TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still talking to representatives for running back Leonard Fournette and wide receiver Antonio Brown, sources tell ESPN. They are the two big remaining Bucs free agents who have yet to re-sign for 2021, as defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is finalizing a one-year, $10 million deal to stay with Tampa, sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Earlier in the day, left tackle Donovan Smith reached agreement on a two-year, $31.8 million contract extension, lowering his 2021 cap number to $3.6 million. Before those two deals, the Bucs had already committed $179,712,112 of their $182.5 million salary cap, with just $1,550,404 remaining, according to Roster Management System. The Bucs are open to making more cap-saving moves to create room. They will eventually also need to do some work to make room for the $7.5 million owed to their rookies in the draft, but they have time to do that. How could they do that?
Smith was set to count $14.25 million against the salary cap in 2021 before agreeing to his new deal, while center Ryan Jensen will count $10 million. Extending Jensen in addition to Smith, who general manager Jason Licht had said would return in 2021 despite no guaranteed money remaining on their deals, could give the Bucs the necessary resources. The same goes for outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, who is set to count $12.8 million against the cap. But sources tell ESPN that the Bucs aren’t currently working on extensions for Jensen or Pierre-Paul at this time. If they reach a long-term agreement with Chris Godwin, whom they franchise-tagged, before July 15, they could gain more cap space.
In order to do that though, Fournette and Brown would likely need to reset their expectations, as the market isn’t there this year due to the 8% salary-cap decrease, which dried up the money quicker than in previous years and has seen a number of players taking lesser, shorter-term deals in hopes of scoring big next year with the cap expected to rise due to new TV deals.
Some depth players have already moved on. Safety Andrew Adams, who stepped in when Jordan Whitehead suffered a shoulder injury during the NFC Championship Game, signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Backup offensive lineman Joe Haeg -- who struggled when stepping in for an injured Ali Marpet against the New Orleans Saints, but has the ability to play nearly every position on the offensive line -- has signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And speaking of depth, the Bucs must address their backup quarterback situation, with Ryan Griffin and Blaine Gabbert both on the market. Here’s a look at the situations with their two big remaining free agents:
Fournette may need to reset his expectations
Aaron Jones tipped the running back scales by re-signing with the Green Bay Packers for $12 million per season. But after that, Kenyan Drake is getting $5.5 million per year from the Las Vegas Raiders. Chris Carson's deal with the Seattle Seahawks averages $5.212 million annually. David Johnson’s deal with the Houston Texans averages out to $5 million annually. Jamaal Williams is getting $3 million per season from the Detroit Lions. James White agreed to a one-year, $2.5 million deal to return to New England.
It’s reasonable to think Fournette should ask for a raise from the $2 million he got last year after his strong playoff performance (448 scrimmage yards in the postseason), but how much, especially when he’s still splitting carries with Ronald Jones? He’s also got mileage, had some drops, but is still physically powerful and is a better natural pass-catcher than Jones.
Brown stuck in a slow-moving receiver market
There was a glimmer of hope over the weekend when Brown said the following during an Instagram live when he and Fournette were training together and a follower told Brown he needed him to return to Tampa Bay: “Me and Playoff Lenny gonna work this out.”
But the Seahawks are reportedly also interested in him, as quarterback Russell Wilson worked out with Brown last offseason and advocated for him.
Adding to that, the wide receiver market has been sluggish despite being loaded with talent. It took JuJu Smith-Schuster a week to re-sign with the Steelers and Kenny Golladay six days to agree to terms with the New York Giants, who will pay him $18 million per season. But the next two highest-paid players at the position who were free agents? Godwin and Allen Robinson, who are both playing under the franchise tag.
T.Y. Hilton, Larry Fitzgerald, Golden Tate, Sammy Watkins, Danny Amendola, Cordarrelle Patterson, Mohamed Sanu and Adam Humphries are all unsigned. One argument is teams prioritized other positions because of this. It also looks to be yet another special draft class, like 2020. But where does that leave Brown? Likely on another incentive-laden "prove it" deal if he were to return to Tampa. Last year, that was a one-year deal with a base salary of $750,000 with incentives that pushed the value to $2.5 million, some of which he reached.
It’s fair to ask how Brown will fare this offseason without the day-to-day structure of a team after he was arrested and charged with felony assault on a delivery driver one year ago. Brown was also sued by his former trainer, who alleges she was sexually assaulted by Brown on multiple occasions.