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Jalen Ramsey’s trade demand: Should the Buccaneers pursue the Jaguars cornerback?

The answer depends on the Bucs’ answers to other questions. Are they Super Bowl contenders? Are they willing to give up on their recent draft picks? How committed are they to Jameis Winston?
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey and coach Doug Marrone got into heated exchange on the sidelines Sunday during the Jaguars' game against the Texans. The next day, reports surfaced that Ramsey had requested to be traded. [STEPHEN B. MORTON | Associated Press]
Published Sep. 17
Updated Sep. 18

Jaguars star cornerback Jalen Ramsey wants out of Jacksonville and has asked to be traded. The team wants at least a first-round pick in return, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Should Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht pick up the phone and inquire?

Of course. Can’t hurt to ask.

But if the Jaguars don’t budge off their demands for a first-round pick, Licht should hang up.

Yes, Ramsey is one of the best defensive players in the NFL. He can be a difference-maker, like Aaron Donald is for the Rams and Luke Kuechly is for the Panthers and Khalil Mack is for the Bears. The Bucs could use one of those. Any team could.

You don’t have to imagine what a Todd Bowles defense is capable of when he has an elite cornerback to scheme around. In 2013 and 2014, he had Patrick Peterson. Those Cardinals defenses ranked second and seventh, respectively, in Football Outsiders’ efficiency ratings. In 2015, he left to become head coach of the Jets. His cornerback in New York: Darrelle Revis. The Jets defense ranked fifth. The next season, Revis began to decline, and so did Bowles’ defense. They ranked 21st in 2016, 18th in 2017 and 21st in 2018.

Wouldn’t it be nice?

Too bad the Bucs can’t make it happen. Here’s why:

Arians said the Bucs fixed their secondary.

Remember that? Back in June? “I think they’re really, really good,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said of his defensive backs. “With Carlton (Davis) and Vernon (Hargreaves), we knew we had two solid corners. Now we’ve got five solid corners. I think Ryan (Smith) came a long way. So, yeah, I think what was earmarked as a problem set back in January, that’s totally fixed. Let’s knock on wood they stay healthy.”

“Totally fixed” is an overstatement, especially in the wake of Hargreaves’ lackluster performance against the Panthers on Thursday. He allowed completions on 10 of 11 passes into his coverage, and six of them resulted in first downs, according to Pro Football Focus.

Even so, the Bucs have spent nine draft picks on defensive backs over the past four years. You don’t want to fall victim to the endowment effect (when we overvalue an object just because we own it), but you also have to allow them to, you know, play before you give up on them.

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Ramsey wants a new contract.

The cornerback will earn $3.6 million in base salary this season but $13.7 million next season, the final year of the contract he signed as a rookie. For the past year, he has made it clear he wants a new deal. To drive the point home, he arrived at training camp in July in an armored truck. If you thought fans lost their minds over Gerald McCoy ordering a snow cone truck, just think of the reaction to Ramsey showing up to work in a Brinks truck. That would go over well.

He doesn’t just want a new contract; he wants to reset the market. “That number is going to be so ungodly,” he said in an Instagram Live video in June.

That’s not an unreasonable position. He has been invited to the Pro Bowl twice and named a first-team All-Pro once, and he’s not even 25 years old. If he reached the open market, he would beat the five-year, $75 million extension Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard signed in May. The more time that passes, the higher that number will be. Forget armored trucks. Any team willing to trade premium draft picks for him should be prepared to open its vaults.

Can the Bucs afford him?

A team can have any player it wants. It just comes down to what they’re willing to pay. For this season, the Bucs could find a way to fit Ramsey’s $3.6 million salary under the cap. It’s 2020 and beyond that’s a problem.

Let’s assume that the Bucs apply the franchise tag to Jameis Winston after this season. That one-year deal will cost them about $27 million. Let’s also assume that they release defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. That will save them $12.5 million. In this scenario, Ramsey’s $13.7 million cap number would be the fourth-highest on the team, after Winston, receiver Mike Evans ($18.4 million) and guard Ali Marpet ($14.5 million).

Let’s say the salary cap increases to $200 million next season. As of now, the Bucs would have $66.4 million in space, according to Over The Cap. Great, right? Well, it’s relative. Ten teams have more space. And that figure doesn’t include Winston’s or Ramsey’s salaries. Once we take them into account, the Bucs are down to $25.7 million in space, which would rank 26th. Keep in mind that they wouldn’t be able to spend all of that on free agents. They’d have to set aside roughly $10 million for their draft class. Suddenly, their cap situation doesn’t look so pretty.

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But he went to Florida State!

That doesn’t matter.

Can’t the Bucs create more space?

Yes, but it will hurt. After the season, they could release or trade Pierre-Paul ($12.5 million), Lavonte David ($10.8 million), Ryan Jensen ($10 million), Hargreaves ($9.6 million), Cameron Brate ($6 million) and William Gholston ($4.8 million).

Here’s the thing: It’s easy to cut. It’s not so easy to replace production. Good, inexpensive players are hard to find in free agency. The best way to acquire those high-return-on-investment types? The draft. A trade for Ramsey will cost the Bucs that opportunity.

This is why — unless a team is a legitimate Super Bowl contender — it should never, ever trade premium picks AND pay a player market value. It’s a surefire way to descend into salary cap hell.

Take, for instance, the March 2018 trade for Pierre-Paul. The Bucs, desperate for a pass rusher, sent a third-round pick to the Giants for the opportunity to pay the defensive end $12.5 million in 2018 and $14.9 million in 2019. New York used that pick to draft defensive tackle B.J. Hill. The point isn’t that the Bucs should have known that Hill would contribute right away. The point is that they shouldn’t have let desperation and the appeal of a marquee name drive their decision-making. They not only gave away the chance to acquire a player who might outperform his contract but also cost themselves future cap space and flexibility in the process. Plus, Giants general manager Dave Gettleman pulled one over on Licht.

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The Bucs need their draft picks.

They could use an offensive tackle or two. Donovan Smith, 26, is under contract through 2020, but he has been a below-average left tackle. Last season, he had the fewest snaps per blown block (think about it for a second; that’s bad), which ranked 25th out of 35 qualifying left tackles, according to Football Outsiders. Demar Dotson, 34 next month, is breaking down. There is zero reliable depth behind them. It would be awfully risky for the Bucs to trade, say, their 2020 first-round and second-round picks for Ramsey and wait until the third round to draft a tackle. This year, three went in the first round, and five went in the second round.

Then there’s this: Are the Bucs convinced Winston is their long-term quarterback? If they enter into trade negotiations for Ramsey, they better be. Any deal that packages multiple premium picks limits the Bucs’ ability to draft a quarterback and thus deepens their commitment to Winston.

As for the argument that the Bucs draft poorly so they might as well exchange their picks for proven talent, that line of reasoning is faulty. Has their free-agent and trade record been any better? And if they’re not drafting well, that’s an argument for keeping picks. In fact, they should want more of them, not fewer. Play the averages. Hope that more picks mean more hits.

Think of the draft as a lottery that teams have to play. They can take one of two approaches: 1.) Teams can say, “We’re not good at this, so let’s give away our tickets,” or 2.) Teams can say, “We’re not good at this, so let’s acquire as many tickets as possible.”

There have been 1,528 players drafted since 2014, Licht’s first season in Tampa. That’s an average of 48 picks per team. The Bucs have drafted 42 players.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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