One of the most important positions to have depth at in today’s NFL is along the defensive line. As pass-heavy offenses rule the league, opposing defenses must find ways to counter that action – namely with a good pass rush and pass defense.

While the Bucs should look into adding talent to their young secondary, particularly at cornerback, no position on the team is in more dire need of depth than the team’s defensive line. Right now the team doesn’t have a single above average depth player on their interior defensive front or edge defender group outside of the starting lineup of Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston.

Bucs DT Khalil Davis
Bucs DT Khalil Davis – Photo courtesy of Nebraska

Sure, Anthony Nelson, a fourth-round draft pick in 2019, and Khalil Davis, this year’s sixth-round draft choice, may end up being better contributors than I envision someday, but rolling into the season betting on two Day 3 picks with minimal pedigree would be a huge mistake. This is simply too important of a role to entrust to players that are so unproven.

The tough part is that Tampa Bay only has just under $5 million in available cap space, which could make an impact signing difficult. Still, I think a move is not only possible, but should become a priority before training camp opens in late July, especially given Jason Pierre-Paul’s injury history. Yes, few of his maladies have actually happened on the field, but missing part of his hand and suffering a broken neck in a car accident are still incidents that can damage the longevity of a career, especially when you consider the heavy workload JPP has endured over the past three seasons – the last two of which have been in Tampa Bay.

The Bucs need to find ways to keep Barrett, the league’s leading sacker with 19.5 last year, and Pierre-Paul, who contributed 8.5 in 10 games, fresher while still impacting the pocket. Nelson didn’t show much flash in his limited snaps as a rookie pass rusher and didn’t record a single sack, while the rest of the Bucs defensive line is either unproven or a non-factor on long/late downs. Vea and Suh each recorded only 2.5 sacks in 2019, while Gholston had just one.

The good news is that free agency still has a host of names that Tampa Bay should consider signing, at least at edge defender. Jadeveon Clowney is clearly out of the Bucs’ price range, but players like Everson Griffen or Clay Matthews could potentially be talked into a cheap, incentive-laden deal for a shot at a Super Bowl run with Tom Brady. The reason they are still unsigned free agents is because they are older players – Griffen is 32 and Matthews is 34 – that have high contract demands.

Griffen is easily the better of the two, still showcasing dominant pass rush ability as a full-time defensive end for Minnesota last year. He could probably play more somewhere else than what he would in Tampa Bay, but will he have a better chance to win a championship? Griffen’s presence would allow Pierre-Paul to kick inside in nickel rush situations, which is where a lot of his best pass rush reps came last season.

Former Packers OLB Clay Matthews
Former Packers OLB Clay Matthews – Photo by Cliff Welch/PR

Matthews, who has played in Green Bay and in Los Angeles with the Rams, is scheme-versatile 3-4 outside linebacker, and can even play off-the-ball in a pinch, giving the Bucs important depth at multiple positions. He’s not what he once was, but he’s far better than anything the team currently has, and still able to work pass rush moves and pick up hustle sacks while working in a rotation the past few years. Matthews, like Griffen, would also be a stellar locker room addition.

Markus Golden is a younger option than those two, with outstanding production that isn’t quite indicative of his pass rush prowess in one-on-one situations. Still, his physicality, hand usage and motor are far superior than any EDGE reserve the Bucs currently roster. Golden also began his career under Bruce Arians in Arizona, where he posted 16.5 sacks in his first two seasons with the current Bucs head coach. In his lone season in New York last year, Golden had 10 sacks, but his contract demands haven’t been met by any time yet.

Finding interior defensive line help sitting on the free agent market is a lot tougher. Right now the Bucs are relying on veteran Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who is returning for his third season in Tampa Bay, and Davis to provide a spark off the bench. It is a better group than their current edge defender backups, but still not good enough to feel comfortable. Nunez-Roches has 1.5 career sacks in his five years in the league, and has yet to record one in a Buccaneers uniform.

Tampa Bay’s defensive tackle need could also be exacerbated by the recent news that Vea will miss the beginning of training camp after having minor surgery on his hand. Although the injury won’t follow Vea into the season, the team would be wise to give a more playable option his snaps in camp, rather than Nunez-Roches or Davis.

The top defensive tackle options on the market are Corey Liuget, Mike Daniels and Timmy Jernigan. Liuget, 30, probably has the most left in the tank, and is best served for a veteran depth/rotational role moving forward. He spent the first eight years of his career with the Chargers before splitting time between Oakland and Buffalo last season. He doesn’t offer much as a pass rusher at this stage of his career with only five sacks over the last five seasons.

Daniels’ best days are behind him at age 31, but he might be the best pass rusher of the group despite the fact that he’s only had three sacks in the last two years, while Jernigan has been solid against the run his whole career while offering little else. Jernigan is 27 however, while the other two are on the wrong side of 30.

Bucs DTs Ndamukong Suh and Beau Allen
Bucs DTs Ndamukong Suh and Beau Allen – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

It’s slim pickings at defensive tackle after that – unless the team wants to re-sign run-stuffer Beau Allen, who turns 29 in November. The Bucs likely can’t afford to make a move for an interior presence and an edge defender. The team should prioritize edge defender given the greater importance of the position, and the fact that Gholston can provide some depth on the inside while the team operates primarily out of nickel with just two interior defenders.

I’d argue the Bucs need at edge defender is so important that they should consider moving Cameron Brate’s contract if they need cap space. I love having depth at tight end, but the 28-year old Brate is likely in his last season with the team, and they already have three tight ends that will play ahead of him in 13 personnel packages. His path to significant playing time is either due to injury to another tight end and/or O.J. Howard falling flat on his face.

While I’d love to have a “Plan C” at tight end if either of those things happen, having a “Plan B” at edge defender is much more important. The Bucs’ young secondary can’t afford to have the weight of the world on their shoulders if Pierre-Paul or Barrett go down and the team can’t produce pressure with four anymore. Pierre-Paul and Barrett combined for 28 of the team’s 47 sacks last year, but no other outside linebacker on Tampa Bay’s current roster has even one career sack.

Tampa Bay director of football administration Mike Greenberg will have to restructure some deals to create the needed cap room, and General manager Jason Licht needs to be aggressive to go land a veteran edge defender to fill out this unit, preferably before camp begins. Much of the team’s defensive stability in the event of an injury could depend on it.

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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RayJayinTBay

Hey Jon, you mentioned resigning Beau Allen as a possibility. JFYI he is a member of the New England Patriots so I don’t think that’ll be an option. Good read though.

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Crazyhorse54

This is precisely why I cannot and will not buy into the hype about this team.

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Dave

So, all the reasons to be optimistic about the potential for this team in 2020. Yet you choose to hang onto the one thing that “could” be an issue, If injuries were to occur to either Shaq, JPP, Vea, or Suh, as a reason why we won’t succeed? Talk about glass half empty. People have the right to feel however they want. But I personally believe that If we get the version of Brady I think we’re getting for 2020, which is all in, dedicated, motivated, and giving everything he has, we’re an immediate playoff team. And if that’s the… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Dave
jrwilson85

Leddy’s probably remembering the Steelers in their glory days. A lot of Bucs fans are afraid to think of success on the field because it has been AWOL for so long. I didn’t call the Super Bowl win in 2002, but I did think the Bucs were good enough to make the Super Bowl based on their defense alone. There was enough offense to keep the ball in play and eat clock. Brad Johnson was a heady guy and a smart game manager. I got the same feeling about this team and especially if the O-line gels. The offense has… Read more »

Dave

I completely agree with all of that. There are plenty of people on here that are seriously downplaying the impact that Brady will have on this team. It’s just not mentioned nearly enough. I understand wanting weaknesses to be improved. Not saying we don’t need more pass rushing depth, because that’s obvious. I’m just saying, we finally have a roster put together, that can withstand an injury, lack of depth, a turnover, a 3 and out, a missed FG, etc..we don’t have to be perfect this year. I know it’s hard for people to realize that, but it’s the truth.… Read more »

BigSombrero

They’re only downplaying the Brady effect since he’s 43, in a new climate, in a new city, in a new offense, in a new relationship with all new coaches, with a new offensive line, throwing to new offensive weapons and they can’t have actual team activities because of Covid-19. Other than those things…SUPERBOWL or BUST!

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Last edited 1 month ago by BigSombrero
Dave

No, you are. And it’s because you’re biased. Outside of the covid factor,(which won’t make a single shred of difference to Brady who’s been putting in work since the day he signed) PManning did it with historic success. Favre did it with great success, Montana did it with great success. And Warner did it with great success. That’s just off the top of my head. Sure there’s plenty more i’m forgetting.

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Greg

Beau Allen signed with the Patriots.

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MWD

Sign Clay Matthews and either trade or as you said restructure the contract for Cam Brate and sign a veteran in the secondary- we have 3 good tight ends-

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Charlie

I actually really like the idea of unloading Brate if it meant you can get Griffen and sign the rookies. Like do it, now, actually.

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Charlie

It’s straight up ride or die with the pass rush in this league.

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Charlie

Ask Brady how you beat him…

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Charlie

Or Golden if he’ll take the $3-4 million we have after the rookies sign.

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BigSombrero

This team has too many players on veteran contracts and not enough first contract players. The only area they’re saving money is the secondary and it’s taken 9 premium picks (Hargreaves, Whitehead, Evans, Winfield, Edwards, Davis, Stewart, Dean, and SMB) over 4 years to fill that part of the roster and the jury is STILL out if they can cover.

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Dave

What? Lol. Most of our team is on rookie contracts. We have one of the most rookie contract heavy rosters in the league. Once the rookies sign, we’ll have close to 30 players on rookie contracts. That’s not enough? Nearly impossible to construct a roster with all rookie contracts. Even after signing Brady and Gronk, we’re still in the top 5 youngest teams in the league. I think for 2020 at least, we have the perfect blend of experience and youth. Our problem before we got Brady and Gronk was that we didn’t have nearly enough experience on this roster… Read more »

BigSombrero

9 premium picks on defensive backs in the last 4 drafts Dave. NINE!! That means less offensive linemen, defensive linemen, or running backs to draft in the first 3 rounds. STARTERS on a rookie deal on offense are RB RoJo, RG Cappa, and WR Godwin. On defense it’s DT Vea, LB White, DB’s Dean, Davis, Edwards, and Whitehead. The nickel isn’t a starting position, but when CB Bunting comes in, usually LB White goes out. This team lacks depth because the heavy veteran contracts to Brady, Gronk, Evans, Marpet, Jensen, D.Smith, JPP, Suh, Barrett, and L. David. Haeg and Gholston… Read more »

Dave

Ok, nows time to list ALL the rookie contracts LB: D.White DT: Vea WR: Godwin RB: R.Jones CB: Bunting CB: MJ Stewart CB: Davis OG: Cappa S: Whitehead S: Evans LB: Beckwith CB: J.Dean S: Edwards DE: A.Nelson WR: J.Watson LB: J.Cichy K: Gay WR: S.Miller OG: Z.Bailey RB: Dare That’s 20 players right there. That’s not including another 15 players that are making 1.6 MIL or less. And not including the rookies, and undrafted FA’s. 4/5 the roster is either rookie contracts, undrafted FA’s, contracts of 1.5 MIL or less, or rookies who haven’t signed yet. Out of every… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Dave
Dman

I’m with ya Big Som.

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Charlie

Big Sombrero you will forever be salty that this team let Jameis Wonston go won’t you? It’s over bro. You’re whole argument points your feelings towards thinking that at least Jameis would have been in this offense for a year and with the coaches and blah blah blah. But just like your arguments on this page, he was too predictable and easy to defeat.

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Dave

No he’s not salty that Jameis isn’t the guy. He’s just salty that Brady is the guy. Because he’s a Brady/Patriot hater. So he’d take anyone over Brady. He’d rather lose with Jameis, than win with Brady. You can’t make it up

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CrackerBall

We could have easily drafted some depth – but went RB instead.

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BDOG

And so goes the Bucs 2020 season! Thats Licht’s role, and seemed EVERYONE thought OL was bigger need, personally “DISAGREE”. So WIRFS vs. KINLAW, I desperately wanted Kinlaw, although without doubt love Wirfs potential, just think had enough with Haeg, and if resign Doty, and NOT enough on DL. Hell, we had 3rd best Offense in 2019, and got better with Brady/Gronk. I’m a DEFENSE wins championships guys, and have a little idea! Would have also NOT chosen Vaughn, and could of had either FL. or ALA. rushing options, J.ZUNIGA/J.GREENARD or T.LEWIS/A.JENNINGS?! So thumbs up/down vote would be for up:… Read more »

fredster

Gee I thought it was all Winston’s fault no playoffs. Young secondary torched to bits first half last season. Kicker lost us two games easy. Brady here now and magically it’s all fixed. Who needs a pass rush or run game anyways we have the GOAT and no Winston! Lol.

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AlbJack65

Being unable to sign quality DL depth due to salary cap constraints is the main reason I see the signing of Gronk as a poor choice. I simply don’t think we needed another target and I don’t think he will be that much of a factor. Gronk will either be a $10 million decoy and/or miss half of the season. I may turn out to be wrong when all is said and done, but I don’t think so.

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The Freeman

Brate just took a paycut, hard for Licht to trade him now… and he can’t release him anymore with this year salary now guaranteed.
only way to create cap space = new deal for Barrett, Gronk or LVD with lower cap value this year… but with a lower salary cap next year, you could create a bigger problem next year!

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jshumaker

Well if that is all the pressure they can bring, this season is going to look like a three stooges episode where we just watch a bunch of clowns getting trampled

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Dman

So tired of the dump Brate talk. All he does is catch touchdowns. Expect him to end up with the Patriots, Saints, etc. teams that value production over hype [OJ Howard].

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Dave

Production over hype? What production? What has Brate done the last 2 years?(and that’s with 2 different coaches, in case you want to try and use the BA doesn’t use TE’s argument) here’s Brate’s average stat line for the past 2 seasons(played all 32 games btw) 52 targets, 32 rec(63.4% catch rate), for 300 yards(9.1 ypr) and 5 TD’s. Outside of the 5 TD average, which is good but not great, what about ANY of those stats is good? And that’s not mentioning the fact that he’s a complete ZERO as a blocker. Every single stat humanly possible, is better… Read more »