The mission is nearly complete. With the Bucs now officially returning 21 of 22 offensive starters from their Super Bowl-winning team, Tampa Bay can finally start to turn its’ attention to what remains of other team’s free agents across the NFL. Although most of the high-end talent has already been snapped up, the Bucs only need cheap depth in a few places anyway.
Let’s pretend that current Bucs’ free agents WR Antonio Brown, QB Blaine Gabbert and CB Ross Cockrell return, as expected, and DT Steve McLendon retires. If this happens, the Bucs won’t even have many available roster spots for competition purposes, especially when you consider they will add quality talent to the team through the 2021 NFL Draft. That makes the chances fairly slim that the team will add even one outside player from the available free agents across the league, as there simply isn’t much of a need for the Bucs right now.
Having said that, a few spots could still use a depth boost for the Bucs, and there are a few free agents still available that could be perfect matches.
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1. Bengals DT Geno Atkins
I’ll stand on the table for this one, with the disclaimer that Atkins’ health needs to check out after a season-ending shoulder injury in 2020. Before that Atkins hadn’t missed a game in six seasons, and had only missed seven games over his entire 10-year career heading into season No. 11. He’s been largely durable and incredibly consistent on the field, the only question is, how much is left in the tank?
If Atkins wants to keep playing and his body allows him to do so, it makes sense that he would want to join a contender for cheap. He’s made a ton of money in his career while toiling in Cincinnati and never even so much as tasting a playoff victory. A part-time role would suit Atkins well too, as he could rotate onto the field on long and late downs to utilize the pass rush ability that made him such a dominant player for so long. 75.5 career sacks for a defensive tackle? That’s more than his draft classmate Ndamukong Suh (64.5), despite the Bucs defensive tackle playing 13 more career games.
With the Bucs already carrying four roster locks at defensive tackle in Suh, Vita Vea, Will Gholston and Rakeem Nunez-Roches, there isn’t room for a ton of additional talent. But the Bucs are looking at a miserable draft class at defensive tackle, and another pass rusher that could take the load off of Suh and Gholston on passing downs would be a huge benefit to the Bucs interior defensive line.
2. Vikings C Brett Jones
The Bucs re-signed their top reserve guard in Aaron Stinnie and top reserve tackle in Josh Wells, but with A.Q. Shipley’s retirement, backup center remains a hole on the roster. Jones should come for very cheap, as his last contract with Minnesota was a 1-year, $910K deal. He’s a veteran who has been excellent whenever he’s been pressed into action, although he’s played just over 300 snaps over the past three years.
The best thing about Jones is that he will handle his business in pass protection, even if he can get overwhelmed in the run game at times. If you are losing starters up front, you at least want their backup to be a good pass protector. It’s a lot easier to find answers for guys who struggle in the run game than guys who struggle in the pass game. In Jones’ one NFL season as a starter back in 2017, he allowed just ten pressures and two sacks in 605 pass protection reps per Pro Football Focus.
Not saying he’d be Ryan Jensen if the Bucs stud center went down, but right now Tampa Bay’s options behind the red-haired soul-snatcher are limited. Jones would provide veteran stability and a consistent track record of fine play whenever he has been called upon in the NFL.
3. Washington OLB Ryan Kerrigan
At almost 33 years old, Kerrigan should be looking for a complementary role on a contender at this point in his career. The Bucs can offer him both, as pass rushing impact is non-existent behind starters Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett. Kerrigan is clearly on the decline, but he’s still in terrific shape and has missed just four games in his entire 156-game career. Tampa Bay needs a better No. 3 edge rusher in the event of an injury to either of their starters, someone who could step into a larger role for a few games and hold their own against the run and the pass.
An addition like Kerrigan would help the team accomplish that goal. It would also improve their rush packages on long and late downs, allowing Pierre-Paul to kick inside with Vea, where his rush package has destroyed guards in recent years. A better outside rushing threat would allow the Bucs to move Pierre-Paul inside more often and still get an impact off the edge, as Kerrigan guns for 100 career sacks this season. It’s the kind of signing that might not look like much right now, but could be instrumental in getting a little more out of an already good defensive line.
4. Jets CB Brian Poole
I wanted to include Poole in my earlier Bucs free agent targets, but I just thought he would be snapped up quickly as one of the top slot options on the market. That hasn’t happened however, as Poole remains available despite being just 28 years old following two seasons of high quality play for a hapless Jets’ defense. The lack of interest in the Florida corner is befuddling to me, and maybe his price tag is still too high for Tampa Bay. But I’m a firm believer that you can never have enough good corners, even if Cockrell is back for another year in Todd Bowles’ defense.
Poole is a slot only, but the Bucs don’t really have a true slot cornerback, and there are certain matchups where not having a natural slot has hurt them (Rams and Raiders games in 2020 come to mind). You can bet that teams will look to stress that position in 2021, so the Bucs having a counter punch in their arsenal in Poole would be a welcome addition. The former undrafted free agent has six interceptions and 18 pass breakups over the past three seasons,
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft