While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ media and fans have been keenly focused on what the team plans to do at quarterback, head coach Bruce Arians revealed he has different priorities when he spoke recently at the NFL Coaches Academy.
“Oh, yeah. To me, it’s the whole defense,” Arians said. “You can’t get ’em all, but … those young guys grew. We can’t let that go. I don’t care who’s my quarterback. We’ve gotta have a defense.”
The Buccaneers finished fifth overall in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric in 2019, including being first overall in run defense by a wide margin.
DVOA prioritizes down-by down value and efficiency rather than raw compiled stats which can be misleading. Due to a league-leading 41 turnovers committed by the offense, Tampa Bay’s defense spent an average of 67.1 (fourth-most) snaps on the field, often starting with poor field position.
The Buccaneers are due to return cornerstones Vita Vea, Lavonte David, and Devin White to one of 2019’s most effective front sevens along with the vast majority of their young secondary.
However, several key starters from last year’s group are set to become unrestricted free agents when the new league year begins on March 18. That list includes Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Beau Allen, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Carl Nassib, and 2019 NFL sack champion Shaquil Barrett.
Barrett is believed to be the team’s top in-house offseason priority. Arians expressed his desire to retain the rising star back in December.
“He ain’t going anywhere,” Arians told Jenna Laine of ESPN after Tampa Bay’s 38-17 win over the Detroit Lions.
The feeling appeared to be mutual from Barrett’s perspective when he spoke to the media after a Pro Bowl practice session last month:
“I don’t know if it’s gonna get done before [March], but I love that confidence that [Arians] gave me. I’m just ready to get it done and ready to start building my life in Tampa and be there for the long haul.” Barrett said.
The Buccaneers are currently projected to have approximately $85 million in cap space entering the 2020 offseason which would be the third-most in the league.
However, players such as Jameis Winston (or possibly another veteran starter), Barrett, Suh, and Pierre-Paul would all garner sizeable contracts should they be retained. If the team decides to bring all of them back, that number could shrink to as little as $15 million barring any discounted deals.
Historically, the Buccaneers have been unwilling to backload longer contracts in order to avoid incurring dead cap space, thus allowing the team to maintain financial mobility from one year to the next.
It’s unlikely that approach will change this offseason. It’s a bedrock philosophy of the team’s director of football administrations, Mike Greenberg, who is widely considered one of the best salary cap managers in the NFL.
Consequently, if the team does attempt to keep the core of this defense intact, it will likely come at the cost of the majority of their projected cap space.
And, of course, as much as $30 million will be earmarked for the quarterback position, should it be Winston, former Los Angeles Charger Philip Rivers, or another veteran … although Arians does not believe the list of available arms will be as deep as it currently appears:
“I don’t think there’s that many guys involved. … I’d be shocked if it’s two,” Arians said when asked about the potential availability of viable veteran starters once the free agency period opens.
This could be seen as an indication that the team believes Winston and Rivers may ultimately be their only options as guys like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Ryan Tannehill are likely to be re-signed or franchise or transition tagged before they become available. With just five weeks until free agency opens, we could already be down to a two-horse race.