We’re inching closer to the start of the league year and free agency, which begins on March 15. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers currently sit at a staggering $56.5 million over the cap (per OverTheCap.com). Jason Licht and his team of master capologists will have to do yeoman’s work to try to keep their core together for another run at the NFC South title and beyond in year one of the post-Brady world.
So what areas are of the biggest concern for the Bucs’ brass to address once mid-March arrives?
5. Running Back
There might be bigger areas to address (i.e, edge), but the running back position is one that could have to be addressed this offseason, and there’s no doubt this team is looking to greatly improve the running game. And that’s largely because of Leonard Fournette. Playoff Lenny carries a cap hit of $8.47 million and a dead cap number of $5 million. Accordingly, he very well could be a candidate to get released for much needed cap savings. If he does, that would leave a promising Rachaad White on the roster with Ke’Shawn Vaughn, and that’s it. Giovani Bernard is set to become an unrestricted agent and seems unlikely to return. As such, the Bucs would have to add a veteran or someone in the draft.
If Fournette ends up re-working his deal and stays in town, then sub in EDGE here for running back. I just think there’s a significant chance Fournette isn’t back next season, which would create a need to act.
4. Defensive Line
On the surface, this doesn’t really seem as much of a concern as other areas, but when you dig into it, this group could look REALLY different after March. Of the seven players on the roster, five are set to become free agents. Only Vita Vea and Logan Hall are sure to return. Yikes.
It won’t take all that much to keep some depth, such as Pat O’Connor and Rakeem Nunez-Roches, but Akiem Hicks probably made himself some money this year with his solid level of play when healthy. William Gholston signed a one year $4.5 million deal a year ago, so you’re talking about needing something comparable this year. So Jason Licht will have his work cut out with this group just to try to maintain the status quo from a year ago. Finding some veterans for a team friendly deal will be key in the event either or both of Hicks and Gholston seek greener pastures.
Few players stood out in a positive way more in 2022 than Jamel Dean. The Auburn product is set to test the free agency waters and should receive significant interest from plenty of teams around the league. The only way to stop that from happening is to work out a long-term deal or place the franchise tag on him. The tag would cost $18,140,000 in 2023, which is a number this team will have a hard time making work with their cap troubles.
Sean Murphy-Bunting fought a nagging quad injury last season, but was still effective when on the field, allowing just a 37.5 percent completion rate across 411 defensive snaps. He will also field significant interest around the league, but he would likely be a significantly cheaper option to retain than Dean.
In any event, it seems unlikely the Bucs retain both, and there’s a possibility both test the market and price themselves out of the Bucs’ range. As such, with distinct uncertainty surrounding two key members of the group, the cornerback position remains one to watch entering free agency.
I know, I know. This is the one everyone’s talking about (and understandably so). Is it Kyle Trask? Which veteran should be brought in to compete for the starting job? Jacoby Brissett? Taylor Heinicke? Jimmy Garoppolo? Bucs Twitter is pretty fiercely divided on the topic. With Blaine Gabbert set to become a free agent, Trask would be the only QB on the roster, and there’s obviously mass uncertainty as to which veteran(s) will be brought in. Or whether the Bucs will spend a draft pick on a signal caller (hello, Hendon Hooker).
So why isn’t this glaring area of need at the game’s most important position number one?
1. Interior Offensive Line
Because I’m that worried about the interior of the Bucs’ offensive line. The teams the Bucs are trying to catch in the NFC – the Niners and Eagles – are extremely physical in the running game with big and powerful offensive lines. Then, on the other hand, you have the Bucs. This team was historically bad running the ball, and it started up front.
Shaq Mason is entering the last year of his contract. If the Bucs cut him, they could save $5.2 million against the cap. So will they rework a deal? Will he become a cap casualty? Or will he play on his deal and then become an unrestricted free agent next year? Tough to say, but either way, it would behoove the Bucs to start planning for a future option absent an extension this offseason.
Ryan Jensen is pretty much guaranteed to be on the roster absent a trade, as he has a $15 million cap number and a $19 million dead cap figure. His return was welcomed, but will there be any limitations from that devastating knee injury that sidelined him for over five months? Hard to say for certain, as he’s only logged one game since the injury (although he seemed fine). Hopefully there are none, and if he’s 100%, his nasty, physical attitude should help add some toughness to the group. Robert Hainsey acquitted himself pretty well at center in Jensen’s absence, especially in pass protection, where he did not allow a sack and was flagged just twice in 1175 snaps.
The biggest question remains at left guard. Nick Leverett is an exclusive rights free agent. The Bucs can retain him by simply offering him a one-year deal at the league minimum. That’s a VERY cheap way to fill a roster spot with a decent player. Aaron Stinnie is set to become an unrestricted free agent and could likely be brought back for cheap, but he’s also coming off tears of both his ACL and MCL, so there may be questions about his ability to step in and be effective, or even ready, by the time the season starts. The question is: even if they’re cheap, is either option good enough to help this team improve drastically on the ground? Seems hard to say yes to that.
As such, there are a ton of short and long-term questions with this positional group that warrants looking into free agent options and draft prospects. If it was me, and the grade was right, a guard would be squarely on my radar when the Bucs pick at 19 or 50 overall in this year’s draft.
Honorable Mention: Edge, Inside Linebacker, Offensive Tackle
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