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FAB 1. Licht’s Challenge Of Keep Bucs’ Pass Rushers
Just three years ago, the Buccaneers’ pass rush was in shambles.
After recording 38 sacks during a 9-7 season in 2016, which was Dirk Koetter’s first year as head coach, Tampa Bay’s sack total collapsed to a league-low 22 the following year.
It’s like Bucs defenders were allergic to quarterbacks.
In 2017, Tampa Bay had four players with five sacks or more, led by Gerald McCoy’s seven QB captures. In 2016, only two Tampa Bay defensive linemen reached five sacks – McCoy, who had six, and backup defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who had five.
That lack of sack production ate away at general manager Jason Licht, who fired defensive line coach Jay Hayes and then flooded the defensive line positions during the 2018 offseason. First he traded a third-round pick for Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Then he signed nose tackle Beau Allen and defensive end Vinny Curry from the Super Bowl champion Eagles, and run-stuffer Mitch Unrein from the Bears.
Licht also used Tampa Bay’s first-round pick on massive yet agile nose tackle Vita Vea, but he wasn’t done yet. He also claimed defensive end Carl Nassib, a former third-round pick, off the waiver wire from the Browns.
Despite losing Unrein for the year due to a concussion he sustained in training camp, those moves paid off as Tampa Bay recorded 38 sacks – 16 more than the year before. Three Bucs had six sacks or more, led by Pierre-Paul’s 12.5, which was the first time a Tampa Bay defender had posted double-digit sacks since Simeon Rice last accomplished that feat in 2005. Nassib had a career-high 6.5 sacks, while Vea notched 3.5 sacks after missing all of training camp and the first three games with a calf injury.
After jettisoning Curry, who had just 2.5 sacks in his lone season in Tampa Bay, Licht signed speedy outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who would be better suited to rush the passer in Todd Bowles’ 3-4 defensive scheme. The addition of Barrett would be the NFL steal of the offseason as he posted nine sacks in the first three games of the year and leads the league in sacks with 14.5 along with six forced fumbles and a fumble.
Barrett’s production has been critical given the fact that Pierre-Paul was lost for the first six games of the 2019 campaign after fracturing his neck in a May car crash, and the fact that Nassib missed three games with a groin injury. With four games left, the Bucs have two defenders – Barrett (14.5) and Nassib (five) – with five sacks or more, and Pierre-Paul (3.5) and rookie middle linebacker Devin White (2.5) threatening to reach that level, too.
With 11 sacks in the past two weeks, Tampa Bay is already at 33 sacks with four games remaining. The Bucs seem destined to top last year’s 38-sack mark, and are on pace to record 44 this year, which would match Tampa Bay’s production in its 2002 Super Bowl season, and would be the most sacks since the team notched 45 in 2004.
Like every NFL general manager, Licht has made his share of personnel mistakes over the years. Quarterback Jameis Winston, the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, has yet to show enough consistency to be worthy of a long-term contract extension. The expensive offensive line that Licht has assembled has underwhelmed. His entire 2016 draft class has been a bust.
But Licht has assembled a cast of explosive weapons on offense, finally found a gem of a kicker in fifth-round pick Matt Gay, who is connecting on 88 percent of his field goal attempts, and in three short years has assembled one hell of a front seven that can get after the quarterback.
Putting together a really good pass rushing unit is one thing.
Keeping it together is another.
Licht and his capologist, director of football administration Mike Greenberg, will have their hands full figuring out Tampa Bay’s salary cap situation in 2020 and how to re-sign a good deal of the team’s 19 unrestricted free agents, including several starters. Here’s a look at the list:
Bucs’ 2020 Unrestricted Free Agents
QB Jameis Winston
OLB Shaquil Barrett
OLB Jason Pierre-Paul
OLB Carl Nassib
DT Ndamukong Suh
OT Demar Dotson
DT Beau Allen
FS Andrew Adams
RB Peyton Barber
WR Breshad Perriman
LB Kevin Minter
DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches
OL Earl Watford
OT Josh Wells
CB Ryan Smith
QB Blaine Gabbert
OLB Sam Acho
OT Jerald Hawkins
SS Darian Stewart
Aside from making a key decision on Winston’s future in Tampa Bay, Licht’s top priority will be to keep the Bucs’ top pass rushers in red and pewter. Their production since arriving in Tampa Bay has warranted the attention of Licht and Greenberg.
Pierre-Paul: 16 sacks, 2 FFs, FR and 75 tackles in 22 games (missed 6 games)
Barrett: 14.5 sacks, 6 FFs, INT and 38 tackles in 12 games
Nassib: 11.5 sacks, 3 FFs, FR and 55 tackles in 25 games (missed 3 games)
That’s 42 sacks, 11 forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception in 28 games between the three pass rushers that Licht brought to Tampa Bay over the past two years. And keep in mind that Pierre-Paul and Nassib have missed a combined nine games due to injury over that span of time.
“That’s an awful lot of production,” said Minter, who is also slated to hit free agency in 2020. “If we keep it together, man, the damage we could do. But that’s a fairytale. The business side of this game mucks up football. You can’t keep everybody happy. That’s the downside of the game at this level. It’s hard to bond with guys on some teams because it’s a turnstile.
“There are a lot of decisions they’re going to have to make in the offseason. I don’t know if I would like to be in Jason’s position right now to be honest with you. Everybody is playing so well right now – we’ll see what happens.”
The good news for the Bucs is that the team’s pending free agents want to return to Tampa Bay because they love playing for defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and within his 3-4 defensive scheme among other benefits.
“Tampa is a great city and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it,” Suh said. “Great food and great people down here. It reminds me a lot of the Midwest and being back in Nebraska. There are just great people down here. I enjoy it here. I enjoy this defense and playing for Coach Bowles. I have known him for a number of years. I am definitely happy in this defense, but coming back is not my decision. That’s up to the front office.”
Barrett admits he has thought about returning to Tampa Bay, and is grateful to Licht and the Bucs for the opportunity they gave him this season with a one-year, $4 million deal.
“I think about it a little bit, but nothing is coming unless I worry about what is going on right now,” Barrett said. “I have to set myself up for later. I stay in the moment because it could be gone just like that. So I have to keep doing what I’ve got to do to try to secure it. It’s going to take care of itself as long as I do what I’m supposed to do.
“[A long-term contract] would mean a lot – the security of it and the team believing in me to keep me for that long, however long it would be. It’s going to make me want to play harder for a team to show that much faith in me.”
Re-signing Barrett will obviously be Licht’s priority, but Tampa Bay’s top sacker can’t do it all by himself. In order for Barrett to be successful, he’ll need the return of most – or all – of his supporting cast.
“Shaq is definitely a talented guy, but getting sacks is a collective thing,” Suh said. “It’s teamwork. You have to have good play from the secondary and you have to have your other D-linemates on the same page. Not to take anything away from him or what he has done, but it is a collective effort.”
Barrett agrees with Suh. While he’s had a combined three sacks and two forced fumbles over the last two weeks, Barrett’s teammates have combined for eight sacks, two forced fumbles and two defensive touchdowns during that span.
“After the Saints game I haven’t had that much attention on me and I know it’s because of Carl, it’s because of Vita [Vea], it’s because of Suh and it’s because of JPP – all of those guys,” Barrett said. “We’re all eating off of it, too.”
Pierre-Paul has 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble in the six games he’s played in since returning from his neck injury. Perhaps more important than his pass rush is the fire and leadership that Pierre-Paul brings to the defense and the Bucs organization. A resident of South Florida, Pierre-Paul said he would welcome a return to Tampa Bay next year.
“I would love to be here, but it’s not my decision,” Pierre-Paul said. “Well, I’m lying. It is my decision. It is my decision, and obviously I know my talent is God-given and it’s going to be there regardless. I see it. That’s something I know about myself regardless. Wherever it’s at – whether it’s here – they know what they’re getting. Obviously, in this age you want a D-end that can freaking rush the passer.”
Team sources tell me that Nassib also wants to return to the team that picked him up off the waiver wire two years ago. In Fab 2, we’ll take a look at the cost of what it would take for the Bucs to keep Barrett, Pierre-Paul, Nassib and possibly Suh.
But the reality for Licht, Greenberg and the Glazers is that the Bucs simply can’t afford not to keep the key components of Tampa Bay’s pass rush.
Good pass rushers are very hard to find, and teams that don’t reach 30 sacks don’t win division championships, nor do they win Super Bowls.
The Bucs are just three years removed from a 22-sack season – and they can’t afford to go back in that area if Tampa Bay wants to move forward towards becoming a perennial playoff team.