TAMPA — Welcome to the NFL’s trade deadline.
Or, as it should be known around here, the abyss.
This is it, folks. This is the weekend that will basically determine whether the Bucs are relevant in November or if they’re bound for gory. Win in Tennessee, and they have a fighting chance. Lose, and they need to seriously entertain any and every trade offer that comes their way by Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline.
That may sound hysterical, but it’s based in reality. The gap between a 2-5 record and 3-4 is pretty significant historically.
Since the NFL expanded the postseason field in 1990, the chances of a team with a 3-4 record making the playoffs are in the vicinity of 5-to-1 against. The odds of a 2-5 team drop to 20-to-1. That’s basically the difference between vague hope and gonna-sell-my-tickets-on-StubHub.
Just look around, and you’ll see other teams are already making that calculation. The 1-6 Falcons traded receiver Mohamed Sanu on Tuesday. The 2-5 Broncos traded receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Smart teams understand there is little value in clinging to players with diminished future value.
Which brings us to the Bucs. And the question of direction.
Tampa Bay began its latest rebuilding effort when Jameis Winston was drafted in 2015. Nearly five years later, they have a 27-43 record and no playoff appearances to show for it. Even worse, they have too much money tied up in aging linemen and not enough clarity when it comes to Winston’s future.
Even if he thinks the Bucs are closer to contention than they appear, general manager Jason Licht must recognize that changes are necessary. Even if they come out of this weekend at 3-4, he must know that assets will eventually need to be reallocated.
And that means seriously considering trades.
Naturally, this is not a simple yes/no equation. Any deal would obviously be contingent on what another team was willing to offer. And, frankly, the early returns around the league have not been all that promising.
The Ravens for instance, only gave up a fifth-round pick and a backup linebacker to get two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters. Gareon Conley was a first-round pick in Oakland two years ago, but only cost Houston a third-round pick on Monday.
So if a team thinks it can pick up O.J. Howard for cheap while his stock is low, the Bucs should hang up the phone. But if the conversation begins with a second-round pick, Licht needs to consider whether the Bucs can really afford to carry two high-priced tight ends (along with Cameron Brate) when the position is underutilized in Bruce Arians’ offense, and when there are other areas of greater need on the roster.
And if the Bucs come up short in Tennessee on Sunday, they should be willing to talk about any player who does not have a long-term future around here. That would include Jason Pierre-Paul, if someone is willing to take a risk that he’s going to be healthy in the second half. That would include Ndamukong Suh, if someone is desperate for defensive line depth. That would include any of the overpaid offensive linemen or underperforming defensive backs.
“If it’s in our best interest, we’ll probably do something,’’ Arians said. “But if it’s not, we’re not giving away guys, for sure.’’
The problem is the Bucs have been too optimistic for too long. They’ve been convincing themselves since 2016 that they are ready to contend, and yet they haven’t played a meaningful game in December in all of that time.
They still need to upgrade the secondary. The same is probably true of both the offensive and defensive lines. And quarterback remains an open question.
No matter what they think, the Bucs are not one player away from first place in the NFC South. They need to horde draft picks, and they need more salary-cap flexibility.
Adopting a realistic approach while heading into this trade deadline would be a step in the right direction.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.