The NFL playoffs are here, which means, for the 12th straight year, so is the Buccaneers’ offseason.
This offseason is different, though. It’s not different because it’s more important. They’re all important. What’s different about this offseason is that there’s legitimate cause for optimism in 2020, even with the uncertainty at the quarterback position. In 2019, the Bucs, for the first time in nearly a decade and for only the 14th time in team history, scored more points than their opponents. That might seem like a small thing to celebrate, but it’s a meaningful step forward, and here’s why: Point differential is a better predictor of wins in the coming season than actual wins in the previous season.
Many of the pieces are in place for this team to make a playoff run. On offense, the Bucs have the NFL’s most productive and explosive receiver tandem in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. On defense … they actually have a defense. And it’s young. Vita Vea. Jamel Dean. Carlton Davis. Sean Murphy-Bunting.
Before Tampa Bay can win on the field, however, it will have to win off the field. This offseason, you’ll hear that the Bucs have ample salary cap space, and in terms of raw dollars that will be true. Miami is projected to have the most space ($98.1 million), Indianapolis the second-most space ($93.7 million) and Tampa Bay the third-most space ($88.9 million, according to Over the Cap).
Great, right? The Bucs should be able to acquire any player they want and have enough money left to fix their hideous uniforms. If we look more closely, though, Tampa Bay’s cap situation isn’t what it seems.
So is it bad?
The Bucs aren’t doomed, but their cap space is going to dry up quickly, maybe even before the Cowboys fire coach Jason Garrett. Among the items in their to-do queue:
• Resolve their quarterback situation.
• Keep their defensive front together, with the top priority being re-signing linebacker Shaquil Barrett.
• Keep their receiving corps together.
• Work out a contract extension with Godwin, who will be eligible to become a free agent after the 2020 season.
• Acquire a starting offensive lineman.
• Acquire a starting defensive back.
• Finish watching Season 2 of You on Netflix.
About that quarterback situation …
There’s a rea$on why coach Bruce Arians was so coy about the Jameis Winston decision at his end-of-season news conference. It’s not like we have to parse his words, either. He flat-out admitted that he wanted to preserve the Bucs’ negotiating leverage. Given all that he wants to accomplish this offseason, every dollar is going to matter.
Earlier this week, we broke down all of Tampa Bay’s options. If you missed it, here’s the short version: The Bucs could apply the nonexclusive franchise tag, which would allow them to retain Winston for one season at a high salary or trade him for draft picks; they could offer him a short-term deal that includes more guaranteed money over the life of the contract in exchange for a team-friendly cap hit in 2020; or they could let him walk. The franchise tag is projected to cost them $26.9 million next season, while a short-term extension might cost them $20 million to $25 million.
If Tampa Bay re-signs Winston, it’ll want to hedge its bet by adding a second quarterback that could step in case he falters, like Tennessee did when it traded for Ryan Tannehill last offseason. Blaine Gabbert isn’t going to cut it, which means the Bucs will have to set aside a few more million dollars. At that point, they might find that it would be more cost-effective to go all-in on a free agent like Teddy Bridgewater or Philip Rivers.
What about Barrett?
With Barrett, the Bucs essentially have the same options, though they can use the franchise tag on only one player. The franchise tag tender, which pays a player the average of the top five salaries at his position, is considerably lower for a linebacker — $16.3 million. It would make sense for Tampa Bay to go that route if it’s concerned that Barrett’s 2019 season was an aberration. There’s reason to think that it was; he converted nearly a quarter of his pressures into sacks, a rate he is unlikely to sustain going forward. In his previous four seasons, he converted less than 15 percent of his pressures into sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
While it’s not likely Barrett will approach 20 sacks again, it is plausible he will deliver 10 to 12 next season. He doesn’t have the track record of a Khalil Mack, Von Miller, Demarcus Lawrence or Chandler Jones, so he won’t command $20 million a season, but he could land a deal that pays him $17 million. Last offseason, the Packers inked Za’Darius Smith to a four-year contract worth up to $66 million that included $20 million in fully guaranteed money. You would think that’s the starting point for Barrett and his agent.
Say the Bucs retain Winston via the franchise tag for $26.9 million and Barrett on a long-term deal that pays him $17 million in 2020. That roughly $90 million in cap space? Poof! Half of it is gone.
$45 million! Which free agents can they sign?
If Tampa Bay re-signs Winston and Barrett, it falls to 19th in cap space, behind Washington ($47.4 million) and ahead of Green Bay ($37.8 million).
Want to bring back Ndamukong Suh? Set aside $9 million.
Jason Pierre-Paul? Set aside $8 million.
Breshad Perriman? Set aside $8 million.
Suddenly, the Bucs are down to $20 million.
And they still have holes to fill. Backup quarterback. Offensive tackle. Safety. Running back.
Oh, and don’t forget about their 2020 draft class. Set aside $10 million.
Granted, these are only estimates. We don’t know how free agency will play out. It’s possible some players will seek more than the amounts listed. It’s possible some will decide they prefer the situation in Tampa and accept a below-market contract.
Here’s what we know: The Bucs have cap space. How they spend it — that will be the hard part.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at email@example.com. Follow @tometrics.