NFL free agency is quickly approaching. And there is perhaps no team about to experience a larger talent drain than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After bringing back every single starter from their Super Bowl team in 2020 the time has come for the Buccaneers to pay the piper.
Of course general manager Jason Licht will look to retain as many key pieces as possible. With that in mind decisions will have to be made on who is a foundational player for this franchise and who is expendable. The Buccaneers priorities will be obvious by the way they spend their money, but here’s how their free agents rank on my scale.
*Scale is a rank from 1-5. A “5” is “we’ve got to have him back and are basically willing to write a blank check”. A “1” is “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
Jordan Whitehead: 4/5
It has been a treat to watch this young Buccaneers secondary grow and develop together. Perhaps no one from this group has grown more than Whitehead. After being drafted in the 4th round in 2018, not much was expected from the young safety out of Pittsburgh. Fast-forward to now and Whitehead is one of the better box safeties in the NFL.
When it comes to physicality and toughness there might be no one better on the entire roster. However, Whitehead is much more than grit. He’s forced six turnovers over the last two seasons and combined for 147 tackles, including 14 for a loss, in that span. Need more proof of his importance? Whitehead has played more than 85% of the team’s defensive snaps every year since 2019.
Whitehead is a true tone setter for this team and a versatile box defender. He should be a very high priority for the Buccaneers.
Ronald Jones: 1.5/5
There is so much to like about Jones. He’s explosive with underrated strength and the necessary vision to thrive in this league. We saw this when he led the Bucs in rushing two years ago en route to a Super Bowl. As a pure ball carrier Jones is certainly someone the Buccaneers should want back. However, all signs point to that not being the case.
Jones’ lack of development in the passing game, both as a playmaker and a blocker, have sealed his fate in Tampa Bay. These skills are essential to what Bruce Arians wants to do on offense. Regardless of what the price tag is, I would be surprised if the Bucs had interest in bringing him back.
William Gholston: 3.5/5
There are a lot of questions about what this defensive line will look like in 2022. Ndamukong Suh and Steve McLendon are both free agents and each could retire in the coming months. Gholston might be the most logical option to bring back to play alongside Vita Vea.
At 30 years old, Gholston still has some gas left in the tank. Even better, he should be reasonably affordable to bring back. To get a solid veteran and avoid potentially replacing two starters on the defensive line is very appealing. The Buccaneers should be looking to bring Gholston back at the right price.
Ryan Jensen: 3.5/5
There is no question that Jensen is one of the most valuable free agents the Bucs have this year. He’s one of the best centers in the league and brings the mentality that every offensive lineman should have. If money were no object then he would be someone the Bucs would absolutely be bringing him back.
Unfortunately there is a salary cap and the Bucs can’t re-sign everyone. And with Jensen being a little older than the Buccaneers other top free agents it does take away some of the urgency to bring him back. If he is back then it’s money well spent, but don’t be surprised if Jensen plays elsewhere next year despite mutual interest.
Rob Gronkowski: 3/5
Gronkowski has been a fan and a Tom Brady favorite over the last two year. His pair of touchdown catches in the Super Bowl will live on in Bucs History forever. Despite all this, I can see the Bucs being just lukewarm on bringing Gronk back.
The future Hall of Fame tight end has already retired once and could do so again this offseason. His long term future, if he retires or not, isn’t something the Buccaneers can count on. And while Gronkowski has been productive here with Brady, the Bruce Arians offense has never featured tight ends. It seems likely that Gronk is much more of a want than a need for this offense.
O.J. Howard: 2/5
Much like with Gronkowski, Howard is not a featured part of the offense as a tight end. And despite being five years younger than Gronkowski there is also doubt about Howard’s long term future. Through his five years career Howard has not shown the ability to stay healthy.
The only way I see these two moving forward together is if neither finds a match. If it’s late in free agency and the Bucs need a tight end and Howard needs a team then a low risk deal makes sense.
Alex Cappa: 3/5
Cappa is a feel good story for the Buccaneers front office. Drafted out of a small school and developed into a very quality guard; this is the blueprint every team hopes for.
Cappa is incredibly tough and gritty. He’s smooth in pass protection and has the size to get hands on defensive tackles and control them. With Ryan Jensen possibly leaving in free agency, the Bucs won’t want ro replace two starters on the interior offensive line. The only issue will be price. The Buccaneers won’t be able to write Cappa a big check due to all their free agents to re-sign and Cappa has developed so well he might have played his way onto a new team.
Jason Pierre-Paul: 2/10
Not enough can be said about Pierre-Paul as a leader. He helped change the culture of this franchise and has been the veteran voice of this defensive front for the last four seasons. Throw in the fact that he’s a Florida guy and it makes a lot of sense that the Bucs would bring him back.
Here’s the problem. Pierre-Paul didn’t play well in 2021. A large part of that may have been due to an injury, but on the other hand he’s not going to get more durable at 33 years old. The Bucs also drafted his replacement 8n the first round last year in Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. It’s hard to transition from a fading veteran to a rising star and know when to let go when Pierre-Paul can still help this team as a backup.
Blaine Gabbert: 4/5
It’s almost painful for me to rank Gabbert this high. After all, I’ve already ranked several better players lower than this. However, there’s a realistic chance that Gabbert is more valuable to this team in 2022.
At this point it’s unclear who the Bucs quarterback will be this season. If the Bucs can’t acquire a high level free agent and they don’t want to draftva rookie then Gabbert has a real chance to win the starting job in Tampa Bay. If nothing else he’s got a lot of familiarity with the Buccaneers complex offense and can help whoever the quarterback is learn the ropes.
Leonard Fournette: 3/5
Fournette really had a very good season in 2021. After struggling two seasons ago when the Bucs brought him in, the former Jacksonville star looked like the guy people expected when he was drafted 4th overall in 2017. Licht would be foolish to nor want him back.
However, Fournette is 27 years old. This will probably be his last opportunity for a big contract. And with so many checks to write it seems unlikely that the Bucs want to be the team to give him that contract. If the price is right then this signing would make perfect sense. That’s a big “if” though.
Ndamukong Suh: 3/5
Suh has had such a decorated career. I don’t think anyone would be shocked if he retired this offseason and waited to be voted into the Hall of Fame. However, with the high level that he’s still playing at no one would be surprised if he returned to the Buccaneers either.
Suh is a big part of the Tampa Bay run defense that has been among the best over the last several years. If he were to leave the Bucs would have no one in line to replace him. If Suh is interested in playing this year then the Buccaneers should be trying to find the price point that works for them.
Chris Godwin: 4.5/5
Chris Godwin has been at the center of free agent conversation since he hit the market last year. He has been a focal point in Arians offense and has thrived the last three years since becoming a full time starter. After using the franchise tag on Godwin last year it’s time for the Bucs to pay that man his money.
Some have questioned how much Tampa Bay will be willing to pay a second wide receiver while they’re already paying Mike Evans a big contract. Others question how Godwin’s late season knee injury will impact his stock. Frankly, I don’t believe any of that matters. Godwin is a critical part of this offense and I expect to get his due.
Carlton Davis: 4.6 /5
Godwin gets most of the attention, but Davis is actually the team’s most important free agent. Both players are in that top 10-15 range at their respective positions. This comes down to a supply and demand issue and it’s harder to replace Davis than it is Godwin.
The big body corner has taken steps forward every year after being drafted 63rd overall in 2018. He has established himself as one of the best in the business by consistently shutting down guys like Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Kenny Golladay, and Allen Robinson. Davis is the best player in the Buccaneers secondary and he’s simply irreplaceable at this point. Expect him to be paid like a top corner in the league, both because he deserves it and the Buccaneers have no other choice if they want to be able to defend the pass in 2022.
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