NFL free agency doesn’t officially begin until next week, but there’s already pressure on Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht to make a move.
When ESPN reported last week that the Dolphins had agreed to trade draft picks to the Rams for defensive end Robert Quinn, the news didn’t sit well with some Bucs fans. If all Miami had to do was trade a fourth-rounder and swap sixth-rounders, how come Tampa Bay, which needs pass-rush help more than any other team, couldn’t find a way to land Quinn? He’s a former All-Pro, has recorded 62.5 sacks in his career and is only 27. What’s there to think about?
Even Gerald McCoy weighed in on the nonmove, tweeting, “Welp there goes Robert Quinn.”
So what now?
You have a few options.
• Embrace your inner nihilist. Realize that rooting for the Bucs is pointless. They are doomed, and so are you.
• Jump on Twitter and demand that the Bucs give you a defensive end and that they give you one now. If they don’t comply, vow that the thunder of your vengeance will echo throughout Tampa Bay like the gust of a thousand winds.
• Or simply take a deep breath.
This isn’t some catastrophic Bucs blunder. This isn’t Booker Reese. Or Bo Jackson. Or Greg Schiano. Or MRSA. Or a kicker in the second round. Not even close.
It’s patience. It’s waiting for a day, like Monday, when there are more options.
We’ll examine those options in a moment. First, let’s dive deeper into why Quinn will be playing in Miami next season and not Tampa Bay.
• The Dolphins paid a steep price. This trade is a clear win for the Rams. They not only shed an expensive salary but also got a fourth-round pick for a player that they felt was no longer a scheme fit. You would have thought Los Angeles lacked the leverage to get this kind of return for a player teams knew it didn’t want. It’s like Miami walked onto a used car lot, found a Camry with 100,000 miles on it and offered to pay more than sticker price.
• The Dolphins will continue to pay a steep price. Quinn is due to make more than $24 million over the next two seasons. They’re going to be paying him like a No. 1 defensive end even though there’s reason to think he won’t produce like one.
• Quinn’s injury history makes him a serious risk. From 2011 to 2014, he played in all but one of the Rams’ games. In the three seasons since, he has missed 16 games because of back, shoulder and head injuries. Those expecting double-digit sacks in his eighth season might be disappointed. Thirty-seven defensive linemen have recorded at least 10 sacks in their eighth season. None of them missed as many games in their previous three seasons as Quinn has.
• Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips knows what he’s doing. Quinn had some success last season in his transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, tallying 8.5 sacks. He struggled against the run, however, and that’s an area in which the Rams — and the Bucs — need to improve in 2018. If Phillips, one of the most respected defensive minds in football, felt he needed Quinn, he wouldn’t be going anywhere.
• The Dolphins don’t know what they’re doing. What have they done in the past two decades, other than draft Jason Taylor, that made you think, “Yeah, this organization has it figured out”? They signed Jay Cutler last season and were disappointed when all they got was Jay Cutler. They slapped the franchise tag on Jarvis Landry last month; now they don’t want him. On Monday, their owner said, “All of our players will be standing” during the national anthem this season; on Tuesday, he said, “I have no intention of forcing our players to stand during the anthem.” They’ll start regretting the Quinn trade any second now.
In Quinn, Miami has an expensive one-dimensional defensive end whose best days are likely behind him. Here’s what Tampa Bay has: flexibility. The Dolphins are over the salary cap and will have to trim their payroll. The Bucs have more than $70 million in space, plus eight draft picks.
If Tampa Bay doesn’t do anything of significance by the end of the next week, then it might be time to march to the gates of One Buc Place. Until then, though, we can ponder what Licht and his staff might do with the resources that they would have devoted to Quinn. Their cap space could shrink quickly. Here are a few possibilities:
• Negotiate extensions. Mike Evans, Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet and Kwon Alexander are all eligible to become free agents in 2019.
• Monitor the Vinny Curry situation. The NFL Network reported recently that the Super Bowl champion Eagles, who are over the salary cap, are trying to lower the defensive end’s 2018 cap charge, which at the moment is $11 million. If Curry becomes available, either via trade or release, the Bucs should pursue him. While he didn’t record as many sacks as Quinn, he was more disruptive. He and Robert Ayers each had 17 quarterback hits last season, second to only Trey Flowers of the Patriots, who had 18. Curry also was stout against the run. The only downside is that he turns 30 in June.
• Add at least two defensive ends in free agency. When teams find a quality pass rusher, they don’t let him go. The ones that hit the trade block or the open market usually have flaws. That’s especially true of this year’s class. You can talk yourself out of any of them. Former Bucs first-round pick Adrian Clayborn was roughly as disruptive as Curry ... but most of his production came in one game (six sacks and 11 pressures in the Falcons’ Week 10 win over the Cowboys). Alex Okafor had a breakout season for the Saints ... but he tore his Achilles in Week 11. Trent Murphy is set to leave Washington ... but he didn’t play last season after tearing his ACL during training camp. William Hayes was effective in limited snaps for the Dolphins ... but he doesn’t believe dinosaurs existed. Licht isn’t going to find a savior, so the best course might be to build a rotation that keeps linemen from wearing down.
• Add at least two cornerbacks in free agency. The Bucs have five cornerbacks under contract for 2018: Vernon Hargreaves, Ryan Smith, Josh Robinson, Maurice Fleming and David Rivers. That group started a total of 17 games last season. The Bucs have said they’d like to bring back 34-year-old Brent Grimes, but at what price? They could try to make a splash by signing Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler. Bashaud Breeland and Kyle Fuller might not move merchandise like Johnson or Butler, but they turned in comparable performances last season. No matter who suits up here, the pass coverage will be only as good as the pass rush.
• Rebuild the ground game. This starts up front, where the Bucs might need as many as two starting-caliber guards, depending upon whether they bring back J.R. Sweezy. The top name on the market will be Andrew Norwell, but his rumored destination is the Giants, where he’d reunite with Dave Gettleman, the general manager who drafted him in 2014. Josh Sitton will be another popular target. He’s about five years older than Norwell but still would be an instant upgrade in pass protection and run blocking.
As far as running backs, I’m expecting the Bucs to prioritize versatility. That would take them out of the bidding for Carlos Hyde, an above-average runner but a poor receiver and pass blocker. Dion Lewis, Jerick McKinnon and Rex Burkhead are better fits. They’re multidimensional backs who can create matchup problems for defenses. If the Bucs were to sign one, it wouldn’t preclude them from drafting a back in April. Rashaad Penny and Nick Chubb are possibilities in later rounds.
• Shop the fourth-round pick. The reason why it’s so important that the Bucs didn’t part with their fourth-round pick (No. 108 overall) in a deal for Quinn is that it could come in handy during the draft, just not in a way that’s immediately obvious. Yes, it’s possible to score a key contributor in this round — as the Bucs did with Kwon Alexander in 2015 — but it’s rare. The real value of a fourth-round pick, at least under Licht, is that it’s a useful bargaining chip. In each of the past three drafts, he has traded one to move up the board (he didn’t have a fourth-round pick in 2014). Fourth-round pick maneuvering helped him land Marpet in 2015, Roberto Aguayo in 2016 (whoops) and Kendall Beckwith in 2017.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.