TAMPA — Shaquil Barrett talks glowingly about his first season with the Bucs — and he doesn’t want it to also be his last.
He received his first opportunity to become an every-down pass rusher this season and became an All-Pro. He had a remarkable start to the season, and finished his year out strong, ending the 2019 regular season as the NFL’s sack leader.
Barrett is one of 25 free agents on the Bucs’ roster, but the team has stressed that retaining Barrett is its top offseason priority. Coach Bruce Arians was succinct: "I want to keep this defense together.”
As for Barrett, he's made his desire to remain in Tampa clear.
"There's no reason for me to explore anything else," he said before the Bucs' final game of the season. "But it's the business, so we've got to. But my plan is to work this out and be here."
Last offseason, Barrett received offers from only two teams, and he signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the Bucs only after the Bengals balked on a two-year offer because of concerns about his shoulder.
Barrett went on to play a career-high 79 percent of his team’s defensive snaps. He opened training camp splitting first-team reps on one edge with Noah Spence, but he won over the new coaching staff with his quickness, not just getting to the quarterback but also defending the run. After playing four seasons in the 3-4 defense in Denver, Barrett was a quick fit.
He took advantage of one-on-ones early in the season, posting nine sacks in the first four games. Double and triple teams came, with opponents lining up extra tight ends who would match Barrett’s speed better than tackles. Barrett finished strong, logging eight sacks and 20 quarterback hits in his final six games, ending with a three-sack outing that gave him the Bucs’ single-season record and the NFL sack title with 19.5.
Barrett is confident in his ability — he knew all he needed was every-down snaps to show he could be an elite pass rusher — but he is also aware enough to know that his the system and the players around him also aided in his success.
In short, he knows he has a good thing going.
“Everything is working down here, (defensive coordinator Todd) Bowles’ system, we’ve got some great guys down here,” Barrett said. “I know we weren’t the team we wanted to be. But we’ve grown into a team that has a great and bright future. I think that if we can keep everybody together, I know people want to go and chase money and chase everything. I want money, too, but I just want to stay here. It feels perfect. I like (Arians). I like (general manager Jason Licht). I like the training staff, I like everybody. I don’t want to mess this up. There’s no reason for me to mess this up down here.”
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Arians earmarked re-signing Barrett, fellow outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul and tackle Ndamukong Suh as the top three defensive priorities. Outside linebacker Carl Nassib, a team captain, and veteran Beau Allen are also free agents.
The Bucs have roughly $90 million in cap space to work with, and even though that seems like a big figure, it could go quickly if the Bucs plan on keeping the defense together.
The Bucs could place the franchise tag on Barrett, paying him about $16.3 million for one season, but coming off his breakout year, Barrett would surely prefer a longer-term deal with more guaranteed money.
According to Spotrac, Barrett’s market value estimates him getting a four-year deal worth $63.090 million. That’s an average of $15.772 million a year. The best comp for Barrett is the four-year, $66 million deal that Za’Darius Smith signed with the Packers last offseason, guaranteeing him $20 million. Both Barrett and Smith are 27 years old.
Keep in mind that Barrett’s late-season surge coincided with Pierre-Paul playing his best football. Pierre-Paul missed the first seven weeks of the season with a severe neck injury sustained in an offseason car accident, leaving any contribution for 2019 unclear. He ended the season with 8.5 sacks in 10 games, and seven of those came in his last six games. His presence down the stretch meant teams couldn’t isolate Barrett.
“We need everybody,” Barrett said. “I know we’re not going to be able to bring everybody back, but as long as we bring most of us back, we should still be able to have the same core group of guys and still have the same values and get it done.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.