Change is coming to Tampa Bay.
In short order, we’ll find out whether that will be a MRSA-level house cleaning at One Buccaneer Place or action tantamount to a furious old man yelling into the wind.
The direction the Bucs take depends largely on whether ownership retains general manager Jason Licht and coach Dirk Koetter. We’ll discuss that plenty over the next few days and weeks, but in the meantime, let’s address some of the things that are more knowable — things like the salary cap, free agency and the NFL draft.
What does the Bucs’ salary cap situation look like?
The short answer is that it’s not bad. The longer answer is that it depends on where ownership and front office personnel plot this team on the contender-pretender continuum.
The standings don’t present a compelling case that the Bucs are about to join the NFL’s elite, but the organization easily could convince itself that coaching — and not a lack of talent — is to blame for the team’s lack of progress. If that’s the view, Tampa Bay is not flush in cap space and will have to make some tough decisions.
If the organization believes the team missed its window for championship contention and wants to embark on a rebuild, it has a lot of flexibility. My sense is that with Jameis Winston likely to return in 2019, the final year of his contract, the powers that be will want to see whether they can wring a playoff team out of this roster. Though that’s the more optimistic approach, it’s probably not realistic.
The NFL salary cap is expected to increase to between $187 million and $191 million in 2019. As of now, the Bucs have $176 million in commitments, leaving them with about $15 million to spend, and that’s assuming they allow linebacker Kwon Alexander, receiver Adam Humphries and left tackle Donovan Smith to test free agency.
Below is a list of players Tampa Bay, in theory, could release or trade to gain some cap space. Potential savings for 2019 are in parentheses.
Offense: QB Jameis Winston ($20.9 million), WR DeSean Jackson ($10 million), TE Cameron Brate ($7 million), RT Demar Dotson ($4.9 million), C/G Evan Smith ($2 million)
Defense: DE Jason Pierre-Paul ($14.5 million), DT Gerald McCoy ($13 million), LB Lavonte David ($9.8 million), DE Vinny Curry ($8 million), DT Beau Allen ($5 million), DE William Gholston ($3.8 million), DT Mitch Unrein ($3.8 million), DE Noah Spence ($1.3 million)
Special teams: P Bryan Anger ($3 million)
That might seem like a lot of potential savings, but the Bucs don’t have much depth. That means that whatever Tampa Bay could save by tearing up these contracts would be offset by the cost of signing replacements.
Again, the above is a list of players the Bucs could release or trade, not players they will release or trade. Take Winston, for example. He will get a $13 million raise, meaning that Tampa Bay will have $13 million less to spend than it used to. From a football perspective, the decision to keep Winston comes down to this question: Is he one of the top 17 quarterbacks in the NFL? If he is, he’s worth keeping because he’s outperforming his contract. His 2019 cap charge is the 18th largest among quarterbacks.
Jackson will be gone the moment the last second ticks off the game clock Sunday. Dotson, Evan Smith, Curry, Allen, Gholston, Unrein and Spence also are candidates for outright release.
After just one season, Pierre-Paul, who turns 30 on New Year’s Day, could be on the move as well. In March, the Bucs gave the Giants a third-round draft pick for the privilege of adding the defensive end’s hefty contract to the payroll. This March, the Bucs will be in a similar position to the Giants, except with an older and more expensive Pierre-Paul.
McCoy, 30, will be an interesting name to watch if Tampa Bay bumps against the cap. Could the highly regarded defensive tackle fetch a midround pick from a team that feels it’s on the cusp of contention?
Who are some potential free agents the Bucs could pursue?
Key dates: March 11 to 13: Teams can begin contract negotiations with prospective free agents; March 13: The 2019 league year opens and free agency begins at 4 p.m.
Let’s cross one name off the wish list right away: Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers running back who sat out the season rather than play under the franchise tag, which would have paid him $14.5 million. While the Bucs have a need for a pass catching running back, they can’t afford to allocate a chunk of their 2019 cap dollars to the position. They have too many holes, particularly at defensive end and cornerback (again). Some less expensive alternatives: Tevin Coleman (Falcons), Bilal Powell (Jets), Spencer Ware (Chiefs) and T.J. Yeldon (Jaguars).
Edge rushers: Ezekiel Ansah, Lions; Frank Clark, Seahawks; Jadeveon Clowney, Texans; Dee Ford, Chiefs; Brandon Graham, Eagles; DeMarcus Lawrence, Cowboys
After Ansah recorded a team-high 12 sacks last season, the Lions kept him out of the free agency pool by slapping a $17.1 million franchise tag on him. He has played in just seven games this season, so he’s likely on his way out. … Clark has recorded six more sacks than Lawrence over the past three seasons (31 to 25) but comes with baggage. In 2014, during his senior season at Michigan, his girlfriend said he punched her in the face. … Though overshadowed by teammate J.J. Watt, Clowney, who has recorded nine sacks and 11 quarterback hits this season, would be in high demand if he reached the market. The Texans likely will prevent that and franchise tag him. … Ford’s 75 pressures lead all edge rushers … Graham forced the Tom Brady fumble that essentially clinched the Eagles’ Super Bowl LII victory. He’s the oldest edge rusher (30) in this group. … Lawrence has followed up his stellar 2017 campaign (14.5 sacks and 12 hits) by posting 9.5 sacks and 11 hits. Only 26, he’s a prime candidate for a long-term extension.
Cornerbacks: Bryce Callahan, Bears; Ronald Darby, Eagles; Kareem Jackson, Texans
Callahan was enjoying a breakout season before he suffered a broken foot during the Bears’ Week 14 win over the Rams. He allowed 0.72 receiving yards per coverage snap. … A reunion between Winston and Darby, teammates at Florida State, probably is a nonstarter for the Bucs. … Jackson hasn’t allowed a receiver to catch a touchdown pass this season. Quarterbacks have a 77.0 rating when throwing into his coverage.
What are the Bucs’ options in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft?
Key dates: April 25: First round; April 26: Second and third rounds; April 27: Fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds
Depending on how Sunday shakes out, the Bucs could land a pick as high as No. 4 and as low as No. 10. The difference between the two is significant — the No. 4 pick is 30 percent more valuable, according to Football Perspective’s draft pick value chart. If a team drafting 10th wanted to swap spots with the team drafting fourth, it’d be entirely reasonable for the team drafting fourth to ask for a future first-round pick as part of the compensation package.
We’re still months away from the draft, but it seems as if the top is aligning with the Bucs’ greatest positional needs. Tampa Bay should be able to add a blue-chip cornerback or offensive tackle. The Bucs would be happy to add a defensive end, but it’s highly unlikely that the best edge rushers — Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Kentucky’s Josh Allen — will be on the board by the time it’s their turn to pick.
Edge rushers: Josh Allen, Kentucky; Nick Bosa, Ohio State; Brian Burns, Florida State; Clelin Ferrell, Clemson; Rashan Gary, Michigan
Assuming Allen and Bosa are top-three picks, Ferrell could be in play. The Clemson defensive end probably could have been a first-round pick last year. A 10.5-sack campaign has vaulted him into top-five consideration. … This draft’s candidate for Player Most Likely to Be Incessantly Pushed by Florida State Homers: Burns. … Gary has the speed to be an edge rusher, but some scouts view him as a better fit on the interior of a defensive line.
Offensive tackles: Greg Little, Ole Miss; Dalton Risner, Kansas State; Jonah Williams, Alabama
At 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, Little has the ideal size for a team look for an anchor on the left side of the offensive line … Risner hasn’t received much hype, but he started three seasons at right tackle for Kansas State. … Williams is the top prospect in this class and should be a starter from Day 1 in the NFL. He didn’t allow a sack this season.
Cornerbacks: DeAndre Baker, Georgia; Byron Murphy, Washington; Greedy Williams, LSU
A physical and aggressive cornerback, Baker picked off seven passes in the past three seasons. … Murphy had four interceptions and 13 pass breakups this season. … Though lean, Williams has the height and wingspan to crowd receivers and contest catches. In Williams’ two seasons at LSU, quarterbacks had a 43.0 rating when throwing into his coverage.
Defensive tackles: Ed Oliver, Houston; Quinnen Williams, Alabama
If the Bucs are in position to draft Williams, it might make even more sense to shop McCoy. Williams, a fearsome pass rusher and stout run defender, could be McCoy 2.0. He had eight sacks and 18 tackles for loss this season. … Oliver didn’t have as dominant a season as Williams, but he was exceptionally productive in each of his three seasons at Houston. If a knee injury hadn’t cost him four games, he likely would have reached five sacks and 16 tackles for loss for the third straight season.
Will the Bucs at least replace their hideous uniforms?
No. We’re stuck with them for at least another season.
Statistics in this report are from College Football Reference, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected].