Tampa Bay Buccaneers Offseason Previewby James Dudko February 25, 2021 1 comment
Tom Brady thinks the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can repeat as Super Bowl champions. His optimism is admirable, though going back-to-back will not be easy for an aging nucleus primed to be broken up during free agency.
Many of the heroes of last season’s triumph are eligible to test the market. Some, like wide receiver Chris Godwin and linebacker Lavonte David are key figures on either side of the ball. Others, like Brady’s best bud Rob Gronkowski are still productive veterans, but their tanks are running close to empty.
Deciding who has one more good run left in them and who is ready for the scrapheap won’t be easy for head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht. At least Arians’ stellar lieutenants, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles are returning to ensure continuity in coaching.
Pending Free Agents
No team has a tougher juggling act than the Bucs headed into free agency, with 32 players set to enter the market. David and Godwin top a list of veterans that also includes big-name stars Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, Shaquil Barrett, Ndamukong Suh, and another Brady favorite in Antonio Brown.
Even the less-heralded names on the list fill important roles for the team. Steve McLendon and Rakeem Nunez-Roches provide beef at the heart of the defensive line. Ryan Succop is a solid kicker, and Blaine Gabbert is Brady’s backup and knows Leftwich’s system like a book. Projected cap space worth $13,361,683 should make some of these decisions easier.
Shaquil Barrett, OLB
Barrett is the most important free agent the Buccaneers can keep this offseason. He’s a game-wrecker off the edge in Bowles’ defense, a pass-rusher whose relentless pressure keyed Tampa’s postseason dominance of some of the NFL’s best quarterbacks.
It was Barrett who sacked Aaron Rodgers three times to knock the stuffing out of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Barrett only sacked Patrick Mahomes once in the Super Bowl, but the Kansas City Chiefs’ signal-caller had to avoid No. 58 on almost every dropback.
— PFF (@PFF) February 8, 2021
Barrett played under the franchise tag in 2019 after leading the NFL with 19.5 sacks a year earlier. Using the tag again isn’t an ideal scenario. Barrett’s just 28 and entering his prime, so the Bucs should cough up the cash for a more permanent solution.
Chris Godwin, WR
Surprisingly, Godwin is someone the Bucs could feel comfortable about letting go. At least that is according to NFL.com contributor Adam Schein, who believes re-signing the wideout won’t be a priority. Schein based his thinking on Tampa Bay drafting Tyler Johnson a year ago, as well as his belief Brown “should be back.”
It would be a mistake not to retain Godwin. He is a deluxe version of the type of receiver Brady has enjoyed throwing to his whole career; names like Troy Brown, Wes Welker, and Julian Edelman. Receivers who aren’t blessed with elite size or speed but are shifty enough to win early out of their breaks and find the holes in underneath coverage.
Injuries meant Godwin missed four games last season and was denied the chance to form a true rapport with Brady. Godwin still finished second on the team with 65 receptions, proof of the magic that could come from this partnership. The Bucs would be wise to bring Godwin back.
Rob Gronkowski, TE
Gronk wants to be back, but the Bucs ought to consider their options regarding Brady’s go-to tight end. Tampa is loaded at the position outside of him. Cameron Brate is a useful outlet underneath, while O.J. Howard has skills reminiscent of peak Gronkowski when he is healthy.
Howard wasn’t in 2020. His season ended when he tore his Achilles in Week 4. Having No. 80 fit again would make Gronkowski surplus to requirements. He was still a threat in the red zone last season and caught two touchdowns in the Super Bowl, but is also 31 and rarely fully healthy.
Ndamukong Suh, DT
Suh is a monster when motivated, but the Bucs may have gotten his last hurrah in 2020. The 34-year-old is still unblockable when he flips the switch, but he usually only enters the zone come playoff time. It is not as if the Buccaneers are lacking for talent along the defensive front. William Gholston and Vita Vea can dominate, while McLendon and Nunez-Roches are each younger than Suh.
Lavonte David, LB
David was Bowles’ on-field general in 2020. He is a linebacker who packs a punch in the running game and has a similar seek-and-destroy mentality in coverage. Not many defenses have the luxury of linebackers who can stay on the field for all three downs the way David does.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) February 8, 2021
Unfortunately for him, the Bucs have another all-purpose linebacker, Devin White. He’s a rising star who can take on David’s leadership role next to a younger partner in the middle. Alternatively, Licht could bring back Kevin Minter, (an eight-year pro who knows Bowles’ scheme inside-out) for cheaper than it will cost to re-up David.
Fournette is never short of critics, but now he has the hardware to back his status as one of the NFL’s best running backs. Tampa Bay’s ownership of the Lombardi Trophy owes a lot to the way Fournette battered the Chiefs. He rushed for 89 yards and a touchdown and caught four of Brady’s passes for 46 yards.
Fournette’s regular-season numbers weren’t eye-popping, but he still chipped in with six touchdowns on the ground. If the deal is cap-friendly, the Bucs should bring Fournette back for another tour. The backfield tandem of Fournette and Ronald Jones II will be vital for resting the arm of a quarterback who will be 44 when the new season begins.
Antonio Brown, WR
Brady loves Brown, and there’s no denying the controversial wideout is talented. Yet it’s equally true the Bucs don’t need to risk another installment of the AB drama. Not when the receiver corps is so well-stocked. Mike Evans will be back, Johnson flashed potential as a rookie, and Scotty Miller became somebody Brady looked for in clutch situations. If a deal can be struck for Godwin, there’ll be no need to hand Brown a new contract.
Potential Cap Casualties
Having a decent amount of room under the cap means the Bucs shouldn’t have to make many players casualties. Not loading veteran deals with bonuses to bring back free agents like Suh or Brown will also ease the burden on Tampa’s cap.
Another way of avoiding salary cap hell is to restructure and extend Brady’s contract. It’s something NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport thinks will happen so the Buccaneers can focus on retaining big-ticket free agents like Barrett:
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) February 24, 2021
O.J. Howard, TE ($6.013 Millon Saved) and Cameron Brate, TE ($6.5 Million Saved)
It makes sense to list Howard and Brate together because if Gronkowski returns, one of Tampa Bay’s other tight ends will almost certainly become a cap casualty. Both Howard and Brate are on contracts that would yield significant savings if they were torn up before June 1.
Choosing who could feel the chop isn’t easy. Howard is three years younger than 29-year-old Brate, whose contract is also the more expensive. Brate’s the more likely candidate to be cut, provided Arians would be comfortable letting Howard returning from injury and a beat-up Gronk be the primary options at the position.
Donovan Smith, LT ($14.25 Million Saved)
Dumping Brady’s blindside protector from 2020 would be a risk, but the saving on Smith’s contract is significant enough to consider it. The Bucs would clear over $14 million from the cap and still have plenty of options at the position, like moving right tackle Tristan Wirfs over to the left side after he thrived as a rookie.
— PFF (@PFF) February 14, 2021
William Gholston, DE ($5.5 Million Saved)
It would be harsh to cut Gholston loose since he’s one of the most dependable players on the roster. The 29-year-old can also play inside as well as on the edge. Gholston’s problem is he carries a contract worth $5.5 million against the cap. That’s a juicy number Licht may want to shed, especially if he convinces Suh to return at a lower rate.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
The level of Tampa’s activity in the market will be determined by what they do with their own in-house free agents. Bring back Godwin and the ranks at wide receiver no longer need a boost. Re-sign Suh and the d-line is set. Yet there are still one or two areas, including depth at key positions, the Buccaneers could target.
Jayon Brown, LB, Tennessee Titans
Brown would be a brilliant replacement for David. He’s about to turn 26 and has become one of the most active linebackers in the game during four productive seasons with the Tennessee Titans. He can stay with receivers in space and has useful skills on the blitz.
If there’s a concern with Brown it’s whether his 226-pound frame is big enough for life in the middle of the field. That won’t worry Bowles, who made safety Deone Bucannon a full-time inside linebacker with the Arizona Cardinals. Bucannon hasn’t been able to replicate the same magic in Tampa and is a free agent. Brown would make a greater impact behind the Bucs’ mammoth front three.
Matt Milano, LB, Buffalo Bills
Milano endured his struggles in space during 2020, but he excels as a key member of the Buffalo Bills’ pressure schemes. A coordinator as blitz-happy as Bowles would make Milano a fixture in opposition backfields in 2021. As long as he wasn’t isolated too often in coverage, Milano would soon become the leader of this defense.
Jordan Jenkins, OLB, New York Jets
It wouldn’t hurt to get some cover on the edges in case Barrett doesn’t return. His fellow pass-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul is also 32 and depth is sparse. Bowles would likely warm to a reunion with Jordan Jenkins, a player he drafted while head coach of the New York Jets in 2016. Jenkins is not a dominant pass-rusher, but he knows this system and can bring a steady supply of heat. There likely won’t be much room for a natural 3-4 outside linebacker under new Jets head coach Robert Saleh, who prefers a more traditional four-man rush.
James White, RB, New England Patriots
On the principle of you can never have too many weapons, the Bucs could get Brady another target. Better still, Licht could get TB12 one of his go-to pass-catchers from his days in New England. James White is a running back who runs routes like a wide receiver. He’s got sure hands and a knack for delivering in clutch situations. White would offer Brady a nice alternative to all the vertical concepts Arians loves to call.
Trent Williams, OT, San Francisco 49ers
Wirfs played some left tackle during his college days at Iowa, but if the Bucs don’t want to move him, they might consider signing a veteran like Trent Williams. He was outstanding for the San Francisco 49ers last season after ending his ugly standoff with the Washington Football Team. The Niners made the trade, but now have to try and sign the 33-year-old to a longer-term deal. Williams would be an upgrade on Smith but on a likely cheaper and shorter contract.
Previewing the Draft
The Buccaneers own seven picks in the 2021 NFL draft and could easily fill any holes created by defections during free agency. In fact, it would be a smart move to use this year’s draft to get younger at key positions, including along the defensive front and at running back. There’s also an outside chance Brady’s successor will come off the board.
Round 1, Pick 32: Running Back
The process of easing the burden on Brady will begin in earnest if the Bucs take a running back at the end of the first round. It makes sense since Fournette, LeSean McCoy, and Kenjon Barner are all free agents. There’s also a decent precedent because the franchise has enjoyed success using first-round picks on running backs. Think Warrick Dunn and Cadillac Williams.
Round 2, Pick 64: Defensive Tackle
The uncertainty involving Suh, McLendon, and Nunez-Roches makes defensive tackle a position the Bucs can’t ignore during draft weekend. This year’s class isn’t thought to contain the next Aaron Donald, but Licht should be able to find some value in Round 2, especially if Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon doesn’t hear his name called during the opening round. Jay Tufele, who sat out 2020 when the Pac-12 called it quits during the pandemic, is another name to watch.
Round 3, Pick 96: Quarterback
There’d be no harm in a noted quarterback guru like Arians taking a flier on a young passer with the 96th pick. Gabbert and Ryan Griffin are free agents, so it’s not like the Bucs can ignore their backup QB situation for long. Fortunately, it’s not as if Arians needs a rookie ready to go in year one. Brady proved age hasn’t harmed his durability by playing in every game last season, but the time is ripe for him to impart his knowledge to an understudy.
Early 2021 Expectations
It’s difficult to completely buy into the talk of a Super Bowl repeat for these Bucs. The main things in their favor are Brady, excellent coaching, and the relative weakness of the rest of the NFC South. Drew Brees‘ retirement means the New Orleans Saints won’t own the division anymore, while the Carolina Panthers are continuing to rebuild and the Atlanta Falcons have a new head coach, former Titans’ offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.
Tampa Bay will be in the thick of the Super Bowl hunt again if Licht brings back the right veterans. That’ll mean securing those with upsides like Barrett and Godwin while making tough calls on Brown and Gronkowski to avoid turning the roster into an old boy network for friends of Brady.