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Expect Bucs to use franchise tag on Donovan Smith if a long-term deal can’t be reached

Negotiations will ramp up at the NFL scouting combine next week, but it’s a safe bet Smith will play for the Bucs in 2019.
Tampa Bay Bucs offensive tackle Donovan Smith (76) warms up before an Oct. 21 game against the Browns.  (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Tampa Bay Bucs offensive tackle Donovan Smith (76) warms up before an Oct. 21 game against the Browns. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Feb. 19, 2019

TAMPA ― The grass-is-greener opportunity may be there for Donovan Smith, but the money will be the same or better if he remains with the Bucs.

Smith, who has started all 64 games in his four pro seasons, is set to become a free agent next month. But it’s a safe bet he’s not going anywhere.

Today marks the first day NFL teams can use the franchise or transition tag on a player. The Bucs are hopeful to reach a contract extension with Smith and there will be conversations with his agents at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis next week.

As a free agent, Smith could likely command at least $13 million a year with a signing bonus in the $30 million range. By making Smith a franchise player, he would earn the average of the top five players at his position which totals around $14 million on a one-year deal.

The Bucs have until March 5 to decide whether to use the franchise player tag on Smith. They won’t do it today, but if they fail to reach a long-term deal, it’s a safe bet Smith will be given that designation.

Tampa Bay has so many needs on defense, and perhaps several more on the offensive line, that they can ill-afford to let Smith out of Tampa Bay. But it would give the Bucs another year to evaluate Smith and go into the NFL draft not hostage to the left tackle position. Tampa Bay owns the No. 5 overall pick.

Smith simply will be the most coveted left tackle in the NFL if he makes it to free agency.

The Bucs used their franchise tag on tackle Paul Gruber the first time it was available in 1993. But in the 26 years since, Tampa Bay has utilized that designation only three other times. In 2012, the Bucs used the franchise tag on kicker Connor Barth.

The franchise tag can be applied to a player about to enter unrestricted free agency. It would guarantee that player a one-year contract at the average salary of the top five players at that position. The transition tag guarantees a one-year deal at the average salary of the top 10 players at that position. However, if 120 percent of a player’s salary from the previous season is higher, he would receive that amount. estimates that the Bucs have nearly $16 million under the salary cap. But that doesn’t include likely to be earned incentives that were not achieved and an expected six percent increase in the salary cap, from $177.2 million to $191 million.

Smith will demand a large portion of that. But the Bucs also hope to negotiate news deals with receiver Adam Humphries and linebacker Kwon Alexander before they become free agents.

A year ago, Humphries was believed to have been seeking $8 million per year. But that was before he set career marks with 71 receptions and five touchdowns.

The Bucs have other receivers who could play in the slot. Regardless of what becomes of DeSean Jackson, who asked to be traded last Oct., they still have Chris Godwin and Justin Watson.

Alexander is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in his left knee against the Browns last Oct. It’s unfortunate timing for Alexander, who may have commanded $10 million a year. The solution may be to reach an accord on a short-term deal.

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Last week, the Bucs began the process of creating more salary cap space by releasing defensive end Vinny Curry after only one season. Curry, who had 21 tackles and only 2.5 sacks, saved $8 million on the salary cap.

It’s going to be an interesting month for the Bucs as they grapple with their salary-cap issue and try to retain the best players. One way or another, Smith will earn a big raise to remain in Tampa Bay.

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Related: Bucs’ Donovan Smith: ‘I love Tampa, the community, teammates, everybody there’

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