TAMPA — If you ever doubted whether Antonio Brown would return to the Bucs following his three-game suspension for misrepresenting his COVID-19 vaccination status, there are more signs it appears inevitable.
Brown was spotted leaving the Bucs’ AdventHealth Training Center on Thursday carrying a helmet, several pairs of cleats and football pants.
Was he cleaning out his locker? Hardly.
Because he is suspended, Brown is only allowed to have access to the team facility for some rehab on his ankle and to pick up gear.
Brown is not allowed to have quarterbacks throw with him there, so he’s obviously using players outside of the team to prepare for his likely return Dec. 26 at Carolina.
The Bucs are 5-0 with Brown in the lineup and they haven’t really settled on a third receiver as his replacement.
In last Sunday’s win at Atlanta, Breshad Perriman was signed from the practice squad and played 59 snaps while Tyler Johnson (nine) and Scotty Miller (four) rarely saw the field.
Perriman didn’t do much with his extended opportunity. He had four targets and caught two passes for 19 yards.
One can only imagine what Miller and Johnson were thinking. Miller was leading the Bucs in receiving yards a year ago before Brown came onboard eight games into the regular season. Miller still turned in the biggest play of the year with his touchdown reception just before halftime in the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay.
Johnson made a circus catch on third down to keep the chains moving in the division playoff win at New Orleans.
Perriman wasn’t signed to the practice squad until Nov. 10. Coach Bruce Arians made some mention of him having two good weeks of practice. But what about the two years of practices Miller and Johnson had with Tom Brady?
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich offered no explanation for turning to Perriman as the third wideout.
“It just worked itself out that way,” Leftwich said. “Nothing specific happened. Nobody did nothing wrong or bad, it just worked out that way.”
What would Leftwich say to Miller or Johnson if they felt overlooked?
“They’ll play. They’ll play,” Leftwich said. “They understand we needed to win the football game. Everybody got their hand in the pile trying to do what we got to do to help us. Every week, something may be different. The game plan may be different. We do like we do every week and try to win the football game.”
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It’s not too early to start speculating on how the Bucs will look different in 2022. With or without Tom Brady, the Bucs have some difficult decisions to make regarding their own free agents.
Spotrac projected the 2022 salaries of the top players who could hit the market. It’s based on average salary, and structure of the contract certainly affects the overall value. But it’s a sobering look at the money some of the team’s top free agents could fetch.
Chris Godwin: $17 million. The Bucs’ franchise player could have that tag placed on him one more time. This year, Godwin is earning nearly $16 million, so with the increase of the salary cap, it doesn’t seem out of whack for a player who is likely to break Keyshawn Johnson’s single-season club record of 106 receptions set in 2000.
Vita Vea: $9.3 million. Of course, the former first-round pick won’t hit the market in 2022 because you have to expect the club to pick up his fifth-year option.
Leonard Fournette: $9.1 million. Having won the starting job over Ronald Jones, Fournette figures to produce 1,500 yards from scrimmage this season. Franchise running backs such as Dalvin Cook can make $15 million. But would the Bucs spend that much on the position? The only running back signed for 2022 is Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
Rob Gronkowski: $8.2 million. Roughly the same as he made in 2021. But will he be back if Brady retires?
O.J. Howard: $8.1 million. I know what you’re thinking. The cost of Juice is greatly inflated. But consider that it only takes one team that liked Howard coming out of Alabama and will see he has been stuck behind a Hall of Fame tight end such as Gronkowski.
Jason Pierre-Paul: $11.1 million. Not a significant decrease for an oft-injured player whose production and reps have fallen since his torn labrum. With the addition of Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, Bucs may pass.
Antonio Brown: $11.4 million. This one doesn’t make much sense when you consider Brown has been suspended for 11 games over the past two seasons. For the second year, he will play only eight regular-season games. A market may be hard to find unless he rips it up in late December and January.
The list does not yet include Carlton Davis. Health permitting, if a team values him as a shutdown cornerback, he could earn in the $17-18 million range.
Worried about the cap? It just went up to $202 million, about a $60 million increase from the Bucs’ 2021 payroll.
Ndamukong Suh could be having a career year
Another player set to become a free agent is Suh, the Bucs’ 34-year-old defensive tackle. He’s got six sacks with five games remaining, four off his career high of 10 as a rookie.
Suh has been a remarkably consistent player for the Bucs and has a slew of outside interests as a real estate developer and entrepreneur. But it’s clear the Bucs have loved what he brings to the huddle and the classroom.
When asked how Suh makes the Bucs better, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles gushed. “His professionalism. The way he takes care of his body, the way he studies. He is always on time, attentive, taking notes, just like as if he was a rookie. He is out here on his off day running sprints and just doing everything he can to be ahead of the game. I think that keeps him very consistent with who he is and the things that he does. I think a lot of young guys can learn from that.”
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