TAMPA ― The Bucs have a plan, and it was outlined with evangelical conviction at the NFL scouting combine last week by head coach Todd Bowles and general manager Jason Licht.
It was nearly activated a year ago, before Tom Brady ended his retirement just prior to the start of free agency.
But now it’s time to “pay the bills,” as Licht calls the more than $56 million of dead money on the salary cap that had been kicked down the road to surround Brady with veteran free agents and the best chance to win the past three seasons.
“Well, we were planning on Tom not being here forever,” Licht said. “We’ve been planning this for a while with his retirement.”
For now, the plan is to build around quarterback Kyle Trask. It involves the release of several key veterans, such as running back Leonard Fournette and tight end Cameron Brate. It includes widespread coaching changes to add youthful energy, new ideas and offensive balance. It also will mean moving some key players to different positions.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s not a stressful challenge because we knew this was coming,” Licht said. “This was part of the plan going back to 2020 when we signed Tom, that at some point we’re going to have to pay our bills. But we want to make sure that we were drafting well along the way and having some pieces on the roster along the way that we can still compete.
“We definitely feel we can this year, and we still don’t want to do anything to interrupt our long-term goal, which is also winning the Super Bowl. If it happens this year, that’s great. But we’re restocking for the future as well.”
Of course, as Mike Tyson says, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Here’s what the Bucs believe will give them a fighting chance in the NFC South.
Give Trask a shot, add competition
The Bucs need to see what they have in the former Gators quarterback they drafted in the second round two years ago. He’s only attempted nine passes in his career. Trask has improved his body and is a hard worker. But honestly, nobody can say how he will fare in the NFL.
You could argue that the Bucs couldn’t have put Trask in a worse situation. Not only did they take away the offensive system he spent two years learning, they hired a first-time play-caller in offensive coordinator Dave Canales. Then they promoted Thad Lewis to quarterbacks coach. Lewis has never coached a position in the NFL. He served as assistant receivers coach the past two years.
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The Bucs will add competition, but the two free-agent quarterbacks mentioned most with the team are Drew Lock and Baker Mayfield. Licht said Blaine Gabbert still is somewhere in the pecking order.
Release veterans, get younger, add speed
Fournette and Brate know they won’t be back. They likely will be followed by tackle Donovan Smith and kicker Ryan Succop, to name two. The Bucs have been the oldest team in the NFL the past two seasons.
Players such as defensive lineman Logan Hall and cornerback Zyon McCollum will be given opportunities for increased playing time. The Bucs would like to re-sign 33-year-old linebacker Lavonte David. “It takes two to agree to it, and we’ll see how that unfolds,” Licht said. .”... We’d love to see Lavonte continue to play as a Buc.”
But the days of trying to squeeze one more year from older players such as receiver Julio Jones or defensive lineman Akiem Hicks are over. Younger means cheaper, and they have to get their house in order.
This also is a slow football team in most areas. “We do need to get faster,” Licht said. “We need to get younger.”
Some players will change positions
The Bucs plan to give right tackle Tristan Wirfs a chance to move to left tackle after Smith is released as expected. He started three games there at Iowa. While moving an All-Pro right tackle to another position is risky, they need to put their best five offensive linemen on the field. That could mean trying Luke Goedeke at right tackle and moving center Robert Hainsey to left guard.
Bowles hinted strongly that while safety Antoine Winfield Jr. was effective as a slot cornerback, he may be moving back to free safety permanently. He had career highs with four sacks, seven tackles for loss and six quarterback hits last season but only one interception. Furthermore, injuries forced him to miss four games. “I don’t want to move him around as much this coming season than I have (in 2022). I’ll try to leave him at one spot as best as I can,” Bowles said. “I think he’ll master that spot and get even better for us.”
Similarly, wide receiver Chris Godwin has been beaten up playing in the slot over the past few seasons and should see more time lining up outside.
New blood on the coaching staff
Bowles wanted new ideas and energy. He got that with the 41-year-old Canales, who is full of energy and an outside zone blocking scheme that should help the league’s worst run game.
“I heard a lot from a lot of other coaches,” Bowles said. “I heard (Canales) interviewed a couple times at Baltimore and did a good job there. Once I started talking to him, the more interested I got. ... Great personality. Very positive coach. Highly intelligent. He can play a bunch of different schemes.”
Byron Leftwich was a bit of a fall guy for what happened in 2022. But Bowles rarely has gotten the offensive coordinator right. He had three in four years with the Jets: Chan Gailey, John Morton and Jeremy Bates. Canales is his fifth in six seasons as a head coach.
“There was a lot of traits that we were looking for. And I think Byron was a heck of a coordinator,” Licht said. “So anything I say, I don’t want it to be anything derogatory toward Byron. It’s just a fresh start. and we like what Dave brought to the table.”
Interestingly, Bowles didn’t fire offensive line coach Joe Gilbert or run game coordinator Harold Goodwin. He hired outside linebackers coach George Edwards and running backs coach Skip Peete from the Cowboys. The Bucs hope Edwards can help outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka the way he did Michal Parsons in Dallas. Cowboys running backs under Peete last season didn’t lose a fumble.
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