With training camp well underway, reports from Tampa Bay seem to be that the Bucs are checking more and more boxes every day in preparation for the 2020 NFL season. One of the areas of concern heading into camp was how the team’s lack of interior defensive line depth was going to play out, an issue I had previously written about for PewterReport.com.
Here’s the snap count breakdown for all non-starting Bucs interior defensive linemen over the past two seasons combined.
Kyle Love: 880 snaps (in Carolina)
Rakeem Nunez-Roches: 345 snaps Patrick O’Connor: 26 snaps (all in 2019) Jeremiah Ledbetter: 17 snaps (all in 2018)
Khalil Davis: 0 NFL snaps Benning Potoa’e: 0 NFL snaps
Before the signing of Love eight days ago, the Bucs didn’t even have 400 combined snaps over the past two seasons from their interior defensive line depth, so his addition obviously makes a ton of sense. But Love will be 34 in November, and is highly unlikely to surpass even the 412 snaps he played a season ago with the Panthers.
Instead it’ll be Nunez-Roches as the first man off the bench at any interior defensive line spot, a role the Bucs feel confident he can man appropriately thanks to added bulk this offseason and the best training camp of his six-year career.
“As we stand today, I would probably say he was most improved so far [from] what I’ve seen coming back and the brief amount of work we’ve had together,” Bucs defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers said. “The way we’re going to use Nacho (Nuñez -Roches) this year, he had to bulk up some. We had some changes in our line and where he fits with the pieces we got, he’s going to have to really take some of the load [and] share some of the load with Vita [Vea] on the inside. He needed to bulk up and he took the challenge. So far, he’s making some pretty good strides at practice.”
Physically, Nunez-Roches has never been that impressive. At 6-2 and just over 300 pounds with sub-33 inch arms when he was drafted, Nacho has a short, stocky frame without the ideal length for an interior defensive lineman. But he’s added significant strength this season, bulked up to nearly 320 pounds, and his low center of gravity can actually be an asset in gaining leverage in the trenches.
Still, there’s no way around it – tape on Nacho is limited, and after five years in the NFL, that’s probably not a coincidence. He’s never even been a high-end depth player, nor played even 400 snaps in a single season. His 1.5 sacks and six tackles for loss over five seasons is production that suggests a bottom of the depth chart player at best.
But put on the tape of Nunez-Roches from last season, and you see a different player than what the box score suggests. Nacho isn’t a great pass rusher yet, but he’s improving in his plan of attack, and his run defense was excellent last year. It is extremely rare to see him give ground in the trenches, even against double teams, where Nunez-Roches does an excellent job of splitting the combo block and maintaining his gap.
Trying to handle him solo last season was a tough assignment, even for good players. Lions center Frank Ragnow is one of the game’s up-and-coming young centers, but even he got stood up and cross-faced by Nunez-Roches in the teams’ Week 15 match-up.
Nunez-Roches does a great job of staying leveraged and firing his hands into the opponent’s chest, controlling his gap while also locating the ball. The Lions want to pin him in the backside A-gap on this counter run, but Nunez-Roches finds the ball, diagnoses the scheme and sheds the blocks to help out on the tackle play-side.
Nacho is a leverage machine with really good technique and sharp play from the neck up. The Rams run outside zone with Nunez-Roches in the play-side A-gap, and initially it looks like their center, Brian Allen, has successfully sealed the Bucs defensive tackle off from the play. But Nacho, thanks to leverage and terrific hand placement, finds the ball, fights through the block and makes the tackle while moving laterally in space. That’s one heck of a play.
Good luck running outside zone against Nunez-Roches, who man-handled Falcons center Alex Mack last season, one of the best pivot men in the NFL.
That’s Nunez-Roches playing head up over the center, beating him play-side, blowing up the fullback, then working off both blocks to get in on the tackle. That’s an elite play by any defensive tackle – let alone a backup with less than 400 snaps over the past two seasons.
My eyes popped out of my head watching Nacho’s work against the run last year. He’s physical, smart, technically sound and he never stops moving. The dude just takes every rep so personally, going from snap to whistle like a bat out of hell. But where he used to be a ball of unharnessed energy, Nunez-Roches now plays much more like a guided missile.
“Nacho is always a high-motor guy, and he’s in great shape,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “I love the way he practices. He brings energy and if you’re not going full speed, you’re getting your ass kicked.”
You won’t find a more perfect quote to summarize what Nunez-Roches brings to the Bucs defense. As great as his contributions against the run might have been on Sundays last year, what he means to the team as a practice player who sets the standard high and brings energy and tenacity every day is huge for a young, developing defense.
“Nacho is the leader of [talking trash at practice],” Arians said. “He’s the best trash-talker we’ve got on defense right now. Some of the DBs … but Nacho does the best job over there.”
The passion Nunez-Roches has for the game is as evident in his game tape as it is his words on the practice field, but one area he still needs to improve on is his pass rush. The biggest reason why he has remained a part-time player throughout his career is that he isn’t a particularly impactful pass rusher, often mistiming his hands or struggling to work to an efficient counter move when his first technique doesn’t land.
But it wasn’t all bad for Nunez-Roches as a pass rusher either, as he showed the ability to win quickly when he could just tee off as a rusher and not worry about the run. He’s not exceptionally quick off the ball, but he is a good athlete who moves well and can work to the edge of blockers, a key ability for a developing interior rusher.
That’s a pretty nasty chop-club-rip combination to blow by Falcons guard Jamon Brown for the hit on Matt Ryan. He victimized Brown again later with a chop-rip move after starting the play as a head up nose tackle. I love the shoulder dip and ankle flexibility to turn the corner and finish with another shot to Ryan, rather than getting pushed up the arc (GIF below).
Nunez-Roches’ peak plays against the run and the pass last year were extremely high level stuff. Now it’s just about finding consistency, especially as a rusher. He needs to stop relying so heavily on the bull rush, as it isn’t Nunez-Roches’ game as a pass rusher. I’d like to see Nunez-Roches continue to improve his pass rush, and he showed glimpses of it last preseason with a pair of sacks in August.
Despite his stoutness against the run, a great get-off and elite length are keys to unlocking one-on-one wins in the speed-to-power game as a rusher. Nunez-Roches doesn’t have those traits, but he does have light feet, good lateral quickness and the violent hands to attack guards and centers on their edge, then turn tight corners to the pocket. Even at 27 years old, he still has room to grow in this area, which could result in a breakout year in 2020.
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles echoed Rodgers’ sentiments that Nunez-Roches’ has made massive strides this offseason in his quest to become a more utilized player.
“Right now in a week-and-a-half he’s been the most improved player,” Bowles said. “I think he’s changed his upper body. He looks more stout. He looks quicker. He’s more explosive. He looks more powerful right now and he’s adapted to the scheme and understanding things well. He’s taking advantage of the situation. He’s always the first one out stretching. He’s always the loudest one in practice on the field. He gets the other guys going. He’s been a joy to be around. He’s been great, I can’t say enough good things about him.”
How big can Nunez-Roches’ role be in 2020? Huge. With Beau Allen gone and Ndamukong Suh aging and declining as a pass rusher, getting Suh off the field more often this season will be key to keeping him fresh late in the year. And like it or not, Vea is going to be a more effective player if he’s able to get a blow every once in awhile and not be out there for every third-and-long.
Compounding the Bucs’ depth concerns up front is that defensive end Will Gholston has not proven to be very effective pass rusher over the course of their careers. With outside linebacker Anthony Nelson just entering his second year, he hasn’t shown the strength and hand usage to play inside as a rusher. Nelson might be able to bring speed and bend from the outside, which would allow edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul to kick inside in obvious passing situations. Although I have major concerns about Nelson being able to win as an outside pass rusher due to his limited combination of power and athleticism.
There are a lot of question marks for the Bucs’ sub-package pass rush group to answer, but Nunez-Roches can be a huge part of the solution as an interior rusher who has experience lining up everywhere between the tackles. Allen’s 179 snaps will be easy for Nunez-Roches and Love to upgrade, but replacing Carl Nassib’s 630 snaps on the edge? That’s a tall order. Yet Nunez-Roches is more up to the task to provide some relief inside. I would fully expect the sixth-year pro to eclipse 400 snaps this season if he can stay healthy.
“Some of the offseason that Nacho’s been working out, I know the type of work that he put in, I know the dedication he put to it and [it’s good] to see it flourish when we’re out there in pads,” Gholston said. “If you guys have had a chance to watch the practices, he noticeably shows up all the time. It’s gonna be exciting when it really counts.”
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