TAMPA — Despite already retaining several players on the defensive side of the ball while their salary cap space steadily shrinks, the Bucs still have re-signing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh near the top of their free-agency priority list.
While the free-agency market has begun to cool, Suh still has interest in returning, but he has told the Bucs that he has received interest from other teams.
One of the teams considering the 10-year veteran is the defending NFC champion 49ers, who have a spot to fill after trading defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Colts. But that interest may be cooling.
The Cowboys have also been linked to Suh in recent days. Dallas would be an interesting fit for Suh because it would make him teammates with Gerald McCoy, whom Suh replaced last season after the Bucs parted ways with their long-time franchise fixture.
While Suh was never a problem with the Bucs — he was well liked by coach Bruce Arians as well as his teammates — his long-standing reputation as a dirty player hasn’t gone away, and teams will still question whether they want to bring him into their locker room.
Keep in mind that Suh didn’t officially sign last season until May 29. The Bucs were well into their offseason program when they brought him in on a one-year, $9.25 million deal right after cutting McCoy.
The Bucs may not be able to wait that long for Suh this time around. They lost tackle Beau Allen in free agency, and while they’ve re-signed Rakeem Nunez-Roches, they need a starter to play inside alongside tackle Vita Vea.
Filling that hole is important, because the push that Vea and Suh provided from the inside helped outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul get to the quarterback coming off the edge. And without a presence like Suh, teams could negate Vea’s impact with double teams.
While Suh played a career-low 77 percent of the Bucs’ defense snaps last year, he has proven to be extremely durable. Suh has never missed a game due to injury in his career. He’s no longer as adept at getting to the quarterback as he used to be, but that really wasn’t his job in the Bucs’ defensive system. It was more getting interior push and stopping the running game, and Tampa Bay ranked first in the league in run defense.
Suh is the best defensive tackle still available after last week’s flurry of activity. McCoy signed a three-year deal with the Cowboys that guarantees him just $9 million but could net him $20.55 million if he meets all the incentives over the life of the contract.
If the Bucs can’t retain Suh, Broncos defensive tackle Shelby Harris, another exceptional run stopper, could be another option, though Harris could be seeking a multi-year deal.
Then there’s what the Bucs could do in the draft. There’s been a lot of talk about the Bucs potentially taking an interior defensive lineman in the first round. But there are just two bona fide top-20 defensive tackle prospects — Auburn’s Derrick Brown and South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw — and Kinlaw could still be on the board when the Bucs make their first-round pick at No. 14.
Plus, now that the Bucs have signed quarterback Tom Brady, one would think a priority in the draft would be to bulk up the offensive line to protect him, and there are several offensive linemen with first-round draft potential.
But when it comes to Suh, the Bucs are very much still a major player for his services, even if the deal might take a while.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.