TAMPA — Tom Brady and Ali Marpet have retired. In many ways, the decision by those Pro Bowlers to call it quits will continue to shape the Bucs’ priorities in free agency.
The negotiating period begins Monday and players can sign contracts beginning with the new league year Wednesday at 4 p.m.
The list of quarterbacks possibly available via trade has been whittled down. The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers signed a four-year, $200 million contract with $153 million guaranteed. Russell Wilson was traded from the Seahawks to the Broncos. Carson Wentz was dealt from the Colts to the Commanders. Jimmy Garoppolo may find willing partners in the Colts.
The Bucs will monitor the legal storm clouds surrounding Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, but it is hard to forecast whether he has a future in Tampa Bay because it will be an ownership decision. A grand jury declined to indict Watson following a lawsuit filed by 22 women who accused him of harassment and sexual assault. Watson still is subject to possible suspension under the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
But with Kyle Trask the only quarterback under contract, the Bucs will attempt to sign at least one or two free agents at the position. All aboard the Blaine train?
Blaine Gabbert is an unrestricted free agent who has played in Bruce Arians’ system, backed up Brady for two seasons and likely is to be at least one of the free-agent quarterbacks who will be a priority to sign.
“Blaine Gabbert has been in this system for a long time now and his talent is more than enough,” Arians said. “So if we go free agency-wise, we’ll probably bring him back.”
Gabbert will have some say in that, of course.
That other focus for the Bucs will be securing the interior of their offensive line. Marpet’s departure put a premium on trying to re-sign a combination of center Ryan Jensen and Alex Cappa or Aaron Stinnie. On Saturday, the Bucs did lock up Stinnie, signing him to a one-year, $1.4-million deal with incentives up to $2.5 million. Stinnie started three playoff games, including the Super Bowl, in the 2020 season.
“We can’t replace the player (Marpet), but if we can get back Ryan and Alex and Stinnie — they all played together,” Arians said. “Nick Leverett played. We went through seven or eight offensive linemen last year. Those five guys were ironmen for most of the year until January. I think we’re fine there.”
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The Bucs have placed the franchise player tag for the second year in a row on receiver Chris Godwin, guaranteeing him $19.2 million. They hope to reach an agreement on a long-term deal prior to Wednesday to reduce the impact on the salary cap.
The Bucs’ focus will be re-signing their own free agents. That makes a lot of sense considering four of them — Godwin, tight end Rob Gronkowski, Jensen and cornerback Carlton Davis — are ranked among Sports Illustrated’s top 12 free agents.
Godwin is locked up. But let’s take a closer look at how the Bucs may attack free agency.
5 free agents the Bucs will try to re-sign immediately
C Ryan Jensen: The Bucs may have let the 30-year-old Jensen move on if Marpet had not suddenly retired. They have a second-year center in Notre Dame’s Robert Hainsey. Jensen just completed a four-year, $42 million contract that made him the sixth-highest paid center in the NFL.
“He has been the center pivot of our offense,” general manager Jason Licht said at the recent combine. “We signed him when we did to elevate and set the tone of the toughness of the team, and he’s definitely done that. I think for me it’s a definite priority to continue that.”
Spotrac projects Jensen’s value at $10 million per year, but he’s bound to exceed that and try to break the bank.
CB Carlton Davis: The team’s top cover cornerback is a priority and may have been franchise tag candidate had Godwin struck an accord with the Bucs. Arians talked a lot about Davis missing 14 games over the past four seasons, including seven in 2021. Regardless, he’ll get a ton of action on the open market.
The Steelers reportedly have a big interest in Davis after allowing Joe Haden and Ahkello Witherspoon to hit the open market. Spotrac projects Davis’ value at $19.6 million per year. The Bucs still have Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean under contract.
G Alex Cappa: The guard has been a solid, reliable four-year starter whose value obviously increased with the departure of Marpet. Spotrac projects a five-year, $53 million deal for Cappa.
S Jordan Whitehead: One of the most underrated players in the NFL, Whitehead is a fierce, hard-hitting safety who supports the run in the box but has enough ball skills and range to make plays in the passing game. The Bucs have Mike Edwards and Antoine Winfield Jr. locked up for at least another season. The Steelers also are also in it for Whitehead. Spotrac lists his value at three years, $23.6 million.
QB Blaine Gabbert: The Bucs probably won’t have to twist his arm for a chance to compete with Trask as the starter. Tampa Bay will sign another free agent to compete with Gabbert, but he has the advantage to replace Brady.
5 free agents the Bucs will let test the market
TE Rob Gronkowski: He would be a luxury and frankly is expected to retire, but the Bucs’ only proven tight end under contract is Cameron Brate. Can there be Gronky without Tommy? His hometown Buffalo Bills have an interest.
OLB Jason Pierre-Paul: Because the Bucs drafted Joe Tryon-Shoyinka in the first round a year ago and Anthony Nelson is ascending, re-signing JPP is a luxury. He has missed 11 games in the past three years. Although he was a warrior to play through a torn rotator cuff that required surgery, Pierre-Paul is 33. Spotrac places his value at two years, $20.128 million.
DT Ndamukong Suh: Suh already has signed a series of three, one-year contracts with the Bucs. He has told them he wants to play in 2022 and seems to have made a home in Tampa Bay. Suh also is coming off back-to-back six-sack seasons and has never missed a game in his career. At 35, he’s the perfect partner for Vita Vea.
RB Leonard Fournette: Playoff Lenny wants to become Payoff Lenny. On Instagram he wrote: “They could never say I didn’t give it my all every time I suited up,” then thanked teammates and coaches. The Bucs need more than Ke’Shawn Vaughn at running back. The market value is two years, $12.3 million.
DT William Gholston: The glue guy, who is more valuable than his numbers may indicate, although he did post a career-high 4.5 sacks in 2021.
5 free agents who may draw interest from the Bucs
RB J.D. McKissic, Commanders: The Washington back could fill the role held last year by Giovani Bernard. McKissic has a career 4.4-yard per carry average and caught 43 passes for 397 yards in 2021.
RB David Johnson, Texans: The former Cardinals star played for Arians in Arizona. He had 453 total yards from scrimmage for the Texans a year ago. He is, however, 30.
S Tyrann Mathieu, Chiefs: The Chiefs are bidding farewell to the Honey Badger, who will be 30 by the start of the season. Arians drafted him in Arizona. Problem is, his projected value is $14.8 million per year.
S Marcus Williams, Saints: The Bucs would prefer Whitehead but Williams has 15 career interceptions and is only 26. He is a big-ticket guy who could average $15 million.
CB Stephon Gilmore, Panthers: Traded during the season from New England, Gilmore would be a suitable replacement — albeit at an estimated 14.1 million per year — if the Bucs lose Davis.
5 contracts the Bucs can restructure to create cap room
DT Vita Vea: Bucs reduced Vea’s $10.6 million salary to $1.12 million and a $9.46 million bonus Saturday to create $7.64 million of salary cap space.
OLB Shaquil Barrett: The Bucs can pay some of Barrett’s $16 million base salary as a bonus and lower his cap value significantly.
WR Mike Evans: He has pitched in several years in a row. Why not again? He has a $14 million base salary but some dead money already moved to voidable years.
LT Donovan Smith: The Bucs veteran has a base salary of $15.75 million that is easily converted even though there already is dead money on him through 2025.
LB Lavonte David: At $12.5 million, David is in the final year of his contract and could add voidable seasons.
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