Bruce Arians’ first season as Bucs coach had been over only a few hours when he acknowledged that many of the gains his team had made could be erased by the 2020 season if it is unable to hold onto several free agents.
Tampa Bay has $91.8 million under the salary cap, the third-most space in the NFL. But the Bucs also have 19 players who can become unrestricted free agents March 18, many of them starters or huge contributors, especially on defense.
The biggest decisions involve linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who led the league with 19.5 sacks this season, and quarterback Jameis Winston.
One of those decisions is easy to make. Arians has said Barrett “isn’t going anywhere.”
He hasn’t been nearly as declarative about the future of Winston, who led the NFL in passing yardage but also threw 30 interceptions.
The salary cap system is all about allocating resources. Arians laid those out, almost in order, within 12 hours after the Bucs’ season ended Dec. 29: “The receivers, the (defensive) line, the outside pass rushers, the quarterbacks — they’re all in that same pot. There’s only so much that can go around. We’ve got to sit as an organization (and figure out) where do we want to go.”
Here’s a look at the Bucs’ priorities with their prospective free agents.
If the Bucs had known the outside linebacker was this good, they would have signed him to a two-year contract last offseason instead of one.
Instead, after 14 sacks in five seasons with the Broncos, Barrett came to Tampa Bay as a free agent and had a dream season. He recorded nine of his 19.5 sacks in his first four games. In addition to breaking Warren Sapp’s club record of 16.5 sacks in a season that had stood since 2000, he set a franchise mark with six forced fumbles.
Barrett is only 27. It is unlikely that he will repeat as the league’s sack champion, but the Bucs went 12 seasons without a player recording 10 sacks until Jason Pierre-Paul had 12.5 in 2018. Letting Barrett out of Tampa Bay would be malpractice.
The problem is, Barrett would get top dollar as a free agent. Every team needs a productive edge rusher. The projected franchise-player tag cost for a 4-3 defensive end is $19.31 million and $16.26 million for a 3-4 linebacker, according to the salary website overthecap.com. That is a dispute the Bucs will have to have with Barrett’s agent.
But just re-signing Barrett or applying the franchise tag to him won’t be enough. The Bucs must weigh that decision with their desire to re-sign Pierre-Paul and/or Carl Nassib.
There is no position with a higher value in the NFL than quarterback. But because Arians made it clear he is undecided on Winston’s future, Winston is listed here as the Bucs’ second-highest priority. But Barrett and Winston are more like 1A and 1B.
A lot of evaluation will have to go into this decision, and there seems to be little consensus among coaches and the front office on Winston.
Two main factors will drive the decision: Will Winston improve significantly in Year 2 operating Arians’ offense and is there a better alternative?
Turnovers aside, Winston passed for 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns this season. He’s a playmaker with five years of pro experience and turned just 26 last week. But the exclusive franchise tag would cost the Bucs about $27 million on a one-year deal.
Another option would be to sign Winston to a more cap-friendly long-term contact. But if Kirk Cousins can get more than $80 million guaranteed on a three-year deal from the Vikings, why wouldn’t Winston believe he could do the same or better?
“I think that’s when you sit down with him and you talk it all over,” Arians said. “And all of us — Clyde (Christensen, quarterbacks coach), Byron (Leftwich, offensive coordinator), myself, Jameis — and look at it and evaluate it. Is the (5,109 passing yards) still good enough to win a championship, or is it the (30 interceptions) and whatever many fumbles losing the championship? So that’s where you go.”
Another big factor would be Winston’s replacement. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers, Eli Manning and Teddy Bridgewater are scheduled to become free agents. Cam Newton and Andy Dalton could find their way onto that list.
“Free agency — who’s available. What’s behind door No. 2?” Arians said. “That’s the first question. As you evaluate for the draft, that’s another question. Are they better than what you have? And then you evaluate, and that’s when you make your decisions.”
Despite missing the first six games recovering from a cervical fracture in his neck suffered in an offseason car accident, the outside linebacker had 8.5 sacks in 10 games. He turned 31 on New Year’s Day and just earned about $10 million on a restructured, highly incentive-laden contract.
But Pierre-Paul still is a high-energy, impact player who rarely comes off the field, and he holds teammates accountable. If Barrett returns, he will need another edge rusher to be effective.
When asked how high of a priority re-signing Pierre-Paul is, Arians said, “Huge — one of the highest.”
The defensive tackle turned 33 last week and has played for three teams in the past three years. There’s no question his production as a pass rusher has gone down every year since 2014, when he had 8.5 sacks. Since then, he has had 6, 5, 4.5, 4.5 and 2.5 this season with the Bucs.
Suh made $9.5 million this season. The word is he wants to continue playing and would like to remain in Tampa Bay. He’s a big reason the Bucs had the NFL’s best run defense, allowing an average 73.8 yards rushing per game.
The impact Suh had on defensive tackle Vita Vea was positive.
“He’s one of the top three (priorities),’’ Arians said of re-signing Suh. “You can start with (Barrett), (Pierre-Paul), either one, and Suh. I want to keep this front seven together. They’ve proven to be pretty dominant.”
This may be one of the hardest potential deals to quantify. The outside linebacker turns 27 in April and has been remarkably consistent with six sacks in each of the past two years after the Bucs acquired him off waivers from the Browns. A big-energy guy, Nassib could get bigger money as a free agent.
“This is the best roster I’ve ever been a part of, the best team I’ve ever been part of,” Nassib said.
Chances are Nassib gets a better offer elsewhere if he ranks behind Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Suh on the Bucs’ priority list.
The wide receiver earned a lot of money for himself in the final three games of the season. With Mike Evans and Chris Godwin mostly out with hamstring injuries, Perriman went over 100 yards receiving in all three. His 17 receptions for 349 yards and four touchdowns in those games made him look like a No. 1 receiver. But the Bucs don’t have room for a third big contract at receiver. Arians has said a priority is to sign Godwin to an extension as he enters the fourth and final season of his deal.
“He’s earned it — same thing (as the front seven) if we can keep the receiving corps together, which is going to be hard, but we’re going to try to do everything we can to keep that corps because I think it’s one of the top in the league," Arians said of Godwin. “I think Breshad proved that in the last three weeks. When you put the three of them out there, it’s pretty spectacular."
The running back earned more than $2 million this season and is an Arians favorite. But he lost his starting job to Ronald Jones this season, owns a career 3.6-yards-per-carry rushing average and rushed for only 3.1 yards per attempt this season. Look for the Bucs to upgrade in the draft.
Dotson has played 11 seasons for the Bucs, starting 106 games, mostly at right tackle. But he is 34 and openly lobbied for the Bucs to bring him back. They may, but not before looking to replace him in the draft or free agency.
May get a look
Several other prospective free agents who played important roles either as backups or rotational players may be worth considering at the right price. The list includes linebacker Kevin Minter; safeties Andrew Adams and Darian Stewart; defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches; guard Earl Watford, and tackle Josh Wells. Minter did a nice job backing up at inside linebacker for rookie Devin White. Adams started 11 of 14 games at safety and had one interception. Wells filled in for Donovan Smith in a win at Indianapolis.
That group includes defensive tackle Beau Allen, quarterback Blaine Gabbert, defensive lineman Sam Acho, cornerback Ryan Smith and tackle Jerald Hawkins. It’s possible Gabbert returns as a backup, particularly if Winston returns, but the Bucs have Ryan Griffin under contract and may look to the draft at quarterback.
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 709-5982. Follow @NFLSTROUD.