It’s been a brilliant offseason so far for the Bucs, who are just a couple moves away from returning their entire Super Bowl Championship starting lineup during this free agency period around the NFL. Key pieces like WR Chris Godwin, LB Lavonte David, OLB Shaq Barrett, TE Rob Gronkowski and K Ryan Succop have been re-signed, while critical depth in LB Kevin Minter, OG Aaron Stinnie and DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches will also be back in 2021. Perhaps most importantly, a contract extension for Tom Brady will keep the quarterback with Tampa Bay through the 2022 season.
Only one Buccaneer has left in free agency, S Andrew Adams to the Eagles, leaving the team with 15 free agents left to make decisions about their futures this offseason. But while the Bucs focus is surely on re-signing a few more of their own, especially DT Ndamukong Suh, WR Antonio Brown, QB Blaine Gabbert, CB Ross Cockrell and RB Leonard Fournette, the best way to go about that is to issue an extension or two to a couple players already under contract.
As it currently stands, the Bucs are slated to have 14 free agents next offseason, including ten starters and another key contributor. If Suh, Brown or Fournette are re-signed on one-year deals as expected, the number of key 2022 free agents would only increase for Tampa Bay. Here is a full list of the team’s 2022 free agents for next offseason:
Some of these free agents will leave and the Bucs will simply have to be in position to replace them at that point. Right guard Alex Cappa, running back Ronald Jones and safety Jordan Whitehead are good players who will almost certainly get starter money elsewhere (Cappa and Whitehead at least), but are the types of players Tampa Bay needs to be prepared to replace when they move on. You don’t want to overpay role players long term, even good ones, or you end up in a situation like the Saints after they unnecessarily re-signed guard Andrus Peat and weapon Taysom Hill to big contracts. Moves like that will put you in an uncomfortable situation with the cap down the road.
Other free agents, such as Jason Pierre-Paul and Will Gholston, may not be worth extending due to their age and ability to be upgraded upon, especially Gholston. Still, if the team believes both players have another strong year left in them after 2021, short-term extensions should be simple to work out, even if they occur after the season. Both defensive lineman should carry much lighter price tags beyond this season, so retaining them for another year is a possibility.
Where the Bucs really face difficult decisions is with their top players, namely wide receiver Chris Godwin, cornerback Carlton Davis, left tackle Donovan Smith and center Ryan Jensen. All four present much different scenarios for a Bucs front office that has been masterful at getting the team’s salary cap to a point where extensions or re-signings are legitimately on the table for all four stud players.
Godwin is in perhaps the most interesting situation, as the team would have no qualms about paying him long term despite the money they are already investing in Mike Evans, and would undoubtedly love to get a new contract done during an offseason where wide receiver value has been remarkably suppressed on the open market. Godwin is better than every free agent wide receiver available this spring, but watching players like Kenny Golladay, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Will Fuller – all good receivers – struggle to find a market, has to be a little bit unnerving for Godwin. If he’s banged up again next season, it’s not out of the question that he could be looking at a similar situation as a free agent.
On the flip side, if Godwin stays healthy and posts another 1,300-yard, 9-touchdown season with 100 catches, he’s going to get paid, even if the WR market is hurting. The cap will be up dramatically around the league, and Godwin could be a huge beneficiary, pushing up over Keenan Allen’s recent $20 million per year contract. It’s a risk for Godwin, but the reward could be massive if he waits.
If there is little indication Godwin is looking to sign a long-term deal right now and instead is content to play on the franchise tag, the Bucs’ attention should turn quickly to Smith. Like Godwin, Smith could be looking at major interest in free agency a year from now, especially if he has another great season protecting for Tom Brady as most left tackles do. If the Bucs want to extend Smith, they will likely have to tack on at least three years to his current contract (so four more years total) and pay him handsomely, as this is Smith’s last chance to hit it big in free agency (he’ll be 28 next spring).
It’s probably realistic to expect Smith’s next contract or extension to bump him into the $16-$17 million per year range, right around the range of fellow left tackles Garrett Bolles and Taylor Lewan’s current contracts. The question that exists for Smith, unlike the other three aforementioned Bucs, is whether his quality of play is worth that kind of money or extension. It’s possible the Bucs could find a suitable replacement for Smith at left tackle, and while his play has improved the past two seasons, consistency will probably never be his strong suit.
Still, Smith is exceptionally durable and the team loves his toughness and play demeanor. Finding quality left tackles is difficult, and the quarterback after Brady may not be able to thrive with a stopgap tackle protecting his blindside. If that is the team’s rationale, it would behoove the Bucs to work out an extension soon for Smith, as the price tag for premium positions like offensive tackle will be the first thing to go up when the salary cap balloons next offseason.
A salary cap increase could also boost the cornerback price tag, which has already seen a more favorable market for its’ high end players in recent years. That could be in the mind of Davis as the Bucs top corner turns his attention to a contract year. There is a ton of value in cornerbacks that can trail opponent’s No. 1 wide receivers with great success, as Davis did most of last season. His growth over the past three years is highly impressive, and his work ethic sets the standard in the room. Head coach Bruce Arians called Davis a “top 10 cornerback” in the NFL last training camp, and then Davis went out there and played like it in 2020.
Because Davis carries a cap hit of just over $2.7 million this season, it’s pretty unlikely the Bucs would target him for an extension right now. There’s no cap space to be gained by the move, and it doesn’t benefit Davis to sign a new contract now when another great year could put him in the conversation to get paid $16-17 million per year next offseason. If Davis’ growth continues, he’ll be atop the Bucs list of priorities next offseason, when the team should have plenty of cap space. But don’t expect any movement on Davis’ contract this offseason.
As for Jensen, a 1-2 year extension for him would seem to make sense for all parties. The stud center will turn 30 in a few months, and he doesn’t play the type of position that will see its’ value rise substantially when the cap goes up next offseason. If the Bucs offered him something in the range of what he’s making now ($10 million per year) for 1-2 more years, it might be in Jensen’s best interest to accept it. He’s already the fifth-highest paid center per year in the league, and at this point in his career he’s unlikely to threaten for the top spot. Jensen has been a culture changer for Tampa Bay’s offensive line, and they might value him more than any other team would moving forward.
Of course, the Bucs may view center as a more replaceable position than the others on this list, and don’t want to tie up big money in a position of secondary value when they could be investing it in Godwin, Davis or Smith. That might be why nothing has happened with Jensen just yet, as the Bucs try to clear cap space to complete their impressive offseason with a few more key re-signings.
When the Bucs extended Brady through the 2022 season, they extended their Super Bowl window at least one more year beyond 2021. While the team can draft or sign free agents to replace players like Cappa, Whitehead and Jones, they would be wise to extend a few of their big name players this offseason. Regardless of what happens in 2021, going into next offseason with more than 11 starters/key contributors set to hit free agency would not be ideal. The Bucs focus should be on extensions for Smith or Godwin, and possibly short term add-ons for Jensen or Pierre-Paul if they can. That should clear much-needed cap space for 2021, and help extend their Super Bowl window by retaining key players beyond the 2021 season.
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
PewterReport.com prides itself on being the most complete, comprehensive news source covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and delivering inside scoop on the team found nowhere else.