Bruce Arians focused on retaining key Buccaneers defenders after second-half growth: 'We can't let that go'

Jameis Winston's future isn't the only storyline of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offseason, as Bruce Arians pointed out Thursday. While Arians admitted the Buccaneers still don't know the direction the franchise will head regarding Winston's future, Tampa's head coach is concerned over the state of the defense, which is scheduled to see several key players hit free agency in March.

"We can't get them all, but we've got to get (most of them)," Arians said, via Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times. "This team right now, the last eight games our defensive statistics ... those young guys grew. We can't let that go. I don't care who is playing quarterback, we're going to have a defense."

Tampa Bay has five defensive starters scheduled to hit free agency and has a projected $79.9 million available in cap space (per Over the Cap). A fair estimate of 30-40% of that available cap space would go toward a quarterback if the Buccaneers re-sign Winston or pursue one on the free agent market. That leaves the Buccaneers with some tough decisions to make regarding which defensive free agents they keep.   

The Buccaneers defense finished 29th in the NFL in points per game allowed (28.1), but that average was affected by the offense leading the NFL with 41 giveaways in 2019 (six more than the Carolina Panthers, which finished second in the league with 35). Tampa Bay's defense finished fifth in the NFL with 28 takeaways and finished with the No. 1 run defense in the league (73.8 yards), allowing 3.3 yards per carry. 

Over the final eight games, Tampa Bay allowed 24.6 points a game and had 16 takeaways. Those numbers went unnoticed because of the offense's 23 giveaways and Winston becoming the first quarterback in league history to throw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a season. During that stretch, Tampa Bay held its opponents to under 100 rush yards in seven games, while the the pass defense also improved, not allowing over 300 passing yards in any of the final seven games of the year. Based on the defensive improvements, Tampa Bay went 5-3 over its last eight games, which included a four-game winning streak in late November and early December.

The Buccaneers will have some decisions to make regarding their five defensive starters hitting free agency. Here's a look at each.

  1. Shaquil Barrett

Barrett will be one of the most coveted edge rushers in free agency after enjoying a breakout season in Tampa in which he led the league with 19.5 sacks, but his impressive pressure stats don't stop there. He also had 51 pressures on 174 blitz attempts, forcing 16 quarterback knockdowns. Barrett finished with 58 tackles (19 for loss), 37 quarterback hits and six forced fumbles as well.

Barrett has mentioned he'd consider all options in free agency, but keep in mind that Florida has no state taxes (which will likely factor into his decision). Given the success Barrett had in Tampa Bay's defense and how he's a strong fit in their scheme, he should be the top priority for the Buccaneers. The Buccaneers could also franchise or transition tag Barrett and work out a long-term deal down the road. 

2. Jason Pierre-Paul

The Buccaneers should look toward bringing Pierre-Paul back, as the 31-year old had 8.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 10 games last season. Arians didn't hide the fact that the Buccaneers defense was improved over the final eight games, all of which Pierre-Paul played after missing the first seven games with a neck injury. 

Tampa Bay generated more turnovers and the run defense was even better with Pierre-Paul playing as a 3-4 linebacker. Even though Pierre-Paul is in his early 30s, he still is a productive pass rusher and makes Tampa better. The Buccaneers will have to pay a high salary to retain him, and he would be difficult to replace if he departs.

3. Ndamukong Suh

Suh isn't the player he once was, but he was still a huge reason why Tampa was so good against the run in 2019. Suh's cap number was $9.25 million last year, and it's possible he would have to take a discount in order to stay in Tampa. The 33-year-old would be nice to bring back, but Tampa Bay could try to get younger at the position. Since Suh was signed after May 10 last year, his departure wouldn't count toward the compensatory pick formula. That could factor into the Buccaneers deciding to retain Suh, especially since he isn't the dominant defensive lineman he once was when he played for the Lions and Dolphins

4. Carl Nassib

Nassib was third on the Buccaneers with six sacks, starting eight games at outside linebacker and playing on 55.8% of defensive snaps. Nassib and Pierre-Paul basically play the same position (opposite side of Barrett, per the Buccaneers depth chart), with the former ceding way to the latter in the second half.

The 26-year-old Nassib could presumably seek a full-time starting opportunity elsewhere, and he is a better fit as a 4-3 defensive end than a 3-4 outside linebacker. It would be somewhat surprising if Tampa Bay retained him. 

5. Andrew Adams

The only defensive back on this list, Adams had 45 tackles and an interception in 11 starts at safety last season while playing on 54.5% of the defensive snaps. Adams allowed 68.4% of targets to be caught, and opposing quarterbacks had an 117.9 passer rating when targeting him, and it's that last number that could make Tampa Bay move on to find a better player in the draft or on the free agent market. If they choose to bring the 27-year-old Adams back, he shouldn't cost much.

Other defensive players heading to free agency include defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches (25.9% of defensive snaps), linebacker Kevin Minter (24.3%) and safety Darian Stewart (15%).

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