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.
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.
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.
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.