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Examining the Bucs’ biggest free-agent decisions of the offseason

While the team possesses solid cap space, it will be hard-pressed to keep all of its big names on board.
Bucs outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett (58) and Jason Pierre-Paul (90) pursue Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes during Super Bowl 55.
Bucs outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett (58) and Jason Pierre-Paul (90) pursue Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes during Super Bowl 55. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Feb. 9
Updated Feb. 9

The final slivers of confetti hadn’t yet landed on the Raymond James Stadium turf Sunday evening when the invariable question surrounding the Super Bowl champs arose.

How will Bucs management keep the band together? Or can it?

Though Tampa Bay is projected to have a generous amount of salary-cap space (estimated between ($29-$38 million by cap-analysis web sites), the NFL’s economic realities still suggest any encore performance delivered by the Bucs in 2021 won’t feature the entire ensemble that helped hoist a Lombardi Trophy late Sunday night.

Which isn’t to say the team won’t do its darndest to keep its title team intact.

“I have all the trust in the world in (general manager) Jason (Licht) and what he will do,” coach Bruce Arians said Monday morning.

“These guys, they have a bond. There will be dollars involved, but I think this group is so, so close that sometimes dollars don’t matter. But we’re going to do everything we can to get the dollars right, too, because they earned it.”

As speculation centers on Tampa Bay’s immediate future and next season’s salary cap (estimated to be around $180 million), we examine the Bucs’ seven most crucial free-agent decisions of the offseason, ranked in order of re-signing significance.

7. Running back Leonard Fournette

Bucs tailback Leonard Fournette (28) ran for 300 yards in four playoff games.
Bucs tailback Leonard Fournette (28) ran for 300 yards in four playoff games. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

In the span of one wild postseason, Fournette evolved from disillusioned backup to “Playoff Lenny,” amassing 300 rushing yards, 148 receiving yards and four total touchdowns. Problem is, he may have priced himself out of this market.

Fournette, who signed a one-year, $2 million deal with Tampa Bay in early September, still is only 26 and probably earned himself some money — elsewhere — with his playoff effort. For all his late-season production, a logjam still exists in the backfield, where the Bucs remain high on Ronald Jones and love the upside of rookie tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn.

6. Defensive end Ndamukong Suh

Bucs defensive end Ndamukong Suh (93) warms up during a team practice Jan. 29 at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa.
Bucs defensive end Ndamukong Suh (93) warms up during a team practice Jan. 29 at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Counting playoffs, this durable 11-year veteran totaled 7.5 sacks and 22 quarterback hits, providing the kind of interior push in Todd Bowles’ 3-4 scheme that allowed the edge guys to flourish. Thing is, Suh just turned 34, and his wife is expecting twins. He might very well be inclined to take the $8 million he earned this year (including a $5 million signing bonus) and become a full-time dad.

5. Tight end Rob Gronkowski

Rob Gronkowski celebrates as the crowd chants, "We want Gronk! We want Gronk!" after Super Bowl 55 between the Chiefs and Bucs Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Rob Gronkowski celebrates as the crowd chants, "We want Gronk! We want Gronk!" after Super Bowl 55 between the Chiefs and Bucs Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

In the immediate wake of his two-touchdown performance in the Super Bowl, Gronkowski — now formally a free agent for the first time in his life — reiterated his desire to remain with longtime pal Tom Brady for at least another year.

“I’ll remain un-retired,” said Gronkowski, who retired following New England’s 2018 title season before joining the Bucs (via trade) last spring. “I’m obviously going to soak this in and see where I’m at in a couple of weeks, but ... I don’t see why I won’t be back.”

Gronkowski, who turns 32 in May, worked off a one-year contract for a $9 million base salary in 2020. A similar deal (or even a modest bump) seems doable, especially considering his value as a receiver and blocker in max-protection packages.

Problem is, the Bucs already have exercised their fifth-year option on O.J. Howard (who missed most of the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon), and would owe he and fellow tight end Cameron Brate roughly a combined $12 million in 2021. Something’s got to give.

4. Kicker Ryan Succop

Ryan Succop kicks a field goal during the first half of Super Bowl 55 Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Ryan Succop kicks a field goal during the first half of Super Bowl 55 Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The Bucs will sooner install Astroturf on their practice fields before letting this 12-year veteran get out of the building. Succop, who set a franchise record with 136 regular-season points and missed only three field goals all season, brought stability to a position bereft of it for years. He earned slightly more than $1 million in 2020 and will get a nice bump in 2021.

3. Inside linebacker Lavonte David

Bucs veteran inside linebacker Lavonte David ranked second on the team with 117 regular-season tackles in 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Menendez)
Bucs veteran inside linebacker Lavonte David ranked second on the team with 117 regular-season tackles in 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Menendez) [ ALEX MENENDEZ | AP ]

One of the team’s most universally admired players just culminated his five-year deal (which paid him $10.75 million this past season) with a Super Bowl title. Spotrac.com calculates David’s annual market value at $12.7 million.

Will the Bucs be willing to pay such a figure to a 31-year-old with considerable mileage? And how badly does David wish to remain in Tampa? This one will be interesting. He’s still producing at a high level (his 117 regular-season tackles ranked second on the team) and the franchise may be inclined to reward his loyalty — to a degree.

2. Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) is pursued by Bucs outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (58) during Super Bowl 55 on Sunday. Re-signing Barrett, who now is a free agent, appears a large priority for Tampa Bay this offseason.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) is pursued by Bucs outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (58) during Super Bowl 55 on Sunday. Re-signing Barrett, who now is a free agent, appears a large priority for Tampa Bay this offseason. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Following his breakthrough 2019 season (19.5 sacks), Barrett signed a one-year deal (for slightly less than $16 million) under the franchise tender, then mostly flourished again, especially in the playoffs (four sacks, eight quarterback hits).

Forget another franchise tag, unless the Bucs are willing to alienate him and pay 120 percent of his 2020 salary (per NFL guidelines). Barrett, 28, will want long-term security. Considering his status on the free-agent food chain, he’ll likely get it.

“I know there isn’t another place I’d rather be,” Barrett said right after the Super Bowl. “I’m pretty sure my agent is going to talk to them; we’re going to talk and we’re going to find a quick solution to this because I know I found a home here.”

1. Wide receiver Chris Godwin

Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) converts a third down during the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game against the Packers on Jan. 24 in Green Bay.
Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) converts a third down during the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game against the Packers on Jan. 24 in Green Bay. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Possibly the primary candidate for the franchise tag. A proven commodity at only 25, Godwin, who had 65 regular-season catches and a huge playoff effort (five receptions, 110 yards) in Green Bay, is poised for an immense raise — somewhere.

He played for slightly more than $2.1 million this past season, and Spotrac.com calculates his annual market value at $17.2 million. Dilemma here is, the Bucs already are paying big money to fellow elite receiver Mike Evans, whose 2021 cap number stands just shy of $17 million.

Apply the tag to Godwin, and you’re paying him nearly the same amount. That’s a daunting price for two receivers. Then again, consider the payoff.

“We know he’s up but I hope we do everything in our power to keep him,” Evans said Sunday night after the Super Bowl. “He’s such an unbelievable player and teammate. If we don’t have Chris Godwin, it’s going to be so tough for me and the squad as well.”

• • •

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