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As for Gholston, he is headed into the final year of the five-year contract he signed in 2017. In 2020, he played in all 20 games making 12 starts. The Michigan State product had his most productive season since signing that contract extension in ’17, finishing with 44 tackles and a team-high 20 quarterback hits during the regular season. In the playoffs, he added another four quarterback hits.
Behind Vea is Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who stepped up in a big way while Vea recovered from the ankle injury. Nunez-Roches started the last 15 games of the season in place of Vea and recorded 23 tackles and four quarterback hits. After signing a two-year extension last offseason, he showed last season he is capable to start when needed and can provide solid depth on the defensive line for the Bucs.
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Backing up Gholston is Steve McLendon, who the Bucs acquired via a trade with the New York Jets in October this past season. After totaling 17 tackles in the regular season and adding five more plus three quarterback hits in the postseason, McLendon signed a new one-year deal in May. Following the trade from New York, McLendon played in 15 games in Tampa Bay.
When Suh needs a breather, second-year player Khalil Davis is there. The 2020 sixth-round pick played in four games as a rookie, two each in the regular season and the playoffs. In those four games, he totaled two tackles and two quarterback hits. There’s a good chance Davis will see the field more this season.
Although he’s a defensive lineman, Patrick O’Connor appeared in all 20 games last season mostly on the Bucs’ special teams. 77% of his 2020 snaps came on special teams as he recorded four total tackles. The third-year player out of Eastern Michigan signed a one-year deal on March 9.
After finishing last season on the practice squad, Benning Potoa’e signed a two-year deal in February. While he spent the entire season with the practice squad, Potoa’e was elevated twice seeing action in two games, including one in the playoffs. Joining Potoa’e on the practice squad all of 2020 was Kobe Smith, who also signed a two-year contract in February.
The Bucs added two pieces to the defensive line depth signing one player with some NFL experience and one undrafted rookie. After taking part in training camp with the Los Angeles Rams last year and nothing more, Sam Renner inked a two-year reserve/futures contract with the Bucs in the spring.
Cincinnati product Elijah Ponder signed a three-year contract as an undrafted free agent with the Bucs in May. As a senior in 2020, Ponder anchored a front line that helped Cincinnati lead the American Athletic Conference in rushing, scoring, pass efficiency and total defense. In 2019, he earned first-team all-conference honors.
The Bucs return every member of last season’s defensive line and it’s lead by Vea and Suh. Those two will be a major key to success for this unit. As mentioned above, having Vea play an entire season in 2021 would be greatly beneficial not only for his career but also for Tampa Bay’s defense.
And we’ve seen his dominance on display before. With Vea starting 21 games upfront from 2019-20, the Bucs became the first defense since the Minnesota Vikings (2006-08) to lead the NFL in rushing yards allowed in back-to-back seasons.
Something that will be interesting to watch this season will be to see who steps up in the depth. As Suh (34), McLendon (35), and Gholston (who turns 30 this month) are only getting older, Tampa Bay will need younger defensive linemen to step up in larger roles as rotational depth pieces and potential future starters. Infusing younger players on the bench will be important for the Bucs’ future and could determine the direction that general manager Jason Licht takes in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Overall, there is plenty of talent returning to Tampa Bay’s defensive line. With Suh, Vea, and Gholston leading the way, Tampa Bay looks to put together one of if not the league’s best-run defense for a third consecutive season.