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Stuck with salary-cap crunch, Bucs weigh hard options to find money for free agents

After signing Donovan Smith to a $41.25-million contract, players such as Gerald McCoy and DeSean Jackson could be vulnerable.
Gerald McCoy, 31, has a base salary of $13-million next season that is not guaranteed. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Gerald McCoy, 31, has a base salary of $13-million next season that is not guaranteed. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Mar. 7, 2019

TAMPA — As the Bucs show some players the money, others are going to be shown the door.

Left with an unenviable salary-cap crunch after signing left tackle Donovan Smith to a three-year, $41.25-million contract, the Bucs have begun weighing options on how to create more money for free agents.

The Bucs are about $3.55-million under the salary cap, according to overthecap.com, and reportedly have made an offer to linebacker Kwon Alexander on a long-term contract extension.

Alexander, who is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee he suffered against the Browns in October, may still test the market when free agency begins March 13.

The Bucs also have interest in some veteran players who either are or will become free agents. The list includes an array of productive safeties such as the Texans’ Tyrann Mathieu, the Giants’ Landon Collins and the Ravens’ Eric Weddle.

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But because of their needs on defense, the Bucs recently had to begin evaluating whether to move on from high-salaried players such as defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and receiver DeSean Jackson.

McCoy, 31, has a base salary of $13-million next season that is not guaranteed. By cutting Jackson, the Bucs would save all of his $10-million for next season.

Nothing has been determined, and one or both of those players could be in uniform for the Bucs under their current contracts.

But after evaluating a defensive line-laden draft at the NFL scouting combine and wanting to take advantage of a suddenly more attractive free-agent class, nothing appears to be set in stone.

Last week in Indianapolis, Licht strongly hinted that some players could be released as they add free agents.

“It could be a domino effect,’’ Licht said of the attempt to re-sign their own free agents. “There’s ways that we’ve gone through scenarios where we keep them all, you can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once, but you’re going to have to make sacrifices elsewhere. If you just say, ‘Okay, we want to sign back everybody and bring back everybody,’ well, you’ve got to make some sacrifices for your football team and figure out what’s best for your football team.”

When asked specifically about McCoy’s future, Licht was non-committal.

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“It’s just hard to say that about any player right now,’’ Licht said. “It’s just we have so much between now and free agency, the draft, OTA’s, offseason, I can’t just say definitively on anyone. I can tell you he’s a great player, and ideally we would love to have him back.”

“I can say ideally we want Gerald McCoy here. He’s under contract, and I want him to be back.”

The Bucs have said that McCoy will fit nicely in the 3-4 alignment under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.

His $13-million salary, which is not guaranteed, doesn’t seem beyond market value considering Ndamukong Suh earned $14.5-million last season with the Rams.

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But once unthinkable, the Bucs have to at least consider parting with their six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle.

At best, the team is sending mixed messages about his future.

“Gerald’s played three-technique in his life, and we have a three-technique in our defense,’’ coach Bruce Arians said last week. “We’re penetrators, we’re not two-gap. When people say 3-4, they all think of two-gap. We’re not that at all, we’re penetrators, we’re attackers. So for him it’s probably going to be no change for what he’s done in his career.’’

When asked if McCoy would be part of the Bucs in 2019, Arians said, “I see him under contract, and I see a heck of a player that you still have to gameplan for, so I hope so.”

The same is true with Jackson. The Bucs receiver asked to be traded last October and spent Super Bowl week in Atlanta lobbying to play for the Rams.

Arians met with Jackson a few weeks ago and said things went well. But Jackson has a $10-million contract that is not guaranteed in 2019. For the Bucs to become more balanced on defense, they may have to make the sacrifices Licht was talking about.

What’s likely to drive these decisions? Picking No. 5 overall, the Bucs know they are in a good position to take advantage of one of the best drafts at defensive line in almost a decade. Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, Kentucky’s Josh Allen, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, Michigan’s Rahan Gary and Houston’s Ed Oliver are candidates to go high in the draft.

Furthermore, they likely didn’t expect players such as Collins and Weddle to be cut by their teams. The Bucs need a veteran leader in the secondary. Carlton Davis, M.J. Stewart and Jordan Whitehead all were rookies last season.

Tampa Bay allowed 29 points per game in 2018, and the secondary was a big concern.

Free agents can begin negotiating contracts with other teams March 11, and the signing period begins at 4 p.m. March 13.

“It’s the first year that I’ve gone into free agency without an abundance of cap space to use here, being with the Bucs,’’ Licht said. “In a lot of respects, we’re very excited about where we’re at, being able to hopefully retain our good, young players. That’s not to say we won’t be active in free agency, because there’s different levels of free agency.

”There's the first-day, high-priced, splashy guys, and then there's guys extending all the way into Week 3 and 4, where you can get some good value, guys we've actually had more luck with in the past. Those are the types of guys and the types of deals that make my scouting staff excited. Those are usually the hungry guys."

But as it stands now, they have very little money left to do anything with.