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Could these Bucs become salary-cap casualties?

The team has about two dozen free agents and is about $55 million over the cap. Some tough choices await.
 
Left tackle Donovan Smith suffered through his worst season as a pro, but the Bucs currently don’t have anyone on their roster to take over for him.
Left tackle Donovan Smith suffered through his worst season as a pro, but the Bucs currently don’t have anyone on their roster to take over for him. [ KIRK IRWIN | AP ]
Published Feb. 5, 2023

TAMPA — The only thing that’s constant in the NFL is change, which means you can expect the Bucs to make some significant alterations to their roster before the start of the new league year.

They only began with Tom Brady’s retirement on Wednesday.

Despite winning the NFC South, finishing 8-9 and getting walloped by the Cowboys in the wild-card round was not good enough in the first season under head coach Todd Bowles.

Already, he has begun to reshape his staff, with nine assistants either fired or retired.

Soon, it will be time to part with some veteran players. The Bucs are approximately $55 million over the $224.8 million salary cap, which is 31st in the league. Of course, $35.1 million of that is dead money belonging to Brady, but there’s a process they can trigger to move $24 million of it to 2024.

The Bucs have 23 unrestricted free agents, including cornerback Jamel Dean and linebacker Lavonte David. Before they can attempt to sign either, they have to determine which veteran players they may be willing to part with in order to maneuver bellow the salary cap.

These are never easy decisions. The Bucs spent the past three seasons restructuring contracts to shift money to voidable years.

The team also has an emotional attachment to many of these players, who helped them win Super Bowl 55, reach the playoffs each of the past three seasons and claim back-to-back NFC South titles for the first time in club history.

But each year, there are salary-cap casualties. Here are some players who could find themselves on the Bucs’ chopping block. Just by cutting a few of these starters, the team could enjoy more than $20 million in cap savings.

LT Donovan Smith

Donovan Smith ranked 69th out of 84 tackles by Pro Football Focus.
Donovan Smith ranked 69th out of 84 tackles by Pro Football Focus. [ MICHAEL AINSWORTH | AP ]

Smith, 29, has been one of the more durable and reliable players for the Bucs since he was drafted in the second round out of Penn State in 2015. He signed a two-year, $31.8 million extension in March 2021.

But Smith struggled through arguably his worst season as a pro. He was second in the NFL for the most accepted penalties with 12, for a league-high 100 yards. Two of his holding calls took away touchdowns. He allowed a team-high six sacks.

As a result, he ranked 69th out of 84 tackles by Pro Football Focus.

Here’s the problem: Left tackles aren’t easy to find. The Bucs currently don’t have anyone on their roster to take over for Smith. They could switch Tristan Wirfs from right to left tackle, but then you may be weakening another position with no guarantee that you will fix the problem.

A big part of the issue may have been the hyperextended elbow Smith suffered in the season opener at Dallas. You can’t quantify how an injury of that nature would affect his strength and ability to extend his arms to block.

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Releasing Smith would save the Bucs $9.95 million, once you subtract his salary-cap hit for 2023 ($17.9 million) from the dead cap value ($7.95 million).

Remember, he’ll be 30 in June and not likely to sign another contract with the Bucs at that point. Tampa Bay will have to invest in an offensive lineman in the draft or free agency to replace him.

RB Leonard Fournette

Leonard Fournette began the 2022 season as the Bucs’ No. 1 tailback but lost the job halfway through the season to rookie Rachaad White.
Leonard Fournette began the 2022 season as the Bucs’ No. 1 tailback but lost the job halfway through the season to rookie Rachaad White. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Fournette, 28, was visiting the Patriots in March 2022 when Brady ended his first retirement and called to convince the former LSU running back to re-sign with the Bucs.

Of course, this was before the team drafted Arizona State’s Rachaad White in the third round. Brady is all about wanting to be on the field with players he trusts, and Fournette earned that during the 2020 postseason, when he morphed into “Playoff Lenny” and then “Lombardi Lenny.”

Fournette began the 2022 season as the Bucs’ No. 1 tailback but lost the job halfway through the season. Even so, he caught 73 passes for 523 yards and three touchdowns. However, Fournette gets paid primarily to run the football, and the Bucs were last in the league in rushing yards and average.

Fournette only averaged 3.5 yards per attempt last season and just 49.9 per game over the last two years. Does that sound like a running back worth $7 million per season? Of course, injuries to the Bucs’ offensive line and poor play-calling were factors, too.

White should have an expanded role in his second season. The Bucs can save $3.5 million by releasing Fournette. They would like to add some overall team speed, especially at the offensive skill positions.

TE Cameron Brate

Tight end Cameron Brate's 33 career touchdown receptions rank third in Bucs history, behind only Mike Evans and Jimmie Giles.
Tight end Cameron Brate's 33 career touchdown receptions rank third in Bucs history, behind only Mike Evans and Jimmie Giles. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

This is tough. Brate, 31, is one of the feel-good stories of the NFL: undrafted free agent from Harvard earns his way on to a roster and becomes a reliable pass catcher, particularly in the red zone. His 33 career touchdown receptions rank third in Bucs history, behind only Mike Evans and Jimmie Giles.

Brate will be entering his 10th season and has earned more than $28 million. Not bad for someone who was never the team’s No. 1 tight end.

Last year, the Bucs used draft picks on tight ends Cade Otton and Ko Kieft. Otton played 70 percent of the offensive snaps, while Brate was in on 47 percent.

Due to injuries, Brate played in only 11 games with just one start, catching 20 passes for 174 yards. His only touchdown catch came in the playoff loss to Dallas and likely was the last one Brady will throw in his career. Releasing Brate would only save $2 million, however.

K Ryan Succop

Ryan Succop has been a fairly reliable kicker for the Bucs but was just 2 of 7 on field goals of 50 yards or longer last season.
Ryan Succop has been a fairly reliable kicker for the Bucs but was just 2 of 7 on field goals of 50 yards or longer last season. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Succop, 36, has been a fairly reliable place-kicker for the Bucs but has seen his field goal percentage decline each season, from 90.3 in 2020 to 83.6 in 2021 to 81.6 in 2022.

Succop was just 2 of 7 on field goals of 50 yards or longer last season, worst among the 24 kickers who attempted at least five field goals from 50 yards or more.

Bowles may have tipped his hand a bit when voicing his desire for a plaice-kicker who can connect from longer distances at his year-end news conference.

“Ryan was very efficient this year, but we’ve got to be able to kick longer field goals than we’ve kicked,” Bowles said. “I think we’ve got to get past 47 yards, be able to kick from 50, 55 yards as well.”

Succop is due to earn a salary of $3.75 million in 2023, but none of it is guaranteed. It seems almost a certainty Bowles wants a kicker with a stronger leg while saving some money on the salary cap.

WR Russell Gage

With Scotty Miller and Julio Jones set to become free agents and not expected to return, the Bucs may want to hang onto Russell Gage, pictured, for another season.
With Scotty Miller and Julio Jones set to become free agents and not expected to return, the Bucs may want to hang onto Russell Gage, pictured, for another season. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The Bucs signed Gage, 27, to a three-year, $30 million contract as a free agent a year ago thinking he would be their No. 3 wideout and perhaps No. 2 to begin the season if Chris Godwin didn’t make it back from ACL surgery.

But Gage battled hamstring strains and played in 13 games. He contributed only 51 catches for 426 yards (an 8.4-yard average) and five touchdowns. The Bucs can walk away from the deal after 2024.

With Scotty Miller and Julio Jones set to become free agents and not expected to return, the Bucs may want to hang onto Gage for another season to see if they can get more production with a new offensive coordinator. But they could save about $2.8 million on the salary cap if they want to move on from Gage now.

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