where we only had one, maybe two down linemen, a Safety standing up over center, and one or two ILB’s standing over the Guards. At the snap, half of them rushed and half of them fell back into coverage. It might have been the most confusing look I’ve ever seen a defense give!

Hockey Duckie
1 year ago

Isn’t being cerebral run defending the reason why he is versatile on run defending? So that would be only two things McLendon brings to the Bucs, according to this list. The third item would be a much needed body at NT, be it a starter or depth player, due to the loss of Vea.