TAMPA, Fla. -- With quarterback Tom Brady announcing his return on Sunday and wide receiver Chris Godwin getting the franchise tag right before Tuesday's deadline, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ focus now shifts to free agency, with legal tampering kicking off Monday.
Running back Leonard Fournette is a head-scratcher but has a better chance of coming back now that Brady is in the mix. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul could depart because of age and cost. Players who are expected to walk include running back Ronald Jones II, tight end O.J. Howard and cornerback Richard Sherman, among others.
Re-signing their own is a priority, but re-signing everyone won't be possible the way it was last year because of limited salary-cap space. Here’s a close look at whom they could bring back, and how much it will cost, as well as who's on the bubble.
Chris Godwin, wide receiver
The Bucs placed the franchise tag on Godwin for the second straight year, worth $19.18 million, because they weren’t able to reach an agreement on a long-term deal. But it’s still possible a long-term deal gets done before the start of free agency on Wednesday to lower Godwin’s salary-cap hit. They’re negotiating, and a multiyear deal would give them more flexibility in free agency, lowering his cap charge by spreading out the signing bonus or guaranteed money, which could allow the Bucs to bring back one or two more players.
They have until July 15 to strike a deal before he officially plays under the tag in 2022. Sources close to the situation say Godwin wants a three-year deal so he can reach free agency again at age 29. He shares the same agent -- Tory Dandy -- as the Los Angeles Chargers' Mike Williams, who was just rewarded with a three-year contract worth $60 million with $40 million guaranteed (their playing styles are different, but he’s one year older than Godwin, so it’s a good comparison, although having no state income tax in Florida could be a factor).
Carlton Davis, cornerback
The Bucs opted not to place the franchise tag on Davis in favor of Godwin, but he could command $17 million per year, which would be fifth highest of any cornerback in the league. Some projections have him garnering even more, but he’s also in a free-agent class along with J.C. Jackson (who will likely set the market), Stephon Gilmore, Casey Hayward, Darious Williams and Charvarius Ward.
There are reasons he could get less. He played only 10 games last season because of a quad injury. He has improved with his ball skills, but he has never had more than four interceptions in a season, which has kept him out of the discussion of the NFL’s elite corners. The feeling about Davis from inside the Bucs organization is that he’s a really good cornerback when he’s healthy, but he has missed 14 games in four seasons.
Jordan Whitehead, safety
The Bucs conveyed they want Whitehead back. While the bulk of his best work has happened in the box and in making plays behind the line of scrimmage -- and the Bucs love interchangeability at the position -- he has shown he can cover downfield, and he provided an important spark on defense when inside linebacker Lavonte David went down with a foot sprain.
How much could Whitehead command? That’s another tricky one to project given the depth of this year's free-agent defensive back pool. The Cincinnati Bengals' Vonn Bell would be somewhat of a reasonable comparison in terms of skill set. He inked a three-year deal for $18 million, but that contract was signed in 2020. Whitehead could command about $7 million to $8 million per year.
Ryan Jensen, center
The Bucs love the toughness and edge Jensen, 31, brought to the offensive line when he signed a four-year, $42 million deal with $22 million guaranteed in 2018. He’s coming off a Pro Bowl season in 2021, and he’s one of the top offensive linemen in this year’s class of free agents. The Bucs have conveyed to him that they want him to return to Tampa, and he has expressed a desire to do so. He could garner anywhere from $10 million to $13.5 million per year, depending on what the competition for his services looks like, but he was already the fifth-highest paid center in the league last year.
Alex Cappa, right guard
Prior to Ali Marpet’s retirement, many felt Cappa would be the odd man out, with only so many mouths to feed and limited spending options. But the Bucs are trying to keep as much continuity as possible along the offensive line, trying to fill one hole versus two, which they could do if Cappa returns and Aaron Stinnie, who stepped in for Cappa after he broke his leg in 2020 in the Bucs' first playoff game, fills one of the other guard spots.
Cappa was named a Pro Bowl alternate last season. The year prior, he earned the NFL’s highest performance bonus of $622,056 on top of his then-$750,000 salary. He could get between $9 million and $10 million annually, which would put him around fifth in the league for highest-paid right guard.
Leonard Fournette, running back
After his "Playoff Lenny, Lombardi Lenny" postseason performance in 2020, Fournette took over the starting running back role in 2021. He suffered a hamstring injury that ended his regular season in Week 15, forcing him to miss the playoff opener, but he returned for the Bucs' divisional game against the Los Angeles Rams.
His past two contracts with the Bucs have been one-year deals, with his last one worth $3.25 million -- making the ninth-highest paid among free-agent running backs -- and in 2020, $2.5 million. But he could be looking for closer to $7 million per season, a number only two free-agent running backs exceeded last year.
The Bucs have been happy with Fournette, but the feeling from some inside the organization is they also need some game-breaking speed, and that position does have one of the shortest shelf lives in the NFL. Still, he's coming off a season in which he averaged 4.5 yards per carry -- fourth among backs in this free-agent class, while his 1,266 scrimmage yards in 14 regular-season games was the most among all free-agent running backs. The Bucs would also like him to keep his weight down, as he played at 240 last year, about 10 pounds over his goal weight.
Ndamukong Suh, defensive tackle
At 35, Suh has been remarkably durable and played a key role in helping defensive tackle Vita Vea keep his weight down in order to return from a broken leg in time for the 2020 NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LV after being on injured reserve. But he would have to take a significant pay cut from the $9 million he earned last year to return (he has averaged $13.9 million per year throughout his career). The Bucs have also needed to get younger along their defensive line for the past two years.
William Gholston, defensive end
Gholston has been a late bloomer, playing some of his best ball of his career in defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' 3-4 defense at age 31. Gholston loves Tampa, and he made $5.5 million last season -- the last year of a five-year deal worth $27.5 million. He had 4.5 sacks last year and 7.5 over the past two seasons, and he produced a 42.9% run stop win rate in 2021 -- 15th best in the league among defensive ends.
He would likely need to take a pay cut though, to somewhere in the range of $3.5 million a year.
Jason Pierre-Paul, outside linebacker
Pierre-Paul is coming off shoulder surgery for a torn rotator cuff that hampered him all season. He also has dealt with knee issues the past few years.
He turned 33 in January, and first-round draft pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka stepped in and had some strong moments in Pierre-Paul's absence last year, as did Anthony Nelson serving in a rotational role. Tryon-Shoyinka's still learning to put it together, and Pierre-Paul is an excellent teacher, but he averaged $12.5 million on his last deal. That number would have to come down. He had 9.5 sacks during the regular season in 2020 but just 2.5 last year.