TAMPA — For years, the Bucs were young and building through the draft. They were able to use a surplus under the salary cap to spend on big-name, high-priced free agents.
Well, now the cleats are on the other foot.
The Bucs are about $3.1 million under the salary cap. Only the Jaguars ($2.6 million) will have less when teams can begin negotiating with unrestricted free agents Monday.
After back-to-back 5-11 seasons, how do the Bucs improve their football team without significant changes on the roster?
It starts with the hiring of coach Bruce Arians and the draft. But the reason the Bucs are in an unenviable salary cap position is a mixed bag.
They’ve drafted players who are very productive and worthy of contract extensions. But those players alone have not gotten it done.
“Well, you do want to keep your own guys,’’ general manager Jason Licht said. “It started with Mike and Cam (Brate) and Ali (Marpet). You know, every team has the same salary cap and every team strives to draft good players. When you do get a run with guys like Donovan (Smith) here and Ali and the guys I’ve mentioned, you know it puts you in this situation."
On Tuesday, the Bucs signed Smith to a three-year, $41.25-million contract. Quarterback Jameis Winston will play under his fifth-year option of $20.1 million. Mike Evans will earn $20 million. Marpet ($11 million), defensive tackle Gerald McCoy ($13 million), linebacker Lavonte David ($9.7-million) and Brate ($7 million) all are entering their maximum earning years.
Meanwhile, the Bucs’ focus is on making richer men of linebacker Kwon Alexander and receiver Adam Humphries, who become free agents Wednesday.
“I think the emphasis would be on keeping our own,’’ Licht said of free agency.
Here’s a look at how the Bucs free agency signing period is likely to play out.
Signing their own
Kwon Alexander: He tore his left anterior cruciate ligament and still is four months away from football activities. But Alexander has been described as ‘the heartbeat,’’ of the defense and he certainly brings emotional energy.
“We’ll just have to see what the market is and take it from there," Licht said. “We certainly value him. I’m not trying to say we don’t value him. We do value him. We just have to come together and figure out what that is. Hopefully we get something done.”
The Bucs reportedly have offered Alexander a long-term contract, but that won’t preclude the Bucs from using their first-round pick on a linebacker such as LSU’s Devin White.
Adam Humphries: The slot receiver set career highs for receptions (71) and touchdowns (5) in a contract year. Congratulations. Humphries should get a lot of action from receiver-needy teams. The Bucs aren’t one of them. The guess here is that Humphries walks.
Cutting their own
A couple weeks ago, the Bucs were indicating defensive tackle Gerald McCoy would be back in 2019 earning his full $13 million. But life comes at you fast. They need more salary cap space, not only to re-sign Alexander but to take advantage of a deep free agent class on defense, particularly at safety.
Gerald McCoy: Six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle appeared to be a lock to return just a few weeks ago. Then Smith signed an enormous deal, several safeties unexpectedly were dumped onto the free agent market and the team got a good look at the bumper crop of defensive linemen in the draft.
DeSean Jackson: Arians met with Jackson and insists the 32-year-old receiver may be back. That’s hard to fathom after he asked to be traded last season and was talking about joining the Rams at the Super Bowl. He doesn’t want to play with Winston, so bringing him back could conflict with Arians’ plan to take pressure off his quarterback. A couple questions: Would the Bucs even see Jackson at One Buc Place in the offseason, and why wouldn’t they want to spend his $10 million elsewhere?
Cameron Brate: He played through a devastating hip injury and still caught six touchdown TD passes. O.J. Howard will diminish his role and Brate will make $7 million, but Bucs won’t make Winston comfortable by releasing his go-to guy.
Free agents to watch
The Bucs allowed 29 points per game in 2018. The NFC South is stocked with big, fast receivers and quarterbacks Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton.
“We have to have pass rushers and man-to-man cover guys, which is a little bit different from the guys that we’ve had," Arians said. "Looking at the division we’re in, we need to play great defense like they did a few years back and put a lot of speed on the field because we are facing a lot of speed.”
The Bucs have a young secondary and could use a veteran safety:
Tyrann Mathieu (Houston): The Honey Badger, 26, played for Arians in Arizona. The Bucs like Justin Evans, but they have no real experience at safety. Jordan Whitehead was a rookie a year ago and M.J. Stewart is switching to safety.
Landon Collins (N.Y. Giants): Nobody expected Collins, 25, to make it to free agency. The thought was he would be franchised. Not the greatest ball skills but a three-time Pro Bowl player who can have a big impact.
Eric Weddle (Baltimore): Weddle, 32, has made six Pro Bowls but still very productive. Could he mentor the young Bucs secondary?
Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh): I don’t don’t see the Bucs spending $14-million on a running back when they want to know more about Ronald Jones. Also keep an eye on linebacker C.J. Mosely, safety Adrian Amos, safety Earl Thomas, safety Tashaun Gibson, defensive tackle Malik Jackson and running back Adrian Peterson.
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com. Follow @NFLStroud