We are just a couple of weeks away from the start of free agency, so things are about to start heating up in terms of rumors, speculation, and cuts. It’s a wild time for the NFL and its fans -unless you’re a Saints or Eagles fan this year- due to the sheer uncertainty of it all. Will your favorite player become a cap casualty? Is it possible to bring in some big names? How can your team find that diamond-in-the-rough a la the Buccaneers and Shaquil Barrett in 2019?
For every question, there is an answer in the form of an available player. The Bucs have a ton of their own free agents to sign, which should be their priority this year. But what if they can’t bring everyone back?
It’s always good to have a backup plan. The following three players should provide a safety net in case Tampa Bay can’t bring back all of their guys.
RB Duke Johnson Jr.
The Buccaneers are going to need to find a reliable No. 2 running back for the 2021 season, even if Ronald Jones II was just 22 yards away from a 1,000 yard season on the ground. Jones has shown that he is more than capable of handling a big workload, but he took a step back in the receiving game last year. Tampa Bay currently has three running backs on the roster (including Jones), but Ke’Shawn Vaughn and C.J. Prosise are relatively unknown commodities.
Johnson is one of the league’s best receiving backs. He would come in and immediately upgrade the running back room in terms of receiving ability. Price shouldn’t be too big of an issue, either. Johnson’s base salary was $3.6 million in 2020, so anything between $2-$3 million seems reasonable. Especially when you throw in the fact that he’s coming off his least productive year as a pro.
But don’t let his 2020 numbers fool you. Johnson still has the ability to make big plays through the ground and the air, even if the former isn’t his strong suit.
He’s one of the those backs that can do it all in the passing game. Just check out the play below against the Lions. Johnson (No. 25) is lined up at receiver at the bottom of the screen. He easily blows by his assignment for the touchdown.
The dude looks like an actual receiver on this play.
We all know how much the Bucs love a good screen game. As it turns out, Johnson does too. He motions out of the backfield and lines up on what looks to be the strong side of the formation (not certain due to the wonderful angle of Chicago’s All-22 team), and takes the screen pass 38-yards downfield before Eddie Jackson tracks him down.
Johnson does a great job of finding space, making defenders miss, and he has the acceleration to pull away from the Bears defenders. Except Jackson, of course.
And even though running isn’t his best ability, look what happens when the offensive line actually does its job. This is one of the few good reps from the Texans offensive line in 2020. Johnson finds the hole and quickly hits it for the big gain.
Just in case you didn’t know: The Buccaneers have a really, really good offensive line. That should really help Johnson and the ground game.
The former Brown and Texan is also a solid option in pass protection, as well. He’s shown that he can pick up/identify the correct rusher and keep his quarterback upright on a consistent basis, which is one of the most important traits for a running back.
The con with Johnson is predictability. He’s not as efficient on the ground as he is through the air and that will tip Tampa Bay’s hand when it comes to offensive playcalling. Johnson has just one season with 100+ carries and that was his rookie year. When he’s on the field, defenses are going to assume pass and they’ll be correct for the most part. That was the best part about having Leonard Fournette on the roster in 2020. Defenses never knew what was coming when he was on the field because he is a dual threat. But that’s also the luxury with having a former top-5 pick on your roster.
There’s also another perfectly viable candidate in James White, who has been discussed at length amongst Tampa Bay circles. Don’t get me wrong, White is a great option, but he is a year older (29-years-old to Johnson’s 28 when the season starts) and there are rumors that he’s interested in the Packers.
You can also draft a running back that will likely be cheaper than Johnson, but there’s still the question of how impactful said rookie will turn out to be. Sometimes signing a veteran is the better deal.
TE Tyler Kroft
Right now, the Buccaneers have a little over $12 million invested in the tight end position and it will be even higher if Rob Gronkowski comes back.
The tricky part is that Bruce Arians’ offense doesn’t really feature tight ends, yet the position was integral to last year’s Super Bowl run. Gronk played a key blocking role all year and caught two touchdowns in the big game. Cameron Brate led the team in receiving yards through the first three games of the playoffs. Don’t forget O.J. Howard. He looked like he was really coming on before injuring his achilles during the Chargers game.
Brate and Howard are important players, but I’m not sure if they warrant $6 million each in 2021. The hope is that Brate will restructure like he did last year. The Bucs could extend Howard, but that’s awfully risky considering he’s yet to play a full season in the NFL.
The key here is that the Buccaneers won’t face any dead money penalties if either player is released. That extra $6 million -or $12 million if both were to be released- can go a long way in helping bring back other key guys.
What if the Bucs were to let Brate and/or Howard go? Is it possible to replace them through free agency?
There are a few names out there, but the one that stands out for Tampa Bay is Tyler Kroft. The sixth-year tight end caught 42 passes for 404 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017, but injuries limited the former Bengal and Bill to just 16 games over the next two seasons. 2020 was a mixed bag as Kroft caught the most touchdown passes in three seasons, but finished the year as a healthy scratch.
Despite the limited availability, Kroft still made his presence felt in Buffalo. Greg Tompsett of the popular Bills website Cover1.net was kind of enough to give me a quick scouting report on Kroft:
“I was honestly a big fan of Kroft’s. He was consistently solid when he played but just couldn’t catch a break health-wise. Willing blocker, slightly above average. Consistent hands, but not going to create with the ball in his hands. [He’s a] good TE2 if he could stay healthy.”
And if you need some film to see what Tompsett is talking about, check out this nice breakdown from Buffalo Rumblings, SB Nation’s Buffalo Bills blog. The 6-foot-6 252-pound veteran could be a nice fit for this offense.
The price shouldn’t be bad, either. Kroft signed a three-year, $18.75 million deal with the Bills back in 2018, but the inconsistency should lower his value. A maximum of $4 million per year seems reasonable and even that would be a stretch. At the same time, however, if Kroft’s price tag is around that number, one would figure the Buccaneers could get Brate to come down that much, as well. The latter would be the preferred route if it were to happen, but that’s the key: It has to happen, first.
There’s also a risk with Kroft. He hasn’t played a full season since 2017 due to injury and whatever caused him to get shelved last year. Tampa Bay will have to weigh that part of the equation carefully.
Tampa Bay has some big decisions to make, but it also has plenty of options.
Will Kroft be one of those options?
WR Kendrick Bourne
The Buccaneers are going to do everything they can to make sure that Chris Godwin doesn’t leave Tampa Bay, but like Arians said, “dollars talk”. Smart, forward-thinking would mean a contingency plan is in place if Godwin does in fact exit stage left.
Bourne has the chance to be a solid alternative to Godwin. Granted, he’s not Godwin. No one is. But Bourne would help ease the pain of the potential loss.
The fifth-year pro is coming off a career year that featured 49 receptions for 667 yards and two touchdowns. Bourne isn’t a burner by any means, but he has good size at 6-foot-1, 203-pounds, is a good route runner, and is very good at creating after the catch.
Per Next Gen Stats, Bourne averaged 1.1 yards after the catch over expectation last year, which is a better mark than Godwin’s 0.7. It’s even better than teammate Brandon Aiyuk, who is well-known for what he can do with the ball in his hands.
The Buccaneers like to move Godwin around, but he mostly plays in the slot. Per Pro Football Focus, Bourne played a career-high 280 snaps out of the slot for the 49ers in 2020. He made it count too, recording 31 receptions for 410 yards and a touchdown from the position, per Sports Info Solutions. Per SIS, 22 of those 31 receptions went for a first down and his mark of .68 EPA/target is highest out of all the receivers with at least 42 slot targets in 2020.
But we all know that Godwin means more than just routes, targets, and receptions. He does a lot of dirty work for the Bucs in terms of run blocking. Bourne is no stranger to this, as he hails from a Kyle Shanahan offense where everyone blocks. His average grade of 61.0 in run blocking is indicative of his impact in the run game and there’s film to support it.
The 49ers have a little over $12.5 million in cap room, so it will be tough to bring Bourne back, but he’s indicated that the 9ers want him to stick around. We hear this all the time during the offseason, however, so take that with a grain of salt. Bourne made a little over $3.25 million in 2020. Therefore, his tag could climb as high as $8 million per year. That’s not cheap. It’d be significantly less than the $16 million AAV or the $15.7 million franchise tag that would apply to Godwin, however.
There’s also the conversation about learning the offense. Arians’ offense is notorious for miscommunication between quarterbacks and wide receivers in their first year together. We have seen this throughout both years of Arians’ tenure thus far. How long would it take Bourne to adapt to the point where he can thrive with the Buccaneers?
No one wants to see Godwin leave, but if he does, Bourne has the potential to help fill the void in a big way.
I mean, he even said that he was pulling for Brady and the Buccaneers during Super Bowl LV. How could he not be a perfect fit for this team?