TAMPA — Bucs coach Bruce Arians says he only has so much pull in deciding which pending free agents the team can retain, but he made it clear Monday that atop his offseason wish list is keeping the Bucs’ defensive front together.
“If we can keep this defense together, we can be really really good defensively for a long time,” Arians said. “It’s a very young group, and the older guys are young. They’re guys who don’t age. It will be huge for us to keep them together and build off the way we’re finishing the last six, seven weeks, the growth in the secondary especially.”
Since Week 10, the Bucs defense has been one of the league's best. The team's young defensive backs are becoming playmakers, the rush defense continues to dominate and the front seven is putting pressure on the quarterback.
Over that stretch — in which the Bucs are 5-2 — the Bucs rank second in the league with 14 takeaways, rank fourth in sacks (22) and are eighth in total defense.
Aside from the organization’s biggest offseason decision — the future of quarterback Jameis Winston — most of the other pivotal free agency questions are on defense.
The Bucs will have roughly $90 million in cap space to work with.
Those decisions start with outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who has tied the team’s single-season sack mark (16.5) entering Sunday’s season finale. He could receive a franchise tag or transitional tag from the team, depending what the Bucs decide on Winston.
Last week, Arians and Barrett spoke confidently that Barrett will be in a Bucs uniform in 2020. Barrett said he’d not only like to return, but keep the defensive core together. The Bucs’ one-year, $4-million deal with Barrett might be the league’s best bargain this season.
Two key veterans who have been instrumental in the defense's improvement, outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, will also be free agents.
Pierre-Paul, who missed the first seven weeks of the season recovering from a serious neck injury suffered in an offseason car accident, has 6.5 sacks in just nine games, and is coming off his first three-sack game since 2017.
“I think he’s in shape now, he’s in football shape,” Arians said of Pierre-Paul. "He can really bend. When he bends, he has great power, which separates guys with length like him. They don’t have that kind of power.”
Pierre-Paul entered the season under contract through 2020, but the Bucs renegotiated his contract to offer him free agency after this season in order to get additional cap space. Pierre-Paul is making just $3.25 million in base salary and a workout bonus, but can earn an additional $7.5 million in incentives.
Suh considered retiring at age 32 before signing a one-year, $9.25-million deal in May.
“The way he practices and plays right now, I don’t think he’s ready to quit,” Arians said.
Stay updated on the Super Bowl champs
Subscribe to our free Bucs RedZone newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Other key defensive contributors like linemen Beau Allen and Rakeem Nunez-Roches and inside linebacker Kevin Minter are also free agents at the end of the season.
“All I can do is recommend to the people upstairs that we need them,” Arians said. “With the way we’re playing defense right now, if we can stay together, it’s showing that we’re turning the corner defensively.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.