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Are Bucs preparing to move forward minus Ndamukong Suh?

General manager Jason Licht said the team remains in talks with the veteran’s representatives.
Veteran defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh forced a fumble and was credited with a half-sack in the Bucs' 30-27 playoff loss to the Rams in January.
Veteran defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh forced a fumble and was credited with a half-sack in the Bucs' 30-27 playoff loss to the Rams in January. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 29

PALM BEACH — While the free-agency dust mostly has settled around Bucs headquarters, a mild haze remains regarding one prominent piece of the defense.

How do the Bucs feel about Ndamukong Suh?

No clarity arrived late Monday afternoon, when general manager Jason Licht briefly addressed reporters at the NFL’s annual meetings. Suh, who played on a one-year contract in 2021 at age 34, has given no recent indications of his future plans, and the Bucs have remained vague about whether he fits into theirs.

“Still in touch, still talk (with his representatives),” Licht said Monday. “Got a lot of ... balls in the air, a lot of decisions that we have to make here moving forward for different reasons. ... It’s an open door for a lot of different things that can come up, but we’ll see what happens.”

Suh, who turned 35 in January, showed no visible signs of a dropoff in 2021. He logged 63 percent of the Bucs’ defensive snaps in the regular season, totaling six sacks and 13 quarterback hits, then added a half-sack and forced a fumble in the 30-27 playoff loss to the Rams.

Moreover, he’s widely lauded for his meticulous approach to nutrition and overall physical maintenance. Yet his age and potential salary (he played for $9 million in 2021) could be prompting the Bucs to consider younger, less-expensive options.

At 30, tackle William Gholston — who recently signed for another year — is the oldest member of the current three-man rotation up front. Rakeem “Nacho” Nunez-Roches, 28, is under contract, and 27-year-old Pro Bowler Vita Vea recently signed a four-year extension. Veteran Steve McLendon, 36, isn’t expected back.

“We feel really good about Vita, glad that we got Will back, Nacho’s been a really good player for us,” Licht said Monday. “We’ve got some good players there, so it’s always a position that you’re looking for to add depth and add youth and get better at, so we’ll keep looking.”

Bracing for Brady ... again

Third-year Panthers coach Matt Rhule is winless in four games against Tom Brady and must face him twice again in 2022.
Third-year Panthers coach Matt Rhule is winless in four games against Tom Brady and must face him twice again in 2022. [ JOEY KNIGHT | Times ]

Outside of Bruce Arians, no NFL coaches were more affected by Tom Brady’s unretirement than his NFC South rivals, who again must face him twice in 2021.

On Tuesday, those counterparts betrayed far more diplomacy than disappointment when asked about the reality of Brady remaining in their division.

“Every week’s hard, but that’s the fun part,” said Falcons second-year coach Arthur Smith, who watched Brady total nine touchdown passes and one interception (a pick-six) in his team’s two losses to Tampa Bay last season.

“You want to compete against the best. Obviously, he’s a guy that’s accomplished just about everything you can at quarterback and is still going, still playing at a high level. You want the best players out there, it’s good for the game.”

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Panthers third-year coach Matt Rhule, winless in four meetings against Brady, said as a fan he’s “all for” Brady returning.

But what about as an adversary?

“He brings out the best in anybody,” Rhule said.

“As you prepare and build your defense now, you’ve got to build it for him. For him to be doing what he’s doing this late in his career is just absolutely impressive. If you want to be a great competitor, you have to beat the best and compete against the best, and obviously Tom’s the best. So I think it’s just good for the National Football League.”

By contrast, new Saints coach Dennis Allen — previously New Orleans’ defensive coordinator — is 4-1 against Brady since his arrival in Tampa. That stretch includes a 9-0 embarrassment of the Bucs in Tampa in December when Allen served as interim coach after Sean Payton tested positive for COVID-19. So what has been the key for Allen’s defenses against the GOAT?

“No. 1 would be good players who understand the plan and go out and execute it,” he said. “It’s really not that complicated. We try to take away some of the things that they do really well, and we’ve got good players.”

Odds and ends

The Bucs announced Monday they’ve re-signed veteran long snapper Zach Triner, who played through a torn finger tendon on his left hand in the 2021 opener before missing eight games. ... Smith on losing receiver Russell Gage to the Bucs: “You’re going to lose guys every year. I love Russ, but that’s the name of the game.” ... Licht said second-year offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, who trained mostly at center as a rookie in 2021, could compete for a starting guard spot opposite newly acquired veteran Shaq Mason. “He’ll definitely compete for that,” Licht said. “We love versatility. We’ll work those guys at multiple spots throughout camp, and it’s always good to have somebody that can do multiple roles.”

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

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