TAMPA — If we’re translating free agency to football parlance, the Bucs have exploded out of their breaks, forced a quick three-and-out, popped a big one on the opening drive.
Which is to say, they’re off to a splendid start.
Tom Brady’s stunning un-retirement announcement two Sundays ago sparked an equally unforeseen free-agent retention that continued Monday night, when dual-threat tailback Leonard Fournette agreed to a three-year deal with the Bucs after some brief flirtations elsewhere.
Since the NFL’s legal-tampering period commenced last Monday, the Bucs have re-signed Fournette, receiver Chris Godwin (after initially applying the franchise tag to him), center Ryan Jensen and cornerback Carlton Davis; have traded for veteran guard Shaq Mason; and have signed Falcons receiver Russell Gage and Patriots safety Logan Ryan.
Meantime, they’ve restructured the deals of other veterans (i.e. linebacker Shaquil Barrett, receiver Mike Evans) to create salary-cap space.
“This last week has been a whirlwind for a lot of people,” Godwin said Monday. “But I think it just restores faith in the Bucs’ fan base that we’re back, man. We’re not laying down for anybody, we’re coming back to try and make it back to the top of the mountain.”
So what will the team do in the ensuing days for a follow-up? Will this early momentum climb or plateau as they continue attempting to mold their 2022 roster into a striking likeness of last season’s?
Considering the fluid nature of free agency, the answers could arrive in the amount of time it takes to refresh one’s Twitter page.
As of Monday afternoon, the Bucs had roughly $14.6 million in salary-cap space (according to spotrac.com). Depending on how Fournette’s deal is structured, the team still should have more than $10 million at its disposal. About $3 million of that will be needed for 2022 draft picks.
“We’re extremely happy with the work that we did last week,” general manager Jason Licht said Monday. “It’s another week this week.”
The week has a darned tough act to follow. As the dizzying process of re-signings, restructures and (perhaps) released players continues, we examine three areas that still need addressing.
The Bucs still are waiting out Rob Gronkowski, whose return for a third season in Tampa seems a foregone conclusion now that Brady is back.
Gronkowski recently was captured on video saying (inside a west Tampa barber shop) “there’s a very good chance” he plays in 2022, but that he simply wants to make Brady squirm for a while. If Gronk played on another one-year deal structured like last season’s, he’d count only about $3 million against the salary cap, though the contract would include some voidable years to allow a bulky signing bonus to be pro-rated. While that approach partially mortgages the future, the Bucs are playing for now.
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Bring Gronk back in the fold, and the Bucs might very well be set at tight end. Former first-round draftee O.J. Howard, who totaled 16 catches last year, has signed with the Bills, but veteran Cameron Brate again recently agreed to a pay cut to remain with the team.
Additionally, the club seems high on 29-year-old practice-squad fixture Codey McElroy, to whom it signed to a futures contract earlier this year.
Though the Bucs locked up 27-year-old Pro Bowl nose tackle Vita Vea with a four-year extension in January, his counterparts are on the cusp of middle age. Ndamukong Suh, who turned 35 in January, hasn’t indicated if he’ll keep playing after a solid 2021 season (six sacks, 13 quarterback hits), and 36-year-old Steve McLendon isn’t expected back.
That pair’s mildly younger peer, 30-year-old William Gholston, agreed Tuesday to a new one-year deal that will keep him in Tampa Bay for a 10th season. The current roster’s second-longest tenured player (behind Lavonte David), Gholston recorded a career-best 4.5 sacks in 2021.
Suh played on a one-year deal very similar to Gronkowski’s in 2021, so the cost likely would be manageable if he chose to play another year (and the team obliged). Regardless of that decision, look for the Bucs to address this area in the draft. While the crop of 2022 interior defensive linemen remains relatively modest, it still represents a significant upgrade from the 2021 draft class.
As it stands, Kyle Trask — the former record-setting Gator who took a de facto redshirt year as a rookie in 2021 — is Brady’s backup. But that could change by the time you read this.
Veteran Blaine Gabbert played on a $2 million deal in 2021, and presumably is being targeted to remain with the team. Before Brady’s change of heart, when it appeared Gabbert would inherit the Bucs’ starting job, coach Bruce Arians hailed his ability and physical traits, noting he amassed his 13-35 record as an NFL starter with teams that lacked stability.
Even with a modest raise, securing Gabbert for the short term appears doable.
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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