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What is the Bucs’ next move in free agency?

Tom Brady’s contract will take a sizable chunk of the team’s salary-cap space. They will have to get creative to fill holes through free agency.
In this Sept. 15, 2019, file photo, then-New England Patriots wide receiver Antonio Brown looks on before the start of a game against the Miami Dolphins.
In this Sept. 15, 2019, file photo, then-New England Patriots wide receiver Antonio Brown looks on before the start of a game against the Miami Dolphins. [ DAVID SANTIAGO | AP ]
Published Mar. 18, 2020
Updated Mar. 20, 2020

TAMPA — When the Bucs officially sign Tom Brady — after already retaining pass rusher Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul — the team still will have roughly $20 million in salary cap space to spend this offseason.

And suddenly, Tampa Bay appears to be a popular landing spot. Since news surfaced that Brady will be joining the Bucs, the interest among free agents to join him has spiked, according to an ESPN report.

While the Bucs’ cap flexibility allowed them to land the best quarterback of all time and give him a franchise-record $30 million for 2020, the Bucs still will have to be strategic moving forward in a fluid free-agency market.

Here’s a look as where they might spend at certain positions.

Wide receiver

Unlike the rest of these positions, this shouldn’t be considered an area of need, but because reports were well-circulated this week that Brady was telling teams that he wanted enigmatic wide receiver Antonio Brown — a teammate of his in New England for one game last season before he was released amid sexual assault allegations — to join him, it’s the first position to be discussed.

Whether Brady made that pitch to the Bucs is unknown, but Brown is still under investigation and could face discipline from the league, so even if the Bucs were open to signing Brown, his status for next season is up in the air.

Also, keep in mind that last offseason, Bucs coach Bruce Arians said there was “too much diva” with Brown when assessing his fallout with the Steelers. Arians, who was Brown’s offensive coordinator early in his career, said Brown was the team’s hardest worker as a young player but lost that mentality. Brown responded on Twitter, claiming Arians had “zero clue” and said “Arians now wears (Kangol) hats n glasses … but (I’m a) diva!”

Related: Bruce Arians’ comments on Antonio Brown prompts Twitter rebuttal from Steelers receiver

Then there’s the need. The Bucs have two 1,000-yard receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin as well one of the league’s top pass-catching tight end duos in O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. This year’s draft is also deep on receivers.

Plus, the Bucs wanted to retain No. 3 receiver Breshad Perriman, who flourished late in the season when Evans and Godwin were sidelined due to injury. Perriman could earn a multi-year deal worth $8-9 million annually, which could price the Bucs out for Brown.

Offensive line

The Bucs surely aren’t making such an investment in Brady without trying to better protect him, and with right tackle Demar Dotson a free agent at the age of 34, the Bucs could find his successor in the market.

The problem there is that the best tackles don’t get to free agency and when they do, most are past their prime. And the best of this free agency class — Jack Conklin (who signed with the Browns for three years, $42 million) and Bryan Bulaga (three years, $30 million with the Chargers) are off the market.

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The Bucs could offer one-year deals to veteran right tackles Marcus Gilbert, who is coming off a knee injury with Arizona, or Darryl Williams, a second-team All-Pro at right tackle in 2017, at value signings.

Either one of those players could cost less than $6 million.

But offensive line might be a position best addressed in the draft.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers nose tackle Ndamukong Suh (93) rushes in against the Atlanta Falcons during the last game of the 2019 season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers nose tackle Ndamukong Suh (93) rushes in against the Atlanta Falcons during the last game of the 2019 season. [ JEFF HAYNES | AP ]

Defensive line

In fact, the Bucs entered the offseason wanting to keep most of their own free agents, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They franchised Barrett, and he will make $15.8 million next season, and Pierre-Paul will get an average annual salary of $13.5 million.

The other free agent that Arians made clear he wanted to keep was veteran interior lineman Ndamukong Suh, who teamed well with Vita Vea to provide the interior pressure that helped Barrett and Pierre-Paul have success getting to the quarterback.

If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And given that the Bucs’ secondary is young, even though they made major strides in the second half, it’s important to have a veteran presence in the front seven.

Suh signed last year for $9.25 million, but he didn’t sign until May. Like last offseason, Suh, a 10-year NFL veteran, will likely take his time in considering where he wants to be. He didn’t draw huge interest last year. The Bucs want him back, he expressed he’d like to come back. It might be just a matter of getting the money right.

Tennessee Titans running back Dion Lewis (#33) during an NFL game against the New England Patriots.
Tennessee Titans running back Dion Lewis (#33) during an NFL game against the New England Patriots. [ MICHAEL ZITO | AP ]

Running back

If you’re going to sign Brady, you want to do everything you can to make him comfortable.

Another way to protect Brady would be acquiring a pass-catching running back to serve as a safety valve. Dion Lewis, who made $4 million last season with Tennessee, averaged 28 receptions a year playing with Brady from 2015 to 2017, so there’s a familiarity there.

Or if the Bucs wanted to upgrade the position as a whole, they could pursue former Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, who averaged 1,222 total yards and 45 receptions over his five-year career. Gordon could net more than $8 million a year in free agency.

And now that the Rams have released Todd Gurley, he is another option, though he’d have to come on a much more team-friendly deal than the one that was about the net him $10.5 million in base salary.

The Bucs could also draft a running back, especially if a three-down back is available early

Other considerations

Trade rumors linger about the Bucs dealing for Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks (who played with Brady with the Patriots), but the Bucs can’t be interested in a $16.8 million cap hit for 2020 that would suffocate any other significant spending.

Among the other considerations that must be made are saving about $8 million for draft picks and potentially seeking long-term deals for players like Godwin or linebacker Lavonte David, who can both reach free agency after this season. Arians has said locking up Godwin, who emerged as one of the league’s top wideouts last season, is an offseason priority. They’ll also have to consider Howard’s fifth-year option in a year.

Brate will make $6 million next year, and $4 million of his salary becomes guaranteed Sunday, so they could trade or cut him before then to free up space.

So while the Bucs have landed their biggest free-agent acquisition in franchise history, they will now have to be more creative in continuing to build around him.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.