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2020 Buccaneers Position Preview: Defensive Linemen

The 2020 Position Preview series flips over to the defensive side of the ball today, as we take a look at the guys up front.

With the expected start of training camp approaching, we’re going to dive into the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers position by position. Today, we continue with the defensive linemen.

The Buccaneer defense as a whole took some significant steps forward a year ago, which has them receiving a lot of praise heading into the 2020 season. However, a lot of the talk has been about the improvement of the secondary during the latter half of 2019, plus there’s been a lot of spotlight on NFL sack leader Shaquil Barrett. So, to put it lightly, the Tampa Bay defensive line isn’t getting a whole lot of shine right now, despite the fact that the unit returns nearly everyone who contributed to its success a year ago.

Because the Bucs now run a 3-4 base defense, much of the attention goes to Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, who occupy the outside linebacker roles and generate much of the team’s pass rush. With the numbers that those two produced last year, what the three-man front did went overlooked most of the time. The ability to collapse the pocket from the middle is a large part of the defense that coordinator Todd Bowles runs, and while the sack numbers may not be anything crazy for the guys up front, their ability to get some push and open up opportunities for the guys off the edge can’t go underappreciated. The role they play as a group will be significant in 2020, but before we move on to what they’ll have to offer in the new season, let’s take a look back at they did in 2019.

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The 2019 season was, in a number of ways, a season of transition for the Buccaneer defensive line. With the arrival of Bowles as the new defensive coordinator, things were bound to change. Of course, when you go from a 3-4 from a 4-3, it would be more surprising if there was no personnel turnover than if there was. And for the Bucs, there was. Gerald McCoy’s time in Tampa Bay came to an end last spring, which felt symbolic in some ways as the Bucs were hoping to move forward and do something completely different with their defense. McCoy was a big part of what they did for so many years, but the team felt the need to move on from him as it ushered in a new scheme.

To replace McCoy, Ndamukong Suh was signed to a one-year deal. Suh, from the 3-4 defensive end position, didn’t put up massive numbers in 2019, but he played an important role. He ended up with 2.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss, while adding four passes defended, four fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns. And while he isn’t the pass rusher he used to be, he played a part in the Bucs fielding the league’s No. 1 run defense.

Not to mention, Suh’s presence was a help to Vita Vea, who continued to develop into a strong force on the interior of the line in 2019. The 2018 first-round pick, playing nose tackle in the 3-4 base, picked up 2.5 sacks of his own while adding 5.5 tackles for loss. Like the defensive line group as a unit, a lot of what Vea did well in 2019 won’t show up in a box score. He ate up the interior of the opposition’s offensive line and created a lot of pressure, allowing the edge guys to reap the benefits. After showing signs of potential during the second half of his rookie season in 2018, Vea continued to prove in 2019 just how effective he can be for the Buccaneer defense.

Outside of the efforts from Suh and Vea, William Gholston had one of his better seasons last year. He had just one sack, but he did total 6.5 tackles for loss and two passes defended while playing all 16 games. Tampa Bay’s depth in 2019 included veteran Beau Allen, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Patrick O’Connor. But it was Suh, Vea and Gholston leading the way throughout the season.

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Meet The Group

The core of Tampa Bay’s 2019 defensive line remains intact heading into 2020. After securing Barrett and Pierre-Paul early in the offseason, the Bucs managed to bring Suh back for another year, completing their objective of keeping the core of their front seven together. Vea and Gholston are also back to assume the starting roles they occupied throughout 2019. The biggest change, really, is that Allen is gone, as he left in free agency to sign with the Patriots.

With Allen gone, the Bucs’ depth along the defensive line has a little less experience under its collective belt. Nunez-Roches returns, as does O’Connor. Jeremiah Ledbetter, who has been with the team in different stints since 2018, is also still around. And beyond those three guys, Tampa Bay has two rookies, sixth-rounder Khalil Davis and undrafted free agent Benning Potoa’e, looking to compete for depth roles in 2020.

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Who’s New?

With little turnover in the defensive line group, there really isn’t a ton to talk about here. The newcomers are both rookies looking to stick on the roster and develop, and both guys could have a nice chance to do so. Davis, selected out of Nebraska in the sixth round of April’s NFL Draft, is perhaps the more likely of the two. At 6-foot-1, 308 pounds, his size is obvious. But it’s his speed and agility that makes him even more intriguing. He ran a 4.76-second 40-yard dash at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, ranking sixth among the defensive linemen who participated in Indianapolis. His 32 bench-press reps tied him for second-most in the group as well.

Physically, there’s a lot to like about Davis. He won’t step right into a prominent role for this team in 2020 or anything, but the team drafted him with hopes that he could learn under Suh, a fellow Nebraska product, before potentially taking over in 2021 if the veteran moves on or hangs up his cleats.

Potoa’e, on the other hand, may face longer odds to make the final roster. But his size (6-foot-3, 290 pounds) and potential versatility make him an interesting prospect. He played outside linebacker for a couple of years while at the University of Washington before adding weight heading into his final season and converting to defensive lineman. And with Vea, a former teammate of his at Washington, presumably helping him along, perhaps he could become another of Jason Licht’s patented undrafted gems.

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Biggest Question: What Does Vita Vea’s Next Step Look Like?

Oddly enough, as you look at the state of the Bucs’ defensive line, the only guy who appears to be sticking around for the foreseeable future is Vita Vea. Heading into year three, Vea is unquestionably the anchor of Tampa Bay’s defensive front, and it looks like he could be for a long time. But that’s all dependent on his continued development, of course. So, as he hits his age-25 season, what could be next for the big man? What does he have to do in 2020 to take the next step with his game?

Consistency will be the key for Vea in 2020. He showed a lot more of it in 2019, but he could still stand to bring a little more in his third season as a pro. When he’s at his best, he’s dominating the interior of the line and creating opportunities for the rest of the Bucs’ pass rushers. But, while that’s his primary role, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to see him put up a few more sacks this year. Plus, he has had stretches where he’s faded away and failed to make much of an impact in terms of putting pressure on the quarterback. Eliminating those stretches is what can help him go from good to great for Tampa Bay.

On a positive note, though, he’s still a huge part of Tampa Bay’s run defense even when he isn’t at his best as a pass rusher. The Bucs allowed a league-low 73.8 rushing yards per game last year, and Vea keyed that effort.

If Vea continues to be a top-tier run-stopper in 2020 while developing more consistency as a pass rusher, things will be looking really good for the future of the defensive line. Because if the Bucs know what they have in him and feel comfortable about his long-term future with the team, they can begin building the rest of the defensive front around him. Not to mention, they would be able to count on him as an integral member of the defense’s young core, which looks to include him, Devin White and just about everyone in the secondary.

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