The Tampa Bay Buccaneers enter 2021 NFL free agency coming off a Super Bowl-winning 15-5 season in 2020 and have 25 unrestricted free agents. After doling out incentives and Super Bowl bonuses, they now have an estimated $24 million in salary-cap space -- 13th most in the NFL. General manager Jason Licht and coach Bruce Arians said their priority is re-signing their own.
"We cleared the first hurdle and that’s that we kept our coaching staff intact, other than [Antwaan Randle] El, and we’re happy for him," Arians said. "The next thing now is to keep the players intact, keep the team intact as much as we possibly can without risking future years. Jason and I will work together as hard as we can to keep the core guys."
Here’s what to expect from the Bucs when the NFL offseason hits high gear with the start of free agency on March 17:
Under contract: Tom Brady
UFA: Ryan Griffin, Blaine Gabbert
Game plan: Brady is under contract for one more year and will count $28.3 million against the cap in 2021 ($25 million for his salary, plus bonuses from the Super Bowl). But expect Licht to start discussions with Brady’s agent, Don Yee, about an extension. Another year would keep Brady in Tampa Bay through his 45th birthday and could help with their salary-cap situation.
Under contract: Ronald Jones II, Ke’Shawn Vaughn
UFA: Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy, T.J. Logan, Kenjon Barner
Game plan: If they can have the same one-two punch they had with Jones and Fournette, the Bucs would be in terrific shape at this position next year. But Fournette may have priced himself out of Tampa Bay after playing on a $2 million deal and amassing 448 yards in the postseason. Adjusting to a backup role and splitting carries was not easy for Fournette. He came to embrace it in the midst of a Super Bowl run, but it’s not doable long-term. Would the Bucs be willing to alter the running back hierarchy? It seems unlikely. While McCoy’s leadership was invaluable to the running backs room, particularly with helping Fournette acclimate to a backup role, it’s unlikely he’ll return.
Under contract: Mike Evans, Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Justin Watson, Cyril Grayson
UFA: Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Jaydon Mickens
Game plan: They won’t let Godwin out of the building, whether that’s playing under a new contract or the franchise tag, which would cost them approximately $16.5 million. Sources close to the situation believe that’s where things are headed, and Godwin indicated he’d be OK playing under the tag, although the plan is to keep him in Tampa Bay long-term. Brown’s arguably the biggest question mark on the team. With Godwin and Evans, they’re already going to be paying two No. 1 receivers -- can they pay Brown too?
Under contract: O.J. Howard, Cam Brate
UFA: Rob Gronkowski, Antony Auclair
Game plan: Something will have to give here. Gronkowski earned $10 million with the Bucs last season, and after a bit of a slow start, more than earned his keep with a two-touchdown performance in the Super Bowl. He was also, by far, their best run-blocker. Plus, Howard is coming off a torn Achilles (he’ll be playing under the fifth-year option). They need stability here. Brate already took a pay cut last year. With a $6.5 million cap figure in 2020, a restructure for Brate could create some cap space.
Under contract: Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa, Tristan Wirfs
UFA: Joe Haeg, Josh Wells, Aaron Stinnie (RFA), Earl Watford (SFA)
Game plan: Smith and Jensen will count $14.25 million and $10 million respectively against the cap -- high figures which had some questioning if they’d be back next season considering none of that is guaranteed and both have just this year remaining on their contracts. But Licht said both would be returning in 2021, giving the Bucs all their starters from 2020. New deals for both could help alleviate their cap situation. Marpet already agreed to restructure once last year, which freed up $4.125 million. With a $12 million cap hit this year, it could certainly help if he did it again.
Under contract: Will Gholston, Vita Vea
UFA: Ndamukong Suh, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Steve McLendon, Jeremiah Ledbetter (ERFA), Pat O’Connor (ERFA)
Game plan: They’d like to have Suh back after two consecutive one-year deals, first making $10 million in 2019 and $8.5 million in 2020, which is reasonable considering his experience, durability and leadership. (Vea credited Suh for hooking him up with his nutritionist to keep his weight down while he recovered from a fractured ankle, allowing him to heal in time for the NFC Championship.) It looks to be about 50/50 on a return.
Under contract: Jason Pierre-Paul, Anthony Nelson, Devin White
UFA: Shaq Barrett, Lavonte David, Deone Bucannon, Kevin Minter, Jack Cichy
Game plan: Barrett, who led the league with 19.5 sacks in 2019 and had 8.0 in 2020, has already pledged to return next year, but he also said he’s ready to “break the bank now.” It’s not really feasible for anyone on this team to do that, though. A franchise tag would mean a 120% raise from last year ($15.8 million), and a $19 million salary-cap hit, while a long-term deal could provide more flexibility. The going rate for top edge rushers is steep though -- Joey Bosa averages $27 million a year. At inside linebacker, David is regarded as the heart and soul of the Bucs’ locker room. White said, “I won’t play without him.” While David might deserve to be paid Bobby Wagner’s $18 million average, that’s not realistic in this situation.
Under contract: Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, Mike Edwards, Antoine Winfield Jr., Javon Hagan, John Franklin III
UFA: Ryan Smith, Andrew Adams, Ross Cockrell
Game plan: The Bucs are in great shape here, getting all their key pieces back. Smith would certainly help their special-teams coverage, as he’s their top gunner on returns, but he’s contributed very little as a corner in recent years. They paid him $1.75 million for special teams alone last year.
Under contract: P Bradley Pinion
UFA: K Ryan Succop, LS Zach Triner (ERFA),
Game plan: Succop brought stability to the Bucs’ kicking position that they haven’t seen in more than a decade, making 90.3% of his field goals in 2020 -- second-most in franchise history -- and 91.2% of his extra point attempts. He went 9-for-9 on field goals and only missed one PAT in the postseason. He earned $1.05 million last season, and he should return in 2021.