TAMPA — It was no accident that Bucs coach Todd Bowles began his final meeting with his staff Thursday by reminding them that the team has the second-worst salary-cap situation in the NFL.
In other words, the bill for the last three seasons of chasing — and winning — a Super Bowl with Tom Brady is coming due.
Tampa Bay is $54,453,921 over the projected 2023 cap of $225 million, give or take a couple of million, according to salary website overthecap.com. About $35.1 million of dead money on the cap belongs to Brady and could be reduced if he returns to the Bucs.
Complicating matters is that the Bucs have 24 players who can be unrestricted free agents in March, including three who are among the highest-rated players available in the league, according to statistics website Pro Football Focus: Brady (third), cornerback Jamel Dean (sixth) and linebacker Lavonte David (seventh).
The Bucs would like to have all three return, and Mike Greenberg, the Bucs’ vice president of football administration and a salary-cap savant, could work his accounting magic for another season and push the debt to future years.
Brady and David are at the point in their careers where they would be willing to sign one-year deals. More voidable years could be added for salary-cap reasons, but compensation wouldn’t be the issue.
“I’ve never been in this situation,” David said. “I guess I’ve got to ask around. I think I’ll spend time with my family, see where my mind takes me, see what everybody thinks and go from there.”
Here’s a look at the Bucs’ pending free agents, ranked a bit by priority:
Show them the money
Quarterback Tom Brady, 45
One more year with the GOAT makes sense if Brady is willing and able. Brady has been good for business: the sellouts, the merchandise, the national television games, the relevance he brings just by being in a Tampa Bay uniform. Remember, creamsicle uniforms return in 2023!
He’s also a winner. Three playoff appearances in three years, back-to-back division titles, a Super Bowl 55 win. Have his skills begun to recede? Maybe a little. More things have to be perfect around Brady for him to excel. He already counts a ton on the salary cap, so the Bucs might as well have his services.
Brady would have to learn a new offensive system but one that likely would benefit him with more balance. He would have other options: The Raiders, Dolphins, Jets, 49ers and Titans could be possibilities.
The problem is that no one knows when Brady will make a decision about his future and the Bucs have to go down parallel tracks looking at other free-agent quarterbacks to at least compete with Kyle Trask.
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Cornerback Jamel Dean, 26
The highest-rated cornerback among potential free agents would attract lots of suitors. Dean played in 15 games this season before breaking a toe but still managed to become the Bucs’ best cover corner with two interceptions and eight passes defensed.
The Bucs signed teammate Carlton Davis to a three-year, $44.5 million contract with $24.5 guaranteed in the last offseason. Spotrac projects Dean’s value to be three years, $26.3 million. Sean Murphy-Bunting also can be a free agent, so a deal would have to be struck before the signing period or he will hit the open market.
Linebacker Lavonte David, 32
David played in every game this season and was remarkably productive, tying linebacker Devin White for the most tackles on the team with 124 in the regular season. He also had three sacks, 10 tackles for a loss and a fumble recovery.
There’s not a ton of inside linebackers in the draft worthy of a first-round pick, and players such as K.J. Britt and J.J. Russell were exposed when they got in the lineup against Atlanta. Spotrac lists David’s market value at $9.7 million.
Safety Mike Edwards, 26
The ball-hawking Edwards started 13 games this season, including the wild-card playoff loss to Dallas, and is a 2019 third-round draft pick with nine interceptions in four seasons, counting the playoffs. He could fetch a contract similar to the two-year, $14.5 million deal signed by safety Jordan Whitehead with the Jets last year.
Outside linebacker Anthony Nelson, 25
Shaquil Barrett is coming off a torn Achilles and may not be ready for the start of training camp. Bowles said Nelson and Dean were the Bucs’ most improved players this season. Nelson finished tied for second on the team with 5½ sacks in eight starts. The first free-agent contract for Nelson could fetch $5 million per year.
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert, 33: The backup to Brady could compete with Trask for the starting job in 2023. He played for $2.25 million in 2022.
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, 25: If the Bucs are unable to get Dean back in the fold, Murphy-Bunting may become a priority. His ball-hawking skills still are there. He tied Dean and Edwards for the team lead with two interceptions this season despite starting only six games, including the wild-card loss. He is not a solid tackler, and his slight build (6 feet, 195 pounds) has forced him to miss games.
Defensive end Akiem Hicks, 33: The run-stuffing partner for Vita Vea is often injured and missed five games this season. He had one sack and 25 tackles. Logan Hall may be ready to take over as a starter in 2023.
Defensive end William Gholston, 31: The second-longest-tenured Buc behind David contributed 51 tackles but no sacks playing in 18 games this season. He played on a one-year, $4.5 million deal.
Stay by the phone
Defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches, 29: He’s an energy guy but was forced to play too much due to injuries. He responded with 35 tackles (five for loss) and two sacks in 18 games this season.
Defensive end Patrick O’Connor, 29: He is a solid special-teams player but contributed only six tackles on defense this season.
Guard Aaron Stinnie, 28: He suffered a season-ending torn ACL in camp but started three playoff games, including Super Bowl 55, in the 2020 season. He earned $1.4 million this season.
Outside linebacker Carl Nassib, 29: He contributed 3½ sacks and 25 tackles in 14 games this season. He played for $1.19 million in 2022.
End of the road
Don’t expect the Bucs to have much interest in retaining these players:
Receivers Julio Jones (31 catches, 373 yards, three touchdowns in 11 games for $6 million), Breshad Perriman and Scotty Miller (struggled dropping the ball); tight end Kyle Rudolph (three catches, 28 yards, one touchdown for $2 million); safeties Keanu Neal and Logan Ryan; tackle Josh Wells (ACL injury); running back Giovani Bernard; defensive end Genard Avery; nose tackle Deadrin Senat; and linebacker J.J. Russell.
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLSTROUD.
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