Bucs general manager Jason Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg have begun meeting with the representatives of some of Tampa Bay’s unrestricted free agents at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. One of those free agents is defensive end Will Gholston, the Bucs’ best run-stuffer up front.
The 6-foot-6, 281-pound Gholston is coming off a contract year in which he recorded 49 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble before missing the last two games of the season with a dislocated elbow.
“We sure have had dialogue,” Licht told PewterReport.com. “He’s definitely a priority. We’ve had dialogue here [in Mobile].”
Former Bucs general manager and current ESPN NFL analyst Mark Dominik, who drafted Gholston in the fourth round and reserve nose tackle Akeem Spence in the fifth round in 2013, believes there will be a sizable market for the 24-year old defensive end due to his size and strength against the run.
“They were babies coming out, that’s why we drafted them because of what we thought in terms of their strength and potential of what they could become,” Dominik said. “Gholston is a beast, and what’s cool about Will is that he can fit in two different systems. With Gholston, you saw that he’s a 20-year old kid coming out of college and everything pointed towards this guy’s got a lot of potential. I think that’s the interesting thing about Gholston, that he can play in a 4-3 and a 3-4. There’s no reason why he can’t be a 3-4 defensive end and that’s why I think he’s going to have a lot of interest in a lot of different ways. I think that’s the interesting thing about what his market can bring because a lot of teams can sit there and say three sacks and a guy that can stop the run is great for us. That’s exciting for him, and Akeem is certainly a powerful player inside.”
The Bucs would also like Spence, who recorded 19 tackles and half a sack while splitting time with Clinton McDonald and Sealver Siliga, to come back if it’s at the right price.
“We would like to have Spence back if it makes sense,” Licht said. “He’s a good depth player so that’s hard to find and we like him.”
Both Gholston and Spence have indicated that they would like to return to Tampa Bay, so that helps in negotiations with Licht and Greenberg. The Bucs are expected to enter free agency with $65,169,718 in cap room, according to OverTheCap.com, and most of that cap room will go towards re-signing Tampa Bay’s own players, who helped the team get to 9-7 and on the verge of the playoffs.
Another player the Bucs will be looking to re-sign before or at the start of NFL free agency, which begins on March 9 at 4:00 p.m. ET., is running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who was the team’s leading rusher. The 5-foot-6, 205-pound rusher stepped in for the injured Doug Martin and ran for a career-high 560 yards and two touchdowns on 129 carries (4.3 avg.). Playing in 10 games with five starts, Rodgers produced Tampa Bay’s only two 100-yard rushing performances by a running back in 2017 and also caught 13 passes for 98 yards.
“Yeah he’s one of a few priorities,” Rodgers said. “We would definitely like to have him back and we see that happening.”
Koetter said that Rodgers expressed his desire to remain a Buccaneer prior to kickoff of Tampa Bay’s 2016 season finale against Carolina.
“Quizz has been a great addition to our team,” Koetter said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to get him back in the future. I got a good firm handshake on it today on the field. I’m going to hold him to that in the offseason. Quizz is one of those guys, when he was with us in Atlanta – for our fans, Quizz is like the Adam Humphries of running backs. He does what he’s supposed to do and you can count on it. He’s not flashy. He is very tough. He is very consistent. He’s an extremely smart player. We had a big drop-off in explosive plays from our running backs this year. Jacquizz came in and filled a big void for us.’’
Rodgers previously played for head coach Dirk Koetter in Atlanta, as did center Joe Hawley before the Bucs signed in him 2015 after he was released by the Falcons. The 28-year old Hawley is an unrestricted free agent that has indicated he wants to return to Tampa Bay.
“I really like this team,” Hawley told PewterReport.com. “The culture here is really changing and is changing fast. I really enjoy being around all the guys. We have a great locker room. Obviously, it’s a business at this point, and hopefully I’m going to get what I deserve. I’m hoping this team pays up. It’s a place I would really like to play and finish my career up.”
Although Licht and Koetter told PewterReport.com that there are plenty of options on the roster at center if Hawley and the team don’t reach a deal, Licht reiterated the Bucs’ desire to bring him back and has already spoken with his agent.
“Joe’s another one that’s done a really nice job for us and he’s been the glue in the offensive line room,” Licht said. “He’s a great leader and he’s very tough, obviously. But he’s one that we have been talking with, and if it makes sense for both of us we’d love to have him back.”
While Tampa Bay is expected to add a wide receiver or two this offseason through the draft and possibly free agency, Licht is looking to keep one of his own in reserve Russell Shepard, who also serves as the Bucs’ special teams captain.
“He’s the special teams captain and a very good special teams player that had to step in and play receiver because of the injuries,” Licht said. “He can play out there if you need him to and he does a nice job. He didn’t play as much on special teams when he had to play receiver and he’s a very good special teams player. We would like to have Russell back and I don’t want to sound like a broken record but I’d like to have him back and I love his attitude, his leadership and he’s a juice guy. If we both feel it makes sense, I’m talking about his representatives and us, then we’ll get something done.”
Shepard was a restricted free agent in 2016 and signed a one-year tender with the Bucs for $1,671, 000. He had his best year as a receiver, as one of the options to fill in for Vincent Jackson, catching 23 passes for 341 yards and two touchdowns – all career highs.
The Bucs plan on re-signing Ryan Griffin and having him compete for the backup job with Sean Renfree and possibly another quarterback as the team expects to lose current No. 2 QB Mike Glennon in free agency.
“We like Ryan,” Licht said. “Sometimes when you’re playing out there with the threes in the preseason it’s hard to get a fair evaluation of him in terms of the game situations, but we like Ryan. We like everything that he’s done in the quarterbacks room. He’s got a good rapport with our players, a good rapport with Jameis and ideally we’d like to give him a shot to earn that job.”
Griffin has served as the No. 3 QB in Tampa Bay over the last two years behind Glennon, the team’s third-round pick in 2013. Glennon, who has started 18 games in his four-year NFL career and thrown 30 touchdowns against 15 interceptions, is expected to receive starting-caliber money in free agency. According to Dominik, that money could be $13-$15 million per season.
Licht indicated that the Bucs would make an effort to re-sign him with a sizeable contract offer, but it won’t approach what he could receive on the open market from a team looking for a starter.
“He’s going to have some decisions that he’s going to have to make,” Licht said. “Everybody’s looking for a quarterback and there are a lot teams looking for a quarterback, and I’m sure he’s in a lot of peoples’ conversations. A lot of teams are probably having conversations about him I’m sure. We would like to keep him if we could, but the ball’s going to be in his court.”
The Bucs are prepared to lose Glennon in free agency, but will receive a compensatory draft pick in 2018 – perhaps as high as the third round – if he indeed departs. The addition of Renfree is key as Tampa Bay wants to give Griffin some competition for the backup job behind Winston.
“A couple of preseasons ago when we got Ryan, those were the two quarterbacks we were looking at,” Licht said. “We wanted both of them to be our third. The Falcons kept him but both can [now] compete for that role.”
Tampa Bay is also looking to re-sign reserve cornerback Josh Robinson, who excelled on special teams, and is interested in re-signing safeties Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald at the right price due to the progress they made in Mike Smith’s scheme and the coaching they received from Brett Maxie. The Bucs aren’t ruling out any deals prior to March 9 for their free agent safeties, but they might let test the free agent waters to gauge their market value.
For aging veteran free agents such as right tackle Gosder Cherilus, who turns 33 in June, Jackson, who turned 34 a week ago, and linebacker Daryl Smith, who will turn 35 in March, the Bucs will likely move on with younger players at those positions.