TAMPA, Fla. -- NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2022 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began Wednesday, and the first round of the NFL draft begins April 28 on ESPN.
Less than 24 hours before the start of legal tampering for NFL free agency kicked off, quarterback Tom Brady made the stunning announcement that he’d be retuning for a 23rd season, immediately putting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back into contention for another Super Bowl title if they can keep their key roster pieces intact.
Franchise tagging Pro Bowl wide receiver Chris Godwin -- who has since got his extension this week in the form of a three-year deal -- was a big part of that, and they were also able to create some salary cap space by restructuring the contract of Vita Vea and placing Ali Marpet on the Reserve/Retirement list.
Also, the Bucs traded a 2022 fifth-round draft pick to the New England Patriots last Tuesday for Shaq Mason, who spent five years with Brady in New England. This fills one of the Bucs’ two starting guard vacancies, with the other still up for grabs with Aaron Stinnie, Robert Hainsey and Nick Leverett.
Here's a breakdown of every 2022 NFL free-agent signing by the Buccaneers, and how each will impact the upcoming season:
Fournette is re-signing on a three-year, $21 million deal, with incentives that could push it to $24 million and $11 million guaranteed.
What it means: Fournette was in the midst of a visit to the Patriots on Monday when general manager Jason Licht said, "We would love to have Leonard back." The deal makes Fournette the 11th highest-paid running back in the league, with the eighth-most guaranteed amount. That ranks right above Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon, whereas his average per year is right in line with what James Conner just received from the Arizona Cardinals, although Conner is getting $13.5 million guaranteed.
What's the risk: Fournette, who averaged a career-best 4.5 yards per carry last season, is a favorite for Brady, but this move will likely keep Fournette in Tampa longer than the seven-time Super Bowl winner, who has one year remaining on his contract. At 27, Fournette still has a few good years left before the typical decline happens at the position (usually around 31). But his high number of touches from when he was with the Jacksonville Jaguars could speed up that process. The Bucs have been mindful of his volume and have Ke'Shawn Vaughn to help. He missed seven games over the last two years with injuries, but his potential to help is evident -- like when he was tops in scrimmage yards in the 2020 playoffs during the Super Bowl run.
Giovani Bernard, RB
Bernard re-signed with the Bucs on a one-year deal worth $1.12 million, which is the veteran salary benefit (VSB), plus $152,500, a source told ESPN.
What it means: The Bucs now have their third-down running back for the 2022 season, giving quarterback Tom Brady a familiar target in the short passing game. However, this move doesn't necessarily preclude the Bucs from drafting a running back, as they've done quite a bit of homework on running backs in this year's draft class.
What's the risk: The signing is for the league minimum of a veteran with nine years of service, and the salary-cap hit comes just below $1.05 million, so there is very little risk involved. Bernard was placed on injured reserve with injuries to his hip and knee last year, forcing him to miss seven games, and he will turn 31 in November -- that's the age when a significant drop-off often occurs for running backs. He had not missed a regular-season game in three out of the four previous years though.
Logan Ryan, S
Exact terms are still being worked on, but it is an agreement for one year and is believed to be roughly around the veteran minimum.
What it means: The Bucs indicated to former safety Jordan Whitehead’s representatives at the NFL combine that they liked him and wanted him back, but they never extended an offer. This would help explain why. Ryan becomes the fifth former New England Patriots player to join Brady in Tampa, along with Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Ted Larsen and Shaq Mason (Gronkowski and Larsen are free agents now, and Brown was released after Week 17).
The Bucs actually wanted the 31-year-old two years ago as a free agent, and even had discussions with him about playing in Tampa (where he lives in the offseason), when Brady first arrived, but both sides weren't able to make a deal work, sources said. They get a veteran presence on the back end, similarly to the brief stint they got out of cornerback Richard Sherman when he was healthy. The next oldest defensive back in Tampa is Davis at 25.
What's the risk: There’s minimal financial risk in signing a player with Ryan’s experience to a one-year deal. But what will they be able to get out of him that precluded them from bringing back Whitehead, a player several members of the coaching were extremely high on, who provided a much-needed spark when Lavonte David was lost to a foot injury?
There’s no doubt Ryan’s in the twilight of his career. The former New York Giants safety is a smart player, but how much does he have left? He may just be serviceable at this point, but he's got some durability (he's missed just five games in his career), a plus for a defensive backfield ravaged by injuries last year.
Russell Gage, WR
Gage's deal will be for three years for $30 million, with $20 million being guaranteed.
What it means: The Bucs had a need at the third receiver spot after the dismissal of Brown that wasn't going to be filled with players on their current roster, and they struggled to get much production from the slot after Godwin's season-ending injury. Gage showed that he has some versatility last year, as well, and he caught 11-of-12 targets for a career-best 130 receiving yards against the Bucs in Week 13 last year.
What's the risk: A third receiver making $10 million per season is a lot, but he is capable of being a No. 2, if need be, and it’s for Brady. He also has been plagued by some drops. But he’s only missed four games in four seasons, so he’s durable, and he’s only 26 – he has yet to reach his ceiling. The knock on Gage in Atlanta was that he wasn't a No. 1 receiver, and Calvin Ridley's absence made that more apparent. But in a complementary role, he could excel.
Breshad Perriman, WR
The Bucs are bringing back Perriman on a one-year deal.
What it means: Perriman made arguably one of the most important plays of the season when he caught the game-winning 58-yard touchdown in the Bucs' 33-27 overtime win over the Buffalo Bills. His season ended prematurely with a hip/abdomen injury in Week 17, but he gave them six games and stepped in to try and help fill the void left when Brown suffered an ankle injury and was serving his three-game suspension. He will make the bulk of his contributions on the short to intermediate routes, and was particularly effective on third down. He wasn’t asked to do much vertically in Atlanta.
What's the risk: In 2019, when the Bucs lost both Evans and Godwin to hamstring injuries, and he produced three 100-yard games. The concern, though, with Perriman will always be injuries, which is why he's better suited to not be a No. 3 receiver, but he's more of a bonus piece. He's played a full season just once, but he did manage 14 games in 2019. However, this shouldn’t preclude the Bucs from drafting a wide receiver.
Carlton Davis, CB
Davis comes back on a three-year deal worth $45 million, with $30 million guaranteed and $2.5 million carved out for incentives and bonuses, a source told ESPN.
What it means: Some had argued for Davis to get the franchise tag at $17 million, and not Godwin, but cornerback J.C. Jackson set the market by signing a deal with the Los Angeles Chargers that averages $16.5 million per year — below the franchise tag amount — so there was no way Davis was going to get the $19 million per season some prognosticators had expected. Instead, he returns to Tampa on respectable deal that makes him the ninth-highest paid player per year at his position.
What's the risk: The Bucs made the right choice letting Davis test the market instead of Godwin, given the high prices on wide receiver deals versus cornerbacks. Christian Kirk, who has never had a 1,000-yard season in four years (Godwin has had two) will average $18 million per year with the Jacksonville Jaguars with incentives that can push it to $21 million per year. Only problem is — that’s only gonna push Godwin’s final deal, once he gets it, up.
Ryan Jensen, C
Jensen agreed to terms to return to the Bucs on a three-year deal worth $39 million, with $23 million guaranteed.
What it means: As soon as Brady notified the Bucs of his plans to return, he called Jensen up immediately. Jensen was set to hit the open market and could have commanded $15 million per year, but instead, chose to stay with Brady for $13 million per year on the eve of legal tampering. But Jensen's return means the loss of starting right guard Alex Cappa, who agreed to a four-year deal worth $40 million with the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday.
What's the risk: They got a Pro Bowl center and a favorite of Brady's below market cost. The Bucs knew they likely wouldn't be able to keep Jensen and Cappa, and they prioritized retaining the one who touches the ball most and who would give Brady the most comfort. Jensen's 30 and has been very durable for the Bucs, having not missed a game in four seasons, and he's cleaned up his penalty issues.
Stinnie agreed to terms on a one-year deal worth up to $2.5 million to remain in Tampa.
What it means: The Bucs lost offensive linemen Ali Marpet to retirement and Cappa to free agency, but they managed to re-sign Stinnie, who stepped in for Cappa when he broke his leg in the in the opening-round of the 2020 playoffs at Washington. Stinnie surrendered just one sack in four postseason games, with protecting the interior pocket critically important to Brady.
What's the risk: There is none. He provides a level of continuity that will be needed after losing both starting guards, with a chance to compete for one of two starting jobs. At worst, he'll provide quality depth.