TAMPA — The Bucs have 17 unrestricted free agents after going 9-7 in Dirk Koetter's first season, and the biggest decisions of the next two months will be in choosing which players Tampa Bay keeps before they hit the open market.
With positive momentum — improving from two wins in 2014 to six last year to just missing the playoffs — even the most coveted of the Bucs' free agents say they have personal interests in staying in Tampa.
"I love it here. I've been here four years of my life, built bonds. I love the fans, love all the coaching staffs I've had, love the guys upstairs," said defensive end Will Gholston, a 2013 draft pick who has played for three head coaches in his four seasons with the Bucs. "If I didn't come back, I'd be a little sad. It's still a business, and it's not really in my control. … Hopefully I don't have to go into free agency."
Gholston led all Bucs defensive linemen in tackles (49) and tackles for loss (nine), and the Bucs also have three backup defensive tackles — Akeem Spence, John Hughes and Sealver Siliga — who are unrestricted free agents.
"I try not to think about it and hope for the best — to think about not being locker-mates with Will, that's crazy. It's been a long four years, from us starting from scratch to getting (nine) wins," Spence said. "I absolutely love Tampa. I love this defense and I'd love to be here. But it's a business and everybody can't stay."
One player likely to leave is backup quarterback Mike Glennon, who has thrown for 4,100 yards and 30 touchdowns but barely played the past two seasons and could command a big contract from teams seeking a quarterback and not liking their options in the draft. Glennon could draw in excess of $13 million per year according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, which could help land the Bucs a compensatory draft pick in 2018.
With Doug Martin in a four-game suspension and his future uncertain, the Bucs may look to re-sign Jacquizz Rodgers, who stepped up as the team's leading rusher this season and is a year younger than Martin. Center Joe Hawley and backup tight end Brandon Myers are also free agents, as is special teams ace Josh Robinson. Both starting safeties for much of the year —Bradley McDougald and Chris Conte — are free agents, though Conte lost his job to Keith Tandy at the end of the season.
"I would love to be back here," said McDougald, who drew a second-round tender of $2.5 million as a restricted free agent last year, a good sign of the team's interest in keeping him. "This was the first team to give me a real opportunity. The way we jelled over these last three years, the relationships I've built with guys over four years is phenomenal. To know this team is on the rise, this is definitely somewhere I want to be."
Some Bucs free agents are deciding as much if they'll play in 2017 as where. Receiver Vincent Jackson, coming off a major knee injury, is 33; backup tackle Gosder Cherilus is 32; and linebacker Daryl Smith, relegated to a part-time role this season, is 34. Receiver Cecil Shorts and running back Antone Smith are coming off major injuries.
Receiver Russell Shepard, who has been a special teams standout and captain in Tampa, had just seven catches in his first three seasons with the Bucs but played a bigger role due to injuries, finishing with 23 catches for 341 yards and two touchdowns. He has seen the change in the Bucs' locker room and hopes to be a part of what's next.
"I'm definitely leaning, on a scale of 1 to 10, it's 9, 10, 11 I want to be here," the 26-year-old Shepard said. "It's a business, but whatever works best for both parties. I hope to be here and I know they want me here.
"When I came here, I feel like this organization was at one of its lows, from MRSA to replacing quarterbacks before the season even got going with Josh Freeman and other things. To see us go from an older team plagued with problems to a young team full of promise, I want to be the old guy on a young team. As young as I am, I feel this team is pretty young. I think this team from top to bottom is loaded with talent."
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (17): OT Gosder Cherilus, S Chris Conte, DE Will Gholston, QB Mike Glennon, C Joe Hawley, DT John Hughes, S Bradley McDougald, TE Brandon Myers, DB Josh Robinson, RB Jacquizz Rodgers, WR Cecil Shorts, WR Russell Shepard, DT Sealver Siliga, RB Antone Smith, LB Daryl Smith, DT Akeem Spence, WR Vincent Jackson.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (6): LS Andrew DePaola, LB Adarius Glanton, QB Ryan Griffin, WR Josh Huff, FB Austin Johnson, DE Jacquies Smith.