TAMPA — As decisions go, this one was easy for the Bucs.
Vinny Curry, 30, wasn’t going to be a very good fit in the new 3-4 scheme under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. He was due to earn $8 million in 2019, with $5 million fully guaranteed if he remained on the roster by March 17.
Perhaps just as importantly, Curry’s one season in Tampa Bay was underwhelming at best. Good guy, hard worker. But Curry was released after one season Tuesday, having produced only 21 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 12 games, seven as a starter.
The Bucs found a younger, more productive player to take over Curry’s job at defensive end when they claimed Carl Nassib off waivers from the Browns prior to the start of the season. Nassib, 25, was second on the team with 6.5 sacks and will earn $2 million next year.
Free agency is the cubic zirconia of the NFL. That shiny new player in March — in this case a Super Bowl champion with the Eagles — can dull pretty quickly.
Curry was part of an overhaul on the defensive line that included his Eagles teammate, defensive tackle Beau Allen, Bears defensive tackle Mitch Unrein and Jason Pierre-Paul, who led the team with 12.5 sacks after being traded from the Giants. Unrein suffered a concussion in training camp and spent the season on injured reserve.
The Bucs have much tougher choices to make than releasing Curry.
But they have to make sure the team being inherited by coach Bruce Arians doesn’t collapse under the weight of some fat contracts.
Besides, the Bucs need to spread the wealth.
According to overthecap.com, the Bucs were ranked 28th in the league with only $8.482 million in salary cap room. Curry’s release will nearly double that figure, but it also doesn’t include an expected increase of at least $14 million to the salary cap for 2019, which is expected to total about $191 million.
Already there are discussions about re-signing left tackle Donovan Smith, receiver Adam Humphries and linebacker Kwon Alexander, who continues to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Any or all of them could become unrestricted free agents when the new league year begins March 13.
Re-signing Smith is the Bucs’ biggest priority. Although he sometimes gets poor grades from Pro Football Focus, Smith has been an ironman. He’s never missed a start in 64 games during four seasons and has done a credible job protecting Jameis Winston’s blindside.
Smith could earn as much as $12-13 million a year as a free agent. So if the team is unable to reach a long-term deal with Smith, they could simply slap the franchise player tag on him for $14 million for 2019.
The Bucs still have some work to do with run game coordinator Harold Goodwin and offensive line coach Joe Gilbert. Tampa Bay averaged only 3.9 yards per carry last season, which ranked next to last in the NFL. Losing Smith would be a setback,
Humphries, who was believed to have been seeking $8 million per year prior to 2018, may have even more leverage as a free agent after finishing second on the team with career highs in catches (71) and touchdown receptions (five).
The Bucs also have several players who will be getting increases, including Winston, whose fifth-year club option is worth $20.92 million. Pierre-Paul will see his salary increase from $13.65 million to $14.9, including a $250,000 workout bonus that he forfeited a year ago.
Receiver Mike Evans gets a raise from $18.258 million to $20 million in 2019.
How do the Bucs create money under the salary cap? Curry is just the first step. Unrein has a $1 million roster bonus due in March and the Bucs can save $3.75 million by releasing him. William Gholston, who under-performed last season, is owed $3.75 million that is not guaranteed. The Bucs have demonstrated no desire to release receiver DeSean Jackson, but his $10 million salary for 2019 is not guaranteed.
Mike Greenberg, the Bucs’ director of football administration, does a great job structuring contracts so there is rarely any dead money or acceleration of bonuses carried over on the cap when a player like Curry is released.
What happened Tuesday wasn’t unexpected. But there will be more players following Curry out of Tampa Bay.