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As NFL’s crazy season commences, we rank the Bucs’ free-agent priorities

Eleven players who started Sunday’s game vs. the Rams now are unrestricted free agents.
Chris Godwin should be a priority for the Bucs in the offseason given how thin the team is at the receiver position.
Chris Godwin should be a priority for the Bucs in the offseason given how thin the team is at the receiver position. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jan. 25|Updated Jan. 25

If you thought Sunday’s proceedings at Raymond James Stadium were rife with drama and tension, just wait until the next couple of months play out.

The upcoming stretch of free agency could leave Bucs fans squirming, celebrating and/or screaming at various intervals.

Nearly two-dozen players, including 11 who started Sunday’s 30-27 playoff loss to the Rams, are unrestricted free agents. Because salary-cap realities won’t allow the Bucs to retain them all, a chunk of the nucleus that led the franchise to a pair of postseason berths, a division crown and Super Bowl title in the last two seasons will disappear.

“Last year, to get everybody back was amazing,” coach Bruce Arians said. “I doubt we can do it all again this year, but we’re sure going to give it our best.”

That leaves the team with some difficult choices in the near future. Whom should the Bucs prioritize? Whom are they likely to let go? We’ve taken a stab at ranking the top seven free agents, in order of importance to the team, and assessing the fates of the remaining unsigned guys.

Top priority

WR Chris Godwin, 25

Chris Godwin celebrates his first-quarter touchdown against the Giants on Nov. 22  in Tampa.
Chris Godwin celebrates his first-quarter touchdown against the Giants on Nov. 22 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times (2021) ]

The Bucs franchise player in 2021 didn’t disappoint, leading the team with 98 receptions for 1,103 yards and five touchdowns despite missing the final three games after sustaining a torn ACL in a 9-0 loss to New Orleans. The injury potentially complicates signing Godwin to a long-term deal since he may not be completely recovered until October.

Given the lack of depth at the receiver position, he is the top priority. Godwin’s market value is five years, $90.9 million, according to Spotrac. The Bucs could use the franchise tag on Godwin again, but on the heels of an injury, we don’t think he would be receptive to that.

CB Carlton Davis, 25

Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis III against the Rams during the first half Sunday.
Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis III against the Rams during the first half Sunday. [ JASON BEHNKEN | Associated Press ]

Possibly the leading candidate for the franchise tag. The Bucs’ top cover corner, Davis spent seven games of his contract year on injured reserve (quad), but still led the team in passes defended (11) in the regular season, giving him 29 over the past two years. His market value is five years, $98.3 million according to Spotrac, and with good reason. Davis’ length and cover skills remain at a premium.

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C Ryan Jensen, 30

Center Ryan Jensen, right, is seen on the field just prior to the Bucs taking on the Rams.
Center Ryan Jensen, right, is seen on the field just prior to the Bucs taking on the Rams. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Jensen made the Pro Bowl for the first time this season and has worked well with Tom Brady. He may be a key signing given the importance of protecting the GOAT and likely will fetch a deal in the $11 to $12 million per year range. “It’s tough. I’ve had a great four years here,” Jensen said. “Obviously, I love it here, it’s home. We’ll see what happens and figure out what’s going on.”

TE Rob Gronkowski, 32

Ttight end Rob Gronkowski spikes the ball in the end zone after a touchdown against the Eagles in the wild-card round.
Ttight end Rob Gronkowski spikes the ball in the end zone after a touchdown against the Eagles in the wild-card round. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Gronk says he’ll take three to five weeks to decide whether he returns for a 12th season. Translation: Is Brady retiring? If so, Gronkowski may leave the NFL for good this time. Despite missing four games with fractured ribs, he caught 55 passes for 802 yards and six touchdowns. He would only take a one-year deal for about $8.1 million, according to Spotrac.

RB Leonard Fournette, 27

Bucs running back Leonard Fournette finds an opening and runs for a gain of yards in the fourth quarter against the Bills on Dec. 12.
Bucs running back Leonard Fournette finds an opening and runs for a gain of yards in the fourth quarter against the Bills on Dec. 12. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]

Playoff Lenny is Free Agent Fournette and has played for a below-market value the past two years. He has been a highly productive, three-down back who rushed for 812 yards and eight touchdowns while catching 69 passes for 454 yards. He won’t come cheap, but the Bucs’ only running back under contract is Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Spoctrac estimates his value at two years, $12.3 million.

G Alex Cappa, 26

Guard Alex Cappa (65) offers a hug to tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) moments after Gronkowski scored his second touchdown on Sept. 19 against the Falcons.
Guard Alex Cappa (65) offers a hug to tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) moments after Gronkowski scored his second touchdown on Sept. 19 against the Falcons. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2021) ]

The durable right guard was a Pro Bowl alternate who started 46 of 52 games for the Bucs. It could be tough to re-sign both Cappa and Jensen. Cappa could fetch $10 million-plus on the free-agent market.

S Jordan Whitehead, 24

Safety Jordan Whitehead (33) celebrates after helping inside linebacker Devin White sack Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts during the wild-card game.
Safety Jordan Whitehead (33) celebrates after helping inside linebacker Devin White sack Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts during the wild-card game. [ MARK LOMOGLIO | Associated Press ]

The hard-hitting safety played at a Pro Bowl level at times and is invaluable for the Bucs in run defense. He is an emerging star who should command lots of offers given his age and experience, and he had his best season with 73 tackles and two interceptions.

Some interest

DT Ndamukong Suh, 35

Saints quarterback Taysom Hill, right, is flushed from the pocket by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh on Dec. 19.
Saints quarterback Taysom Hill, right, is flushed from the pocket by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh on Dec. 19. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times (2021) ]

Suh is a freak when it comes to durability, never having missed a game during his career. He produced six sacks, seven tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hits. He is available on a one-year deal for about $9 million if he chooses to play. But the entrepreneur has a lot of outside interests.

OLB Jason Pierre-Paul, 33

Outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul (90) reacts during the second half of Sunday's loss to the Rams.
Outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul (90) reacts during the second half of Sunday's loss to the Rams. [ MARK LOMOGLIO | Associated Press ]

This incredibly tough pass rusher played with a torn rotator cuff that requires surgery. His production fell as a result; his 31 tackles and 2.5 sacks were his fewest since 2013. JPP says he will decide after surgery whether to resume his career. He would easily be replaced by Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. Pierre-Paul’s market value is $11 million for a one-year deal.

RB Ronald Jones, 24

Ronald Jones (27) runs for a first down with Bears defensive back DeAndre Houston-Carson (36) in pursuit during an Oct. 24 game.
Ronald Jones (27) runs for a first down with Bears defensive back DeAndre Houston-Carson (36) in pursuit during an Oct. 24 game. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2021) ]

Jones lost his starting job to Fournette, then finished the year with a sprained ankle. His market value is $2.7 million so he’s a cheap fall-back option who rushed for only 428 yards in 2021.

DT William Gholston, 30

Defensive tackle William Gholston (92) celebrates a stop on defense against the Panthers in the final game of the regular season.
Defensive tackle William Gholston (92) celebrates a stop on defense against the Panthers in the final game of the regular season. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The versatile defensive lineman posted a career-high 4.5 sacks. He would like to finish his career in Tampa Bay. Gholston earned $5.5 million in 2021 and could likely be re-signed to a one-year deal.

QB Blaine Gabbert, 32

Quarterback Blaine Gabbert (11) calls a play during the fourth quarter against the Giants on Nov. 22.
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert (11) calls a play during the fourth quarter against the Giants on Nov. 22. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2021) ]

Gabbert could be a bridge to Kyle Trask or backup to Brady if he returns. He signed last year for a one-year, $2 million deal. Nothing much should change there unless he’s competing for a starting job.

Others who could stick around

Offensive guard Aaron Stinnie works out during training camp.
Offensive guard Aaron Stinnie works out during training camp. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2021) ]

OL Aaron Stinnie, 27: The veteran backup shined in the 2020 postseason in place of Alex Cappa.

LS Zach Triner, 30: He is reliable, tough as heck, and inexpensive ($850,000 in 2021).

ILB Kevin Minter, 31: The veteran remains steady on second team and special teams.

OL Josh Wells, 30: Like Stinnie, Wells provides veteran depth up front.

CB Dee Delaney, 26: This special teams fixture had an interception in limited defensive snaps.

DE Patrick O’Connor, 28: He ended the season on injured reserve but earns his keep on special teams.

Most likely to depart

Tight end O.J. Howard (80) is seen before Sunday's loss to the Rams.
Tight end O.J. Howard (80) is seen before Sunday's loss to the Rams. [ MARK LOMOGLIO | Associated Press ]

TE O.J. Howard, 27: The former first-rounder barely played (14 receptions, 135 yards, touchdown).

CB Richard Sherman, 33: The future Hall of Famer gave a valiant effort before body betrayed him.

DT Steve McLendon, 36: The interior veteran likely will be supplanted by youth in the draft.

S Andrew Adams, 29: Adams was limited to a special teams role; he had three defensive snaps in playoffs.

RB Giovani Bernard, 30: He had minimal impact (21 carries, 28 catches) in his lone season in Tampa.

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