The Bucs haven’t lost since November 29 and, after this free agency period, it doesn’t look like they’re going to start losing again any time soon.
Five weeks after winning Super Bowl LV, the Bucs have once again positioned themselves as the favorite to host the Lombardi trophy again in 2022.
Just 19 minutes into free agency’s opening round of action, and prized pass rusher Shaq Barrett had already re-signed with Tampa Bay on a four-year, $68 million contract that was notably less than many expected him to get if he reached the open market. A few hours later, tight end Rob Gronkowski joined the outside linebacker in his return to Tampa Bay, re-signing with the Bucs on a one-year, $8 million contract.
It was an unquestioned coup of the first day of free agency, especially the re-signing of Barrett for such a manageable price – and a cap value of just $5.6 million in 2021. By ensuring that their top pass rusher doesn’t leave Tampa Bay, the Bucs basically lock in the return of last year’s starting defensive line, as it would be a surprise to see defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh sign elsewhere.
Bucs OLB Shaquil Barrett and Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul should again start at outside linebacker, while Vita Vea and Will Gholston await Suh’s return on the inside. Add Devin White and Lavonte David, whose contract was extended by two years last week, at the second level, and the Bucs’ front seven should remain unaltered for the third straight season.
That’s a huge win for Tampa Bay, as its defense has ranked No. 1 against the run for two straight seasons, while posting 95 sacks over the past two seasons combined. The Bucs’ talent combined with Todd Bowles’ coaching has resulted in a cheat code defensive line that has wreaked havoc on opposing teams, largely due to the breakout campaigns of Barrett off the edge in 2019 and 2020.
Yes, Barrett got off to a slow start in 2020, but over the past two seasons he has been a highly impactful player. In 35 career games with the Bucs (including playoffs), Barrett has 31.5 sacks and 157 pressures (1st in NFL in that span per PFF). You can argue that some of his sacks are the result of pressures by other players (that’s true of all pass rushers), or that pressures is an empty stat without the context of the tape (I agree), but there is no question that Barrett has been a problem for opposing teams as a pass rusher, and you can’t let that walk away in a Super Bowl window.
The Bucs did the right thing by paying Barrett, and they landed him much cheaper than expected. Gronkowski was a little pricier than I thought, especially on a one-year deal, but Tampa Bay again worked the voidable year magic to spread out half of that $8 million to where he would only hit the cap for $4.8 million in 2021.
I’ll let Scott Reynolds fill you in on the cap situation and the magical work done by general manager Jason Licht, director of football administration Mike Greenberg and director of research Jackie Davidson when the dust settles in Friday’s upcoming SR’s Fab 5, but suffice to say the Bucs will create enough room to bring back Suh and kicker Ryan Succop and possibly wide receiver Antonio Brown and maybe running back Leonard Fournette as well.
Tuesday will be another important day for the Bucs in free agency as they work exclusively to retain their own players, but the team has already won free agency. While teams like the Patriots, Jaguars and Jets dropped massive amounts of money to become mildly competitive in 2021 in the AFC, the NFC essentially stood pat, with hardly a needle-moving signing occurring across the whole conference.
Here’s how the other relevant NFC teams fared on the first day of free agency.
Washington Football Team
Bucs QB Ryan Fitzpatrick – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
It may sound funny, but Washington made maybe the biggest move of the day in the NFC, signing quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a one-year, $10 million deal. On the surface, even competent quarterback play would seem to be a nice improvement for the NFC East champs, who returns its entire starting offense and all but one defensive starter (cornerback Ronald Darby).
Upgrades at cornerback, linebacker, offensive line and wide receiver are needed however, and Fitzpatrick is more of a competitive quarterback option than a real threat to upset the balance of power in the NFC. He’ll compete with Taylor Heinicke to be the starter this season, and don’t rule of Washington drafting a quarterback this year, either.
The Bears have retained four of their own players by using the franchise tag on wide receiver Allen Robinson and re-signing kicker Cairo Santos, punter Pat O’Donnell and defensive lineman Mario Edwards. But Robinson appears disgruntled based on his social media posts, and a trade could be imminent for the star receiver.
Most importantly, the Bears are still lost at quarterback, with Nick Foles the only current option under contract. With Fitzpatrick, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston all signing elsewhere, the Bears are basically out of starting quarterbacks to choose from unless they can manage a trade for Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson. Chicago also doesn’t pick until No.20 in the first round, so landing one of the top quarterbacks in the draft seems very unlikely. Could they be destined for Andy Dalton as their 2022 starter?
Green Bay Packers
The Packers re-signed running back Aaron Jones to a $48 million contract, but lost stud center Corey Linsley to the Chargers in free agency. They will still be the other “team to beat” in the NFC outside of the Bucs, but Green Bay has needs at linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver after Davante Adams, as well as having to replace two of five starters on the offensive line. Not having any draft picks from last year to step in and fill those holes after the team wasted their first three picks in the 2020 draft makes life a lot more difficult in 2021.
New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees, Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston – Photo by: USA Today
The Saints will still have a good roster in 2021, but it won’t be as good as the past few years, and it definitely won’t be as deep. They don’t have a clear-cut starting quarterback, which is the most important position on the field. New Orleans re-signed Jameis Winston to a cheap, incentive-laden one-year deal, but Taysom Hill is likely to get the first crack at replacing recently-retired Drew Brees. Does either option really scare anyone in the NFC?
Add to the Saints’ quarterback woes that they lost starters at wide receiver (Emanuel Sanders), tight end (Jared Cook), linebacker (Alex Anzalone), cornerback (Janoris Jenkins) and a couple key defensive line contributors (Trey Hendrickson and Sheldon Rankins), and you can see why New Orleans is clearly much less of a threat than they’ve been in recent years.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers should be better in 2021 for sure, but they seem to be resigned to Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. Jimmy G did get them to the Super Bowl once before, but the odds of that result repeating itself seems slim, as Garoppolo has had a very difficult time staying healthy over the years. The 49ers also have to overcome the loss of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and a couple starters in the secondary, although the return of edge rusher Nick Bosa and tight end George Kittle to full health will be a big boost. They’ll be dangerous, but a lot is riding on the shoulders of Garoppolo to be much better in 2021 than he has ever been before.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams are the one team in the NFC who could really make a run, but only if every aspect of the Sean McVay-Matt Stafford connection clicks perfectly. Los Angeles might not be able to re-sign third wide receiver Josh Reynolds if he cashes in elsewhere, but it still has Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.
The Rams won’t be as good defensively as they were a year ago, especially after losing brilliant defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, safety John Johnson and perhaps cornerback Troy Hill, but they should be good enough on that side of the ball to justify Super Bowl-caliber expectations given their improved offense. Los Angeles did re-sign edge rusher Leonard Floyd, but overpaid to do it at $16 million per season. It won’t surprise me at all if the Rams emerge as the biggest NFC challenger to Tampa Bay this season.
The Seahawks look like a team in disarray. Quarterback Russell Wilson is frustrated and would entertain a trade, the offensive line has holes, WR3 is a void and at least four defensive starters will probably be elsewhere in 2021. If Wilson stays, he could create enough magic to keep the Seahawks in the playoff picture as a Wild Card, but that is probably Seattle’s most optimistic outlook for 2021.
The addition of J.J. Watt will definitely help in Arizona, but the Cardinals are still about 6-7 starters away from the type of defense that would scare opponents. The addition of the 32-year old Watt only ages a defense that already has a 31-year old edge rusher in Chandler Jones, and likely comes at the expense of linebacker Haason Reddick, the team’s top pass rusher last year with 12.5 sacks. Reddick, Arizona’s first-round pick in 2017, will hit free agency.
Outside of quarterback Kyler Murray and star wide receiver Deandre Hopkins, the Cardinals don’t have much to write home about on offense, and there are legitimate concerns with Murray and head coach Kliff Kingsbury heading into year three. It feels more like the Cardinals are heading for last place in the West rather than an opportunity to be a true contender in 2021.
*NOTE: The Cowboys could return to contention in 2021, but have made no moves in free agency thus far outside of re-signing quarterback Dak Prescott.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If the Bucs can re-sign Suh, Brown and Fournette, the team will have returned every starter on both sides of the ball from their 2021 Super Bowl season. That is crazy. If the Bucs re-sign everyone they won’t have a single “need” on the depth chart heading into the draft, but it will still be a critical draft to prepare the team to address the certain holes that will exist after the 2022 offseason.
The Packers and Rams will provide quality competition to the Bucs in the NFC, and the 49ers, Cowboys and others could be bounce-back contenders after tough 2020 seasons. But on paper, Tampa Bay is the clear-cut top team in the conference once again and should win the NFC South over New Orleans, which appears to be headed for a downturn after Brees’ retirement. It’s extremely hard to repeat in the NFL, but by re-signing their own players and working miracles with a lowered salary cap, Tampa Bay has positioned itself to make another run at a title – by winning the offseason, again.
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
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