Bucs face numerous difficult roster decisions after season ends

Cornerback Brent Grimes (24) celebrates an interception during the first half of the Bucs' win over the Jets. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
Cornerback Brent Grimes (24) celebrates an interception during the first half of the Bucs' win over the Jets. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Dec. 29, 2017

TAMPA — The Bucs have decided to bring coach Dirk Koetter back for 2018, and general manager Jason Licht is under contract for next season as well, but there still could be considerable turnover ahead in the Tampa Bay locker room.

The Bucs officially have 16 players who are unrestricted free agents this spring, most notably cornerback Brent Grimes, guard Kevin Pamphile and kicker Patrick Murray. There are several key players whose high-dollar contracts could put them at risk of being cut this spring, and another 12 on the current roster who weren't there in Week 1.

Many can't help but contemplate if they'll be playing their final game in a Bucs uniform Sunday.

"I'd be lying if I said it didn't cross my mind," said Pamphile, 27, who has started 28 games in the past two seasons, mostly at left guard. "If that happens, it happens. Right now I have to enjoy the moment with my teammates and go out and win."

The Bucs have big decisions to make on their offensive line. Left tackle Donovan Smith and center Ali Marpet are free agents in 2019, guard J.R. Sweezy is due to make $5.9 million and tackle Demar Dotson is entering an option year. Pamphile split time this season with Evan Smith, another free agent, and must weigh the familiarity of staying with the team that drafted him against the potential payday of free agency.

"It would be awesome to spend the rest of my career here, but at the same time there are some benefits of going out on your own and figuring out things," Pamphile said. "If it's time for me to go somewhere else, then I'll be up for that."

Grimes, 34, is tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Would the Bucs pay him as much as two years ago ($16.5 million over two years), when he was coming off three Pro Bowls? Grimes said he feels fine physically and was "pleased" with this season but hasn't decided if he will play in 2018, let alone where.

"I worry about all that stuff at the end of the season," said Grimes, who said the Bucs haven't approached him yet about another contract. "I've got to focus on what I'm focusing on. I don't think about stuff that far in advance. After the season, I think about what I want to do and go from there."

The Bucs could make changes at safety, where rookie Justin Evans established himself as an every-down player. But veterans T.J. Ward and Keith Tandy are free agents, and Chris Conte is entering an option year.

"I definitely love the guys we have here, love Tampa, the fans," said Tandy, 28, who re-signed with the Bucs two years ago on a modest $1.85 million deal but could command more if another team saw him as a potential starter. "But I know free agency can get kind of crazy. Things are out of your control. I hope I've done enough where they want me back, but you never know what will happen."

The Bucs have missed nine field goals for the second year in a row -— most in the NFL last season, tied for most this season — but re-signing Murray would be an inexpensive step toward stability at the position.

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Murray is 16-for-17 this year on field goals inside 50 yards. By comparison, Roberto Aguayo missed eight field goals inside 50 last year; Nick Folk this year missed four in four games. Keeping Murray will cost more than the $540,000 league minimum he earned in 2017.

The rest of the free agents are part-time starters or role players — cornerback Robert McClain, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald and running back Charles Sims are among the bigger names. Younger players like tight end Cameron Brate and receiver Adam Humphries are restricted free agents, but the Bucs will likely tender both with one-year deals to allow them to match any outside offers.

The Bucs could cut loose a handful of expensive, underperforming players with zero salary cap ramifications. Running back Doug Martin is due to make $6.75 million, and the team could overhaul its defensive line, with end Robert Ayers due to make $6 million, end Will Gholston $6.5 million and tackle Chris Baker $4.75 million. Those three combined for 21/2 sacks while making $19 million in 2017.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: DE Will Clarke, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, K Nick Folk, OL Adam Gettis, CB Brent Grimes, CB Robert McClain, DT Clinton McDonald, K Patrick Murray, OL Kevin Pamphile, LS Garrison Sanborn, DT Sealver Siliga, RB Charles Sims, OL Evan Smith, S Keith Tandy, DE Justin Trattou, S T.J. Ward.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: DB Jude Adjei-Barimah, TE Cameron Brate, LB Adarius Glanton, WR Adam Humphries, DE Ryan Russell.

PLAYERS ENTERING OPTION YEARS: S Chris Conte, T Demar Dotson, C Joe Hawley, DB Josh Robinson.