OFFSEASON REVIEW: TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
By Steve Moore
As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.
In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
2020 was quite possibly the craziest off-season for Tampa Bay Buccaneers since 2002 when the Glazers fired Tony Dungy and bounced from pillar to post trying to replace him with the likes of Steve Spurrier, Bill Parcells, Steve Mariucci and Jon Gruden before giving up two-first and two-second round picks for Gruden.
The idea, even in February, that Tom Brady would want to choose a Buccaneers franchise that has not won a post-season game since that 2002 season and has only reached the play-offs once in that time seemed frankly ludicrous.
Once he arrived, it seemed that every week there was another story that would throw Bucs fans sideways, from the trade for Gronkowski, to the additions of Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown.
Any long-term Bucs fan will tell you that each move would worry them that this is the type of thing that could go horribly, horribly wrong, and result in a 6-10 season that would be both typically Bucs and would tarnish the careers of Brady and Gronk as well as Bruce Arians himself.
What happened was quite the opposite. The Bucs went on an eight-game win streak to end the season, that included the Lazarus-like recovery of Vita Vea that turned the Bucs defense from good to great. The media darling play-off run of a Brady team knocking out Brees and Rodgers on the road before a home Super Bowl win over Patrick Mahomes felt almost surreal.
So for the horror show to turn into the most beautiful fairytale and return a Lombardi trophy, just like that 2002 offseason, is still frankly yet to sink in.
One of the greatest positives for the Buccaneers in attempting to try and do something else for the first time since 2002 (make the play-offs in consecutive years) is that literally the only change to either coaching or front office staff is Thad Lewis replacing Antwaan Randle El as an offensive assistant.
The fact that Byron Leftwich, Tom Brady and Bruce Arians have a full-offseason to meld their offensive beliefs together can only be good for the possibilities for the Buccaneers 2021 offense.
Meanwhile, Todd Bowles appears to be part of a Bruce Arians succession plan and therefore him staying in charge of the Buccaneers exceptional defense that he himself has created is absolutely huge.
State Of The Roster
There is a reason that Tom Brady decided to choose Tampa Bay 12 months ago and that is the simple fact that the rest of the roster was in a much better place to win in 2020 than most others – with even just decent play behind center.
A playmaking core of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, OJ Howard and Cameron Brate would be enticing to any quarterback. Add to that two top tier interior offensive lineman in Ryan Jensen and Ali Marpet to protect him. A huge reason the Bucs were as good as they were in keeping Brady upright however was Tristan Wirfs, who would have been a slam-dunk pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year if lineman ever got any awards buzz.
On the defensive front, the Bucs have been stout against the run for several years, the difference maker however is Vita Vea. The Buccaneers pass-rush rating when he is on the field went through the roof.
Behind him, Devin White could literally be the mould of the modern interior linebacker; aggressive, takes chances and is unbelievably fast. Meanwhile, the secondary is young and the likes of Jamel Dean, Carlton Davis III and Sean Murphy-Bunting have consistently flashed but been inconsistent, whilst rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. has been outstanding at safety.
Salary Cap & Cut Candidates
While the Buccaneers do have a healthy looking amount of cap room to play with (approximately $28m), given the amount it will take to re-sign their own big name free agents, that is just a false economy.
As a result there are several potential candidates from the Buccaneers roster that could be cut purely for financial reasons.
Donovan Smith has the third highest cap hit for 2021 at $14.25m, all of which would be saved were Smith to be cut. While Smith’s play was significantly better during the play-offs, he has been consistently viewed as, at best, a below average tackle in the league. Rookie Tristan Wirfs also showed up Smith with his exceptional play on the other side.
Meanwhile, Tight End might be an area that the Buccaneers look to make a saving. Both Cameron Brate and OJ Howard, the later of whom spent most of 2020 on IR, earn over $6m each with no cap penalty if cut. It seems highly unlikely that they will both be on the team next year, especially if they want Gronkowski to return too.
Bradley Pinion who is the eighth highest paid punter in the NFL at almost $3m could also find himself cut if the Buccaneers want to use that money elsewhere.
Finally, William Gholston had 20 QB hits in 2020. Not bad for someone who has a career high of eight before that. Heading into his age 30 season though, are the Bucs willing to gamble his $5.5m cap hit on him being more than a one year wonder?
When you are all in like the Buccaneers were in 2020, you end up with a lot of key pieces hitting free agency come the end 2021.
While no Buccaneers fan will say it wasn’t worth it, they are heading into the offseason with 25 unrestricted free-agents, let alone another half-dozen restricted and exclusive rights free agents. These include several very key name players, so many that these alone could be split into three categories:
1) Top 10 Calibre Players
This is Chris Godwin and Shaquil Barrett. Both of these would command some of the biggest contracts in free agency and both would arguably be the best player in their position in the free agency pool (Kenny Golladay might disagree). What the Buccaneers will have to decide is if it is worth investing that kind of money in either, when they are already heavily invested in Mike Evans and Jason Pierre-Paul respectively.
2) Big Name Experienced Starters
Lavonte David, Ndamukong Suh and Rob Gronkowski. There is a case to say that over the last decade, Lavonte David has been the true face of the Buccaneers franchise. However, is he worth paying at age 31 when you will soon have to pay Devin White? That same argument could be made about Ndamukong Suh entering his age 34 season, especially with Vea being the true leader of the defesive front.
Gronk is slightly different as you would think that, even with OJ Howard coming back from injury, Brady would lobby for him to return. However, Gronk has already talked about looking forward to being a true free agent for the first time, so he is unlikely to come cheap.
3) Key Role Players
These include Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette, Ross Cockrell, Steve McLendon and Rakeem Nunez-Roches. All of these played key parts, especially in the play-offs, and whilst not necessarily starters would need to be replaced if let go. You can even extend that to the likes of backup’s like Joe Haeg, Kevin Minter and Andrew Adams, without whom, their positions could well be one injury away from looking exceedingly weak.
Talk to Bucs fans though and there is one more person that they would consider to be equally as important and that is Ryan Succop. After a decade of watching the likes of Kyle Brindza, Roberto Aguayo and Patrick Murray kicking through gritted teeth, having a trustworthy kicker for the first time since Matt Bryant is something that is not to be sniffed at.
For any team coming off the back of winning the Lombardi Trophy, team needs are purely based on what they decide to let go in Free Agency.
However, with so many hugely important players set to hit the market, it will be impossible for the Bucs to keep them all.
Whichever players they allow to let go, the Buccaneers are now an attractive destination for players who want to be playing in January. Tom Brady and this Super Bowl LV win will do that for them. Add that to the attractive taxation and Florida weather and we could see some players opt to take team friendly deals to join the Brady bunch for 2021.
NFL BETTING ANALYST& Tampa Bay Buccaneers FAN
A Welshman exiled in Luton, Steve Moore has been a Buccaneers fan ever since he thought a stadium with a pirate ship was cool (he was only 9 at the time!).
Steve has also hosted podcasts on both the NFL and British Universities football and was the statistician for 2008 College Bowl finalists, Staffordshire Stallions