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Previewing the Bucs’ to-do list for the NFL scouting combine

Bucs head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht have a lot of decisions to make before they can sign free agents March 18. The information they gather this week in Indianapolis will inform those decision.
Linebacker Shaquil Barrett's bet on himself is about to pay off, in Tampa Bay or elsewhere. [PAUL SANCYA  |  AP]
Linebacker Shaquil Barrett's bet on himself is about to pay off, in Tampa Bay or elsewhere. [PAUL SANCYA | AP]

TAMPA ― If the Bucs plan to designate a franchise player, Shaquil Barrett is the logical choice.

He is coming off his first full season as a starter in which he exploded onto the scene by leading the NFL with 19.5 sacks.

He’s 27, but a long-term deal could average close to $20 million for three or four seasons.

What Barrett accomplished is miraculous. Here’s a guy who played behind Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Bradley Chubb in Denver and never had more than five sacks in any season. What’s more, Barrett forced six fumbles and did it all while betting on himself with a one-year, $4-million deal.

Related: NFL draft: Jacob Eason is a wildcard quarterback. Will the Bucs be interested?

Bucs coach Bruce Arians already has announced that Barrett “ain’t going anywhere.’’ The only way the Bucs can be sure of that is to franchise him.

The Bucs will ramp up talks with Barrett’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, at the NFL scouting combine, which runs Monday through March 1 in Indianapolis. Their hope is they can come to some accord before March 10, the deadline for teams applying the franchise or transition player tags.

But it would also be helpful for the Bucs to see if Barrett can approach that production in 2020. If he gets off to a hot start, there’s no reason why they can’t continue to negotiate a longer-term deal.

The Bucs have made no such declarations about Jameis Winston. They certainly could have. Instead, Arians has talked a lot about wanting to see what’s behind Door No. 2. That doesn’t sound like someone wedded to Winston, who led the NFL with 5,109 yards passing while throwing 33 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions.

Say Winston got the transition tag, which would guarantee him a one-year deal at the average salary of the 10 highest-paid quarterbacks, and found another deal the Bucs wouldn’t want to match. (They would have five days to decide.) Tampa Bay would get no draft pick compensation. However, if Winston makes it to free agency when the legal tampering beings March 13-16 and signs elsewhere, the Bucs would be eligible for a compensatory draft pick.

The Bucs could use the franchise tag, which would guarantee Winston a one-year deal at the average of the five highest-paid quarterbacks, which would cost about $27 million. They could continue to flirt with free agents Teddy Bridgewater, Phillip Rivers and Ryan Tannehill. Unless Winston signed the one-year tender right away, which you suspect he wouldn’t, they could rescind it later.

But that’s bad business and it’s hard to imagine the Bucs treating Winston that way. It’s risky to let Winston walk unless the Bucs know they can sign a guy they like behind Door No. 2.

Things should begin to sort out in Indianapolis. But the next big date to watch is March 10, when the game of tag ends.

Busy to-do list

There will be a lot on their Arians and general manager Jason Licht’s plates, and not just at St. Elmo’s Steakhouse next week.

Teams may conduct 15-minute interviews with 45 prospective draft picks this year instead of 60. Those meetings used to come at night, but now the workouts have been moved to prime time for television. The Bucs will be busy on many fronts due to the fact that free agency is just weeks away. Here’s a look at their to-do list:

Negotiate and determine the fate of 19 free agents: That’s a lot. The Bucs will nearly $85 million of salary-cap space trails only behind only Miami and Indianapolis. Arians’ stated goal of keeping the defensive front seven intact would include deals with Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh and/or Carl Nassib.

Another intriguing player, albeit one that may be too pricey to keep, is receiver Breshad Perriman, who did a nice job down the stretch with both Chris Godwin and Mike Evans on the mend. The Bucs also would like to extend Godwin’s deal. He will become a free agent in 2021.

Related: Gerald McCoy’s storybook ending? Playing in Super Bowl 55

Media obligations: Licht hasn’t spoken publicly about the 2019 season. Let’s start there. Then we can move on to more pressing questions about Winston. Arians will face the national media at 11 a.m. Tuesday while Licht will speak at noon.

Gather intel on possible trades for a quarterback: The Panthers’ Cam Newton, the Bengals’ Andy Dalton and the Raiders Derek Carr all could become available. The most unlikely is Carr, who would probably only be dangled if the Raiders signed Tom Brady. More doors for the Bucs to check behind next week.

Scout rookie quarterbacks: For the first time since 2015, the Bucs appear committed to coming out of the NFL draft with a young quarterback. How could they not? Their only player at that position under contract is Ryan Griffin. At some point, most likely not with the 14th overall pick, the Bucs will address the position. Players they will watch closely include Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Washington’s Jacob Eason and Utah State’s Jordan Love. Whether that player develops into a starting quarterback will depend on the passer. But the Bucs need a younger, promising prospect at that position.

South Carolina's Javon Kinlaw of the South squad during practice for the Senior Bowl Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, in Mobile, Ala. [BUTCH DILL | AP]

Other players to watch

It’s hard to know exactly which players will be on the board when the Bucs use their No. 14 overall selection. It’s a pretty good draft for offensive linemen and pass rushers, both off the edge and from the interior. Here are five players the Bucs should watch closely in Indy:

Javon Kinlaw, OLB, South Carolina: Defensive tackle will probably go much higher than to the Bucs at No. 14

K’Lavon Chaisson, OLB, LSU: Pair him with former Tigers teammate Devin White and watch them work. Would take pressure off having to sign Pierre-Paul.

A.J. Epenesa, OLB, Iowa: Another edge rusher rated highly and in the Bucs range at No. 14.

Jadrick Wills, OL, Alabama: Demar Dotson is a free agent and the Bucs need a right tackle.

Andrew Thomas, OL, Georgia: See above.

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