In a two-part series, I’ll be taking a detailed look at the Bucs current and future level of “need” at every position, beginning with the offense on Monday and ending with the defense today. Here’s the scale I’ll be using to assess the team’s level of need at each position.
3 = Critical Need
2 = Moderate Need
1 = Ancillary or Future Need
0 = No Need
Interior Defensive Line
Table of Contents
Under Contract: Vita Vea (2 years), Will Gholston (1 year), Khalil Davis (3 years), Pat O’Connor, Jeremiah Ledbetter
Free Agents: Ndamukong Suh, Steve McLendon, Rakeem Nunez-Roches
Roster Outlook: It’s widely expected that Ndamukong Suh will be back in red and pewter for the 2021 season now that he has confirmed his desire to keep playing despite being the second oldest defensive tackle in the NFL to take a snap this past season. Suh is in tremendous shape and continued to shoulder a heavy workload last season, but the Bucs need an infiltration of youth and athleticism on their interior defensive line. In a weak interior defensive line draft class, that may happen best through a trade or a signing in free agency.
The oldest defensive tackle to take a snap in the NFL last season was Steve McLendon, who hasn’t made a decision about retiring yet. At 35 years old, McLendon would be a very cheap re-signing, but getting younger should be a priority for the Bucs, and they can’t do that if they are giving away roster spots to backup/rotational pieces like McLendon and Nunez-Roches.
The other wrinkle in all of this is the contract of Will Gholston. He’s due to make $5.5 million this season, which is fine in a vacuum, but the Bucs could ask for a pay cut or release him outright if they end up needing the cap space for another big signing like a J.J. Watt, Justin Houston, Sheldon Rankins, Dalvin Tomlinson, etc. With Khalil Davis unproven and Pat O’Connor and Jeremiah Ledbetter confirmed bottom of the roster guys, this is the position group that could look the most different by the 2021 season.
Draft Outlook: This is where the Bucs would LOVE to address the interior defensive line, but they are going to need to be patient. It’s unlikely that there are any stars in the 2021 defensive tackle class, but there can be value had in the mid-rounds. The Bucs should look for players with athletic upside and pass rush ability at that point in the draft, because even if they never became every-down players, it’s good to know they’ll still be able to do the most important thing a defensive tackle can do: get after the quarterback.
Need Meter: 2 (right now)
Under Contract: Jason Pierre-Paul (1 year), Anthony Nelson (2 years), Cam Gill, Quinton Bell
Free Agents: Shaq Barrett
Roster Outlook: The Bucs don’t even have a semi-impactful pass rusher off the edge after Pierre-Paul and Barrett, as Anthony Nelson has looked uninspiring after two seasons. He’s a good run defender and a decent special teams player, but sliding him back to the No. 4 spot would be optimal in 2021.
In my mind, finding a quality No. 3 edge rusher should be the biggest priority of the Bucs offseason on either side of the ball, after re-signing their own key free agents of course. I expect Barrett to be back, but it won’t be easy, and the Bucs should keep their eye on a free agent class that includes Justin Houston, Yannick Ngakoue, Ryan Kerrigan, Matt Judon, Bud Dupree and others. But even if Barrett is back, the Bucs shouldn’t be satisfied with their edge defender depth for 2021. Their defensive success next season will hinge on how well they stop the pass, so finding more pass rushers should be a priority.
Draft Outlook: Edge defender is probably the favorite amongst all positions the Bucs could draft at No. 32, obviously depending on who is still on the board. Even if Barrett is back, Pierre-Paul is entering the last year of his contract and will be 33 next year, and there is zero young depth to speak of on the team. Miami’s Jaelen Phillips, Penn State’s Jayson Oweh, Texas’ Joseph Ossai and others could be options at No. 32.
Need Meter: 3
Under Contract: Devin White (3 years), Jack Cichy
Free Agents: Lavonte David, Kevin Minter, Deone Bucannon
Roster Outlook: The Bucs would like David and Minter back, and it’s likely that both return at this point in their careers. Minter might be able to go elsewhere and get a bit more playing time, but he is 30 and hasn’t been a regular starter since 2016. If both veterans are back, Tampa Bay still needs to find more depth at linebacker with Cichy and Bucannon unlikely to be around next season, but it’s likely a mid-late round addition for special teams impact and long-term upside.
Draft Outlook: As long as David and Minter are back, it would be a surprise to see the Bucs draft a linebacker before day 3. White and David don’t come off the field, and Minter is a backup they have a lot of trust in.
Need Meter: 1
Under Contract: Carlton Davis (1 year), Sean Murphy-Bunting, (2 years), Jamel Dean (2 years), Herb Miller, John Franklin
Free Agents: Ross Cockrell, Ryan Smith
Roster Outlook: Expect Ryan Smith to come back for cheap as a special teams ace, while Cockrell will likely have a few suitors in a CB-starved league following his solid play in 2020. The Bucs were thrilled with his contributions this past season and would love him back, but Cockrell is still only 29 and could evaluate his options before making a decision.
Draft Outlook: It’s pretty unlikely the Bucs select a cornerback until day 3 of the draft, unless someone they love falls in their lap. You can never have enough good corners, but the Bucs love their three young defenders and are more likely to sign a veteran as the No. 4 corner than to go back to the draft. Questions remain with Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting as long-term starters for the team, but I would be shocked if the Bucs aren’t ready to bet heavy on their development in 2021, especially given the way both players closed out this past season playing their best football.
Need Meter: 0 (if Cockrell is back)
Under Contract: Antoine Winfield Jr. (3 years), Mike Edwards (2 years), Jordan Whitehead (1 year), Javon Hagan
Free Agents: Andrew Adams
Roster Outlook: The Bucs are as set at safety as any position on the roster. Their top three safeties all played great football last season, and when/if Whitehead moves on in free agency next year, Edwards will likely step into a starting role alongside Winfield Jr. Hagan flashed some in camp last year, and could replace Adams if the veteran safety moves on in free agency.
Draft Outlook: Never rule out best player available, but the Bucs have selected a safety at least once in the first four rounds in four consecutive drafts. It’s not gonna happen in 2021.
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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