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Think Tom Brady’s flourishing for his age? Check out the Bucs’ defensive line

The team’s oldest position group (aside from quarterback) keeps playing at an ageless level.
Ndamukong Suh puts pressure on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes during Super Bowl 55.
Ndamukong Suh puts pressure on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes during Super Bowl 55. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 2

TAMPA — Turns out, Tom Brady doesn’t quite possess a monopoly on agelessness around the AdventHealth Training Center.

Bucs defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Steve McLendon, both born during the hair-band heyday, continue producing at a level belying their respective birth certificates. So, too, does fellow behemoth William Gholston, still prospering at the dawn of his fourth decade.

“There really are not words for it,” said backup nose tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who turned 28 in July. “Every day I come in and I honestly remind them how blessed they are and how much they motivate me to do what I do.”

Aside from quarterback (where the 44-year-old starter skews the median), no position on the Bucs’ depth chart possesses the chronological tread wear of the defensive linemen, whose normal six-player rotation has an average age of 30.

The week of the regular-season finale, McLendon and Suh will turn 36 and 35, respectively. McLendon enters the season as the NFL’s oldest active defensive lineman, according to Pro Football Reference. Suh is the third oldest.

Gholston turned 30 in July. Even nose tackle Vita Vea, at 26 the youngest member of the rotation, is older than any projected Bucs starting defensive back.

Yet their respective stat lines betray nary a varicose vein.

William Gholston brings down Saints quarterback Drew Brees during a November game last season.
William Gholston brings down Saints quarterback Drew Brees during a November game last season. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Suh and Gholston led the 2020 Bucs with 20 and 19 quarterback hits, respectively. Suh’s six sacks last year, despite playing the fewest snaps of his career (786), were his most in a regular season in five years. They didn’t include the 1½ he tallied in Super Bowl 55.

Gholston had the third-most tackles (44) of his eight-season career, and his 20 quarterback hits were 12 more than his prior season high. McLendon, acquired from the Jets via trade in October, totaled 31 tackles (two for loss) in 15 games, counting his six-game tenure with New York.

“I just want to say thank you to those guys for putting their bodies on the line for me and Lavonte (David) behind them,” third-year inside linebacker Devin White said.

“Also, (coach Bruce Arians) and (head athletic trainer) Bobby (Slater), they do a huge job with them. (Arians) gives them a lot of rest time, a lot of time to let their bodies heal. … We have the people in place to make those guys go out there and perform at a high level at an older age.”

Clearly, the expectation is for this collection of codgers — at least in NFL years — to maintain that level. The Bucs drafted no defensive linemen this year and brought in no free agents.

Even the promising youngsters on the roster, such as 2020 sixth-round pick Khalil Davis, aren’t expected to crack the top six of the rotation in coordinator Todd Bowles’ base three-man front.

“You’ve got veterans in there who are great guys,” Arians said. “They’ll teach (the younger guys) how to do it on the field and off the field, so that defensive line’s a very cohesive group. And they know how to take care of young players and help them along.”

Rakeem Nunez-Roches (56) celebrates a defensive stop on the Vikings last December.
Rakeem Nunez-Roches (56) celebrates a defensive stop on the Vikings last December. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

If there’s a defensive variant of Brady, it’s Suh, who is embarking on his 12th season. He recently made a Twitter resurgence, filling his time line with entrepreneurial nuggets and tips suggesting a segue to the financial world. But not before signing a new one-year, $8 million deal with the Bucs in March, days before his wife, Katya, gave birth to twin boys.

“So I’ve got to get the other (boy) a (Super Bowl) ring,” he said recently. “They’re sharing one right now.”

To that end, Suh has embraced a meticulous body-management regimen befitting his middle-aged quarterback. In addition to a rigid diet, he has a physical therapist and a performance director with whom he consults daily.

“All the things, top to bottom, that an athlete should have,” Suh said.

That included occasional off days during training camp, a necessity of age afforded by Arians to most of his veterans.

“Suh’s a lot like Brady; he knows how to take care of his body,” Arians said.

“He’s got a regimen; he talked me into it when we signed him (in 2019). The way he plays, I’m not changing his regimen, that’s for sure. He knows how to get himself ready for Sunday. Suh’s one of those guys, he’s going to answer the bell every time. You just get him there.”

The bell will toll for all of them eventually. Many signs (including fatherhood) suggest 2021 could be Suh’s swan song. Similarly, McLendon is working on a one-year deal. Gholston is in the final year of a five-year, $27.5 million contract he signed in 2017.

Yet any youth movement has been put off. Clearly, the Bucs believe these guys are spry enough to pull off a Super Bowl-winning sequel.

“I think it was (All-Pro tight end) Tony Gonzalez back in the day who said, ‘Mentally, I’ll probably get tired of this game before I do physically,’ " Suh said. “And that’s kind of where I look at this game.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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