TAMPA, Fla. -- With quarterback Tom Brady officially retired, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers must set their sights on finding his replacement. “Operation Shoeless Joe Jackson” was the code name Bucs director of player personnel John Spytek coined for the organization’s pursuit of Brady two years ago. Can they lure a top free agent to Tampa via free agency or a trade? Will they turn to the future in Kyle Trask, drafted in the second round last spring?
They have a roster ready to win now if they can keep the core of it intact; but without a quarterback, it won’t matter.
“It didn’t completely shock us in the last 24 hours that this could happen, so we’ve been preparing,” general manager Jason Licht said Tuesday. “We were in this situation a couple of years ago where [coach] Bruce [Arians] and I both said we’ll have to look behind door No. 2. We’re at that position again. … We’re going to explore all avenues to try to make the best decision we can for the organization.”
The Bucs have roughly $20 million in salary-cap space and a number of marquee free agents they’re attempting to re-sign, including wide receiver Chris Godwin, center Ryan Jensen, running back Leonard Fournette, cornerback Carlton Davis, safety Jordan Whitehead and right guard Alex Cappa. Tight end Rob Gronkowski’s status is also up in the air, and he said he would be open to returning to the Bucs even without Brady.
They showed a willingness to borrow from the future last year in an effort to “get the band back together,” re-signing players like linebacker Lavonte David and even Brady to contracts with voidable years, a tactic they hadn’t used in well over a decade. They can technically do the same again to extend their championship window.
The benefit of having Brady was he spent his career continuously taking less in an effort to keep talent around him. Brady was the 15th-highest-paid quarterback in the league last season in terms of his actual cap hit ($10,545,588), compared to $32 million for Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Others may not be as inclined to do so.
Who they have under contract
The Bucs have one quarterback under contract for the 2022 season: Trask, whom they selected in the draft's second round out of Florida but treated as a redshirt-year QB in 2021. He was inactive for every game. His reps were mostly as the scout-team quarterback. The bulk of this past year was spent working on Trask’s technique, to improve everything from his throwing motion to his footwork. They also worked on his strength in the weight room and body composition.
"We’re very excited about the development of Kyle, where he has come from in the last year and what he has done,” Licht said, while tempering expectations: “We’re not crowning [him] as the heir apparent yet.”
When asked whether Brady’s departure speeds up the timetable to develop Trask, Licht said, “I don’t think we necessarily need to speed up the process with Kyle because I think we have him on a good track right now. He's been well-coached, and he’s had unbelievable resources to lean on to get to where he is right now. We’ll see where that goes. We don’t want to rush anybody, but I couldn’t think of a better experience for a young quarterback to spend his rookie year than with the greatest player of all time.”
Gabbert spent the past two years as Brady’s backup and saw some game action when the Bucs had sizable leads. In 10 games over the past two seasons, Gabbert completed 16 of 27 passes for 210 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The coaching staff believes his development during the early part of his career was marred by instability, and it trusts in him.
Griffin is the Bucs’ longest-tenured quarterback at seven seasons despite seeing action in only two regular-season games in 2019. He spent six seasons on the active roster before Trask’s arrival bumped him down in the pecking order.
Who is available?
In terms of current free agents -- it seems unlikely the Bucs would pursue former first overall pick Jameis Winston after parting ways with him following the 2019 season. They had interest in Teddy Bridgewater two years ago when they landed Brady, viewing him as an alternative if Brady fell through, and some oddsmakers even have him pegged as a favorite.
Would they consider Andy Dalton, or at this point, would he be a lateral move from Gabbert?
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell suggested Mike White would be an interesting name. The former Western Kentucky quarterback previously transferred from USF. He went 37-of-45 for 405 yards and three touchdowns to help the Jets beat the Bengals, but he has only slightly more experience than Trask.
Other quarterbacks who might be available and have the right mix of experience with plenty of gas left in the tank include the Seahawks' Wilson, Packers' Aaron Rodgers, 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo, Raiders' Derek Carr, Titans' Ryan Tannehill and Colts' Carson Wentz.
Rodgers and Wilson would be pipe-dream scenarios. The Bucs play the Packers and Seahawks next season, so a trade in either case seems unlikely. The Bucs also face Garoppolo’s 49ers next year, and he helped them reach the Super Bowl two years ago and the NFC Championship Game this year (plus he was Brady’s backup in New England), but they have last year's first-round pick Trey Lance.
Carr certainly has the arm to fit Arians’ offense, and he’s a strong leader, which could help fill the void left by Brady. He has one year left on his contract, and it’s unclear how new head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler feel about him.
Tannehill is at his best with a strong ground game, and the Bucs could certainly lean on that if they brought back Fournette. But there’s a catch: Trading him before June 1 would mean the Bucs are on the hook for his $29 million base salary for next season, which is fully guaranteed. The only way the Bucs could stomach that would be if the Titans took on some of that salary.
Arians loved Wentz coming out of college, and he had a strong game against the Bucs in Week 12, throwing for 306 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He has great size and can extend plays, but injuries have been an issue, and he’s got a daunting contract with $82 million due over the next three seasons.
Could they draft a QB?
Unlikely. It’s considered one of the weakest QB draft classes in recent memory. Plus, the Bucs feel strongly that Trask stacks up well against this QB class.
Now how will the Bucs keep the same culture they had with Brady?
He was essentially a coach out on the field, directing wide receivers on how to run their routes specifically for him. He would direct meetings. That’s not to say that position coaches wouldn’t instruct, but Brady would specifically tell players what he needed, and his record and experience allowed him to do that. That’s a lot to ask of a quarterback coming in, and too much for someone just starting out at the position in the NFL.
"I think that will continue," Licht said. "We’re losing a legend in Tom, and no one wants to lose a legend, but the lessons that he’s provided with these guys with just his actions and his leadership -- along with our head coach, who we still have -- are going to continue lead our team and continue to build on it. We’re going to have continued success because of it. I’m confident in that.”
On top of those concerns, the Bucs’ non-divisional opponents for next season (the schedule won’t be out until April) are brutal, with eight of them having reached the postseason. Outside of the NFC South, they’ll face the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers. Together, their 2022 opponents were a combined 154-134-1 last season.