At the midseason point of the 2021 season, the Bucs defense has been a mixed bag. The pass rush has been disappointing, compiling just 17 sacks through eight games. Tampa Bay’s run defense has been predictably strong, and their secondary has somehow weathered the storm of multiple injuries. In fact, the Bucs starting defensive backfield has yet to play a single game together this season.
Here are my midseason grades for each Bucs defensive player to play over 100 snaps this season.
DT Vita Vea: A-
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On Pace For: 34 tackles/2 sacks/2 TFL
Analysis: Vea is arguably the best run-stuffing defensive tackle in the NFL, devouring A-gap runs with incredible consistency. But he isn’t in the elite tier of defensive tackles because he simply doesn’t have a wide range of impact. He rarely makes plays away from his gap, and he struggles to finish the job as a pass rusher. In space, Vea’s impact can be muted. That might always be his weakness, but the fact that he eliminates a section of the field in the run game is important. Also, it’s hard to get comfortable in the pocket when Vea is bullying your interior offensive line back into your lap.
DT Ndamukong Suh: B-
On Pace For: 26 tackles/4 sacks/6 TFL
Analysis: Suh could probably be the caliber of player he is now for a few more years in the NFL. He’s a good, solid run defender who does his job and is rarely a liability. Like last season, Suh offers very little as a pass rusher anymore. Don’t let the six sacks from a season ago fool you. Most of that production was schemed up, or the result of quarterbacks mismanaging the pocket. Suh’s explosiveness is mostly gone, but his power and hands are as devastating as they’ve ever been.
Bucs DE Will Gholston – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
DT Will Gholston: B+
On Pace For: 23 tackles/4 sacks/6 TFL
Analysis: It’s hard to envision Gholston playing better than he has this season. He’s been impressive in the run game, showing the ability to penetrate or play the point of attack. But Gholston has also flashed often as a pass rusher, continuing his ascent in that area of his game.
DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches: B-
On Pace For: 11 tackles/0 sacks/4 TFL
Analysis: You have to begin an evaluation of Nunez-Roches with an understanding of what he is not. The Bucs’ backup defensive tackle is a zero as a pass rusher, going without a sack since 2017. But Nunez-Roches is having one of his best season’s ever as run defender. Of his five tackles on the season, two are for loss. He’s also re-routed backs into other tacklers with backfield penetration a few times this season.
EDGE Jason Pierre-Paul: C+
On Pace For: 45 tackles/5 sacks/4 TFL/2 forced fumbles
Analysis: This grade really isn’t Pierre-Paul’s fault. But he’s almost 33, and injuries are ravaging his body. Pierre-Paul is playing through a fractured finger and a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder. The impact has been obvious, as Pierre-Paul has struggled mightily as a pass rusher. Of his 2.5 sacks, 1.5 have come from quarterbacks mismanaging the pocket. Pierre-Paul’s effort and toughness are commendable, but he needs to be in a snap share with Joe Tryon-Shoyinka the rest of the year.
EDGE Shaq Barrett: A-
On Pace For: 66 tackles/12 sacks/11 TFL/4 forced fumbles/2 INTs
Analysis: Barrett has anchored the pass rush for a struggling Bucs defensive line through a terrific first half of the season. He might always struggle some against the biggest and best right tackles in the NFL, but Barrett has actually been robbed of at least one strip-sack this season. If he can consistently be around 11-12 sacks, he’ll be well worth his contract. Meanwhile, Barrett continues to be one of the better run-defending outside linebackers in the NFL. He’s also improved in pass coverage, where he’s broken up a few passes this season and has one interception.
EDGE Joe Tryon-Shoyinka: B-
On Pace For: 28 tackles/4 sacks/4 TFL
Bucs OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Analysis: It’s been a really hard season to judge for Tryon-Shoyinka so far. In his two starts against quality left tackles, Tryon-Shoyinka piled up seven pressures and two sacks. But outside of those two games, he’s been relatively quiet. Part of that is he’s barely playing, with a season-low eight snaps in Week 8. A big part of pass rushing is getting into a rhythm and setting up opponents, especially as a rookie when you’re still feeling out your match-up.
The Bucs coaching staff hasn’t afforded Tryon-Shoyinka enough of those opportunities. And when he’s been out on the field, he’s dropping into coverage too often. With Pierre-Paul playing hurt, the Bucs are making this harder than it has to be. Let the rookie play more, and live with the occasional consequences of losing contain or missing a tackle. Pierre-Paul is almost 33, and he’s making the same mistakes anyway.
LB Lavonte David: B+
On Pace For: 89 tackles/2 sacks/2 TFL/0 INTs/4 pass breakups
Analysis: David has only played less than six full games this season, so expect his numbers to be a little better than what he’s currently on pace for. It’s been a pretty quiet season for David, largely due to the fact that teams have barely run the football against the Bucs. Through his six games, David has faced a hilariously low 100 total run plays with 28 of those coming against the Saints when David made a bunch of his best run stops.
I think the second half of the season will pick up for David. He does a lot of little things to improve the defense that only tape-watchers will notice. But it’s fair to want more splash plays and production from the Buccaneer great. It’s just hard to do that against offenses that throw predominantly check-downs, screens and smoke routes all day.
LB Devin White: D
On Pace For: 130 tackles/0 sacks/2 TFL/0 INTs/4 pass breakups
Analysis: Why is White’s grade so much lower than David’s? Well, White has played every snap this season, so he’s had more opportunities to make an impact. He’s failed to do so, while also leading the team in yards allowed in coverage and missed tackles. White has also rushed the passer 37 more times than David, with even less production. He’s missed several point blank sacks, while also showing a lack of development in defeating blocks as a pass rusher. And when White has been given more chances as a run defender, it’s been downright ugly at times. I actually think he’s improved a little bit in coverage, but it’s still average at best.
Unlike David, White isn’t consistent enough to do the little things well. So he has to make the splash plays to justify his playing time. Those plays just haven’t been there this season. White is struggling in all three phases right now. Three personal foul penalties against the Saints didn’t help at all. The Bucs need a lot more from their defensive captain over the final nine games of the season. He’s been their most disappointing player this season by a country mile. Still, White has all the ability in the world to reverse the trend and be a star. But at some point, we’re gonna need to see it happen consistently to believe it.
CB Carlton Davis: A
On Pace For: 32 tackles/2 INTs/11 pass breakups
Analysis: Davis played three and a half games of the best football we’ve seen from him in his career. Then he hurt his quad and we haven’t seen him since. His return is critical for the Bucs defense. If Davis can come back 100 percent this season, it will change how they are able to defend top-tier passing offenses. Hopefully he’s back by the end of November.
CB Jamel Dean: A-
Bucs CB Jamel Dean – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
On Pace For: 62 tackles/4 INTs/15 pass breakups
Analysis: It is impossible to expect any more out of Dean than what he has shown this season. After a tough Week 1, Dean has been lights out. Forced to step into a role as the Bucs’ top cornerback, Dean has made tons of plays on the ball, limited opposing receivers to eight catches for 72 yards and been outstanding in run defense. Dean has been one of the most improved players on the team, and should keep the starting outside cornerback job when the Tampa Bay secondary is fully healthy.
CB Ross Cockrell: C+
On Pace For: 57 tackles/0 INTs/11 pass breakups
Analysis: Cockrell hasn’t been bad, but his lack of size, strength and athleticism simply get exposed at times. He’s almost always in the right place and knows his assignment, it’s just hard for him to survive in man coverage. Cockrell hasn’t been targeted an overwhelming amount, but that could change against better quarterbacks. He’ll likely remain in the slot until Davis returns from injury.
S Antoine Winfield Jr.: A-
On Pace For: 68 tackles/2 INTs/6 pass breakups/2 sacks/4 forced fumbles
Analysis: Over the first few weeks of the season, Winfield looked like the same steady player from a year ago. But over his past three games, he’s been far more opportunistic. Winfield was robbed of his second interception of the season against the Saints by a soft penalty call, and nearly picked off a few other balls. He’s been all over the field, taking more chances and making more plays. The Bucs desperately need more play-making in their secondary. If Winfield can provide that, Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl chances will go way up.
S Jordan Whitehead: B+
Bucs S Jordan Whitehead – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
On Pace For: 62 tackles/2 INTs/6 pass breakups/0 sacks/6 TFL/2 forced fumbles
Analysis: For the second straight season, Whitehead has been a steady contributor for Tampa Bay at strong safety. He’s an elite run-defending safety who has made significant strides in coverage since 2020. Whitehead is the perfect box safety for this Bucs defense, but he can also play in 2-high shells and not be a liability. The hard-hitting safety might stay underrated, but the Bucs defense is much better when he’s on the field.
S Mike Edwards: B
On Pace For: 53 tackles/4 INTs/6 pass breakups
Analysis: Edwards’ production has cooled off since his pair of pick-sixes in Week 2, as has his playing time. But, outside of a rough Week 3 against the Rams, Edwards has been great again for the Bucs. He mans the No. 3 safety spot well, making up for his lack of athleticism with terrific instincts and physicality. Edwards has improved in run defense as well. It’s clear the Bucs don’t see him as a preferable slot cornerback however, as he’s barely played there despite tons of injuries to the Tampa Bay secondary.
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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