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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.

Bucs OLB Shaquil Barrett
Bucs OLB Shaquil Barrett – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

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)

Bucs OLB Jason Pierre-Paul
Bucs OLB Jason Pierre-Paul – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

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.”

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

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.

Bucs GM Jason Licht and Co-Chair Joel Glazer
Bucs GM Jason Licht and Co-Chair Joel Glazer – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

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.

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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]
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BigSombrero

Bucs have 91 million to resign these free agents: QB Jameis Winston : 27m/yr OLB Shaquil Barrett : 18m/yr OLB Jason Pierre-Paul : 13m/yr OLB Carl Nassib : 8m/yr DT Ndamukong Suh : 8m/yr OT Demar Dotson : Not resigned DT Beau Allen : 3m/yr FS Andrew Adams : Not resigned RB Peyton Barber : Not resigned WR Breshad Perriman : Not resigned LB Kevin Minter : 2m/yr DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches : 2m/yr OL Earl Watford : Not resigned OT Josh Wells : Not resigned CB Ryan Smith : Not resigned QB Blaine Gabbert : Not resigned OLB Sam Acho… Read more »

BigSombrero

Bucs might be able to get an extra pick in the top 100 by trading OJ or Brate. Bucs would then have 4 picks in the top 100 and they could draft 2 tackles, 1 running back, and a C/G.

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EricNV

If Winston sticks around for next year, I’m thinking that Brate will as well. I think your estimate on JPP’s contract is high, given his age and injury history. The Bucs should also be keeping both Ryan Smith and Andrew Adams (good backup), but we’ll see what happens.

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BigSombrero

Probably true about my contract estimates. They’re just guesses as I am just a fan. I did a small amount of research to come to those numbers, but that’s all.

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matador

It will be hard for Licht to trade OJH as he’ll get no more than a late second and more likely a third (you could convince me of an early fourth) given OJ’s limited production and more importantly tape. Would be a painful reminder of how foolish Licht was to spend a first on a TE given our team’s needs, while the more astute GMs had their priorities in order. If we had been drafting pass rushers and OL consistently the way good teams do we wouldn’t have the cap challenges we’re facing now. Licht is only good at one… Read more »

BigSombrero

We are all entitled to our opinion. I like Meathead. I would rather have a GM that makes bold picks but accepts that a player isn’t living up to his draft/contract status and cutting/trading them as opposed to keeping them and trying to force success just because he made the pick. Licht isn’t in a vacuum. He works with the current coach(es) to make the picks every year.

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DMIbucs98

27mil est for Mr. Winston is bit high to me. If that could get to 20mil 👍🏾. Don’t know if NFL does team options. But would be ideal. Something like a 1 and 2. Year 1: 20mil 14mil guaranteed 2yr Team Option: 20mil guaranteed 3yr Team Option: 30mil 20mil guaranteed Total: 3yrs/70mil 54mil guaranteed Year to year performance contract. If he plays well the team piccs his follow year contract. If he makes it to year three pay raise and renegotiate for a lucrative long term contract. If not he’s a free agent. Like a franchise tag without the crazy… Read more »

BigSombrero

$20 mil with team options would be nice, but the market for Winston might be more than solid. Cincinnati, Tennessee, Oakland, Miami, Atlanta, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, LA Chargers, and New England could all be in the market for a QB at the beginning of 2020. Brees, Brady, Rivers, and Rothlisberger are all free agents but could play another year. Some of them might retire. Prescott is rumored to be looking for $35-$40/yr. and Jerry Jones will pay it. Bridgewater seems likely replacement for Brees if he does retire and will command upper tier money. Tannehill has done a good job… Read more »

DMIbucs98

Cindy and Miami will draft a QB. So if they did want him it they would probably shoot low. Probably up to 10mil less than your orginal est number. He could go to NE if Brady leaves/retired. That organization gives opportunities to players most wouldn’t take a 2 look at. Besides staying hear, do you think he could get another look to be a franchise QB. Change of scenery giving him a fresh start. Or be a bridge/journeyman QB taking 1-2yr deals and starting 6-16gms until that organization’s hand picced guy is ready. Testaverde, Fitzpatrick, Flutie. ATL’s problem is the… Read more »

Spitfire

If Winston went somewhere with a solid Oline and wasn’t running for his life every play and not traumatized by it on plays he actually has protection from the revolving doors at Tackle, he would be another success story after the Bucs. Someone like Prescott in Dallas is just a good 4th round QB, but is about to be one of the highest paid QBs only because of his Oline. If Prescott or anyone else was here they wouldn’t have half the yards or TDs that Winston has gotten. Problem is that we won’t know till the line improves which… Read more »

dotASC

I agree with a lot of your points, but your spelling makes me crabby.

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BucRy

I wish we could keep Ryan Smith just for his special teams play.

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eaustinyoung

Doesn’t seem that difficult: Get rid of everyone on that list except the pass rushers and maybe Suh for a 2-year. If they want to stay, coupled with the savings in taxes they get in Florida, they probably wont require top-tier contracts.

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DMIbucs98

Just read the first few paragraphs and had to comment. Come on now Mr. Reynolds. You can’t keep gassing this GM up like this. “finally found a gem of a kicker in fifth-round pick Matt Gay” Come on man. Since when was a fifth round kiccer a gem. A kiccer man. I know, I know with the team kiccing woes since the GM’s appointment this must feel godsend. The team used and spent countless resources but please don’t use your despair to mislead us. Because you know like the good family of PR who comment know, That is not a… Read more »

twspin

Ever since our 1st championship, and losing a great defense..we have continually gone down hill. You would have thought..some smart person(s) within the Buc organization would have figured out what our calling card was..what got us there. Yet, we ventured into the..gotta have a dynamic Offense territory and have not seen many winning seasons. I would fortify this defense and make it great like it once was. I still have minimum confidence in Licht. He will find a way to screw thing up. He always does.

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BigSombrero

I love the culture change that this coaching staff is creating with accountabilty and honesty. Moving on from McCoy, D.Jax, Alexander, Humphries, Spence, VHIII, Benenoch, Santos, and Anger was precisely what was needed.

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BigSombrero

In related news Bucs fans:

Coach Killa GMC has bagged another one!

RIP “Riverboat” Ron Rivera!

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Charlie

That actually seems like a solid plan BucSombrero. I’d definitely draft 2 tackles this year. 1 early, 1 later. Let Donovan compete for his spot. We need another running back. But there has to be a way to find a to get a quality veteran the team can learn from. It’s just gotta be a thing.

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EastEndBoy

I think bringing back the same group of players and expecting things to magically get better is nonsense. We won 5 games in each of the last two years, and we’re looking at not much better than that this year too. Why are 33+ year old linemen supposedly going to be better as 34+ year old linemen…what evidence is there of that happening? We need a CB1. That should be a priority in Free Agency. As Trevor wrote a few weeks back, once you have a CB1, then Dean/Davis/SMB can all be placed in better positions to succeed too. I… Read more »

CrackerBall

Exactly… should bring in some new players with some judicious spending. A lot of these guys can be improved upon, so why concern yourself with bringing them back? We’ll just remain the same lackluster team we are now.

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tomort1

Replace “False Start” D.D.

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SenileSenior

Another great Fab 5 article, Scott.   You supplied good information and great analysis.  This is one of the main things  we as fans need.   Keep up the good work! Fab 3  kind of gave us a feel from the player’s viewpoint. That’s great too. In BA we trust. _______________ Go Bucs!!! P.S. It is great to see so many reports about guys wanting to stay here.  This is another significant part of the equation for culture change that the right coaching staff also brings.  The bottom line of course is to have it show up in wins … meaning lots… Read more »

martinii

I love it that we have our long illusive pass rusher, however I would like to see him do it 2 years in a row before I pay him the big Bucks. He averaged around 5 !/2 sacks per game for his first 4 years in Denver as a rotational LB. I would Franchise him ($16 to $19 mil) We all know what Winston can do and will do so the idea of a prove it year is sort of redundant. Pay him or let him walk. My view is try to keep our Defense in tact and focus on… Read more »

EricNV

He was Von Miller’s backup. How the hell do you expect him to get more than a few sacks per year in a backup role to a Pro Bowler?

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Horse

Good article Scott.
I’ll save my comments after the next four games because I’ll have my answers then.
Go Bucs!

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BucRy

For me, Barrett and JPP should be our top priority. I don’t know what kind of money Nassib is looking for, but I just feel like we could go without him. If we could keep him for a fair price, then sure. Would also like to see Suh come back if possible.

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SenileSenior

Exactly what I have been thinking to myself. Amen to that!

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owlykat

Agree with Scott 100 percent.

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Austin Williams

BigSombrero! Amazing work with that comment! Perfectly done!
On another note, Scott can we get an update on Justin Evans and maybe Beckwith? (I assume Beckwith is done but very curious on Evans)

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sunshineben

so why do fans think Mr. Licht is a good gm ? the nfl doesn’t think so but buc fans settle for bottom feeders because of the years of losing ,i’m guessing .

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EricNV

I was happy to learn about the Bucs work in support of CMV research. My daughter contracted CMV from her cheating ex-husband and passed it on to my grandson while in the womb. It resulted in ventriculomegaly, which is enlarged ventricles in the unborn child’s developing brain. My grandson was very fortunate that the ventricles decreased to a normal size prior to birth, and he seems to be healthy and normal, but we won’t know for sure until he’s at least a year old. He may need shunts for draining excess fluid in his brain next year depending upon what… Read more »

Charlie

A veteran DB in the room*. To correct my comment from earlier. That’s why I think either gholston or brate could be on the way out. To try and secure one.

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surferdudes

You people who think Belichick would want Jameis are on crack! Yeah he wants to go from Einstein at QB, to Frankenstein at QB! We have to sign Barrett to a long term deal. You want to keep Nassib, over JPP, because of his age upside, and he is a leader who will show up for OTA’s. I want another year of Suh, have to have him back. Jpp should be the odd man out, and we should draft a D end, and D tackle. Winston owes this organization, and should do a team friendly deal. If not, let him… Read more »

matador

It just occurred to me – Bust Licht spent a second round pick in Minter. He’s 29 now and has basically been a journeyman player who has been making no more than $2-4 mill a year.

In other words yet another second round whiff by Bust Licht, what appears to be a well practiced move dating back to at least 2013. Keep the guy out of the draft room!

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drdneast

I wouldn’t consider Minter a whiff. as a second round pick in Arizona he was a good starter and his career didn’t start to go downhill until he left to go to Cincy, a move he admits he shouldn’t have made. Some LB’s, like Mincy and our own Mason Foster, are better players in a 3-4 than a 4-3. The much could be said for Carl Nassib. The Browns used him as a DE in a 3-4 and he floundered. When he came here to play in a 4-3, his career took off. When moving to a 3-4, Bowles saw… Read more »

matador

I’ll grant you that whiff was maybe too strong. But Minter has had just two high performing years, 2015 and 2016, out of seven. Definitely not the production you’d hope for and expect when you draft someone in the second round. So I’d still suggest it’s another debit entry to Licht’s long history of 2nd/3rd round carnage. That said and again in fairness, while Licht was clearly in a position of high influence as VP/director of player personnel for AZ at the time, someone else was actually pulling the trigger (though the fact he brought Minter to the Bucs also… Read more »