When news broke that the Houston Texans released J.J. Watt after ten seasons with the team, visions started dancing in the minds of Bucs fans – visions of a base defensive front with Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett bookending Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and J.J. Watt, with Lavonte David and Devin White behind them.

It ain’t just a dream, Bucs fans. This can and probably should happen in Tampa Bay.

Bear with me for a moment while I get through the “can” part of the equation.

How can the Bucs afford to pay Shaq Barrett and Lavonte David (as well as Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh and Chris Godwin), and still have enough cap space to get a player like J.J. Watt on board? Here’s how.

If the salary cap comes in at around the expected $180.5 million, the Bucs have about $28 million in cap space available for the 2020 offseason, right now anyway. That’s in the top ten in available cap space amongst all teams in the NFL. With a few re-structures (Ali Marpet’s contract is a prime candidate) and some short extensions for Ryan Jensen and Donovan Smith, who are both entering the final year of their deals while coming off career-best seasons, the Bucs could be in an even better cap space for the 2021 offseason.

But even more importantly, the Bucs are in the best cap position in the entire NFL for the 2022 offseason, currently slated to have the most cap space available in the league. Some of that will be used up in possible extensions for Tom Brady (if he decides to play another year) and Carlton Davis (who will be a free agent in 2022), but there is still a ton of space available for the Bucs to load up this offseason’s contract to have their biggest cap hits in 2022, when the cap should go up again.

It’s all part of brilliant roster and contract structuring by Jason Licht, Mike Greenberg and Jackie Davidson, who have done the opposite of the New Orleans Saints by not kicking the can down the road at all. As a result, they are poised to re-sign all their key free agents and bring in another big-name target like Watt.

The Bucs are looking at something like Chris Godwin $16M tag, Shaq Barrett $18-19M per year, with a $7M cap hit in 2021, Rob Gronkowski $3-4M with incentives, Suh around the same, Lavonte David around $12-$13M per year, again with the majority of the hit coming in 2022. Couple all that with a few other contract moves, and the team is poised to fit everyone in under the cap and still go after Watt.

If you want to hear more details, here is NFL cap expert Brad Spielberger on the Pewter Report Podcast talking about the Bucs realistic options with each of the team’s free agents this offseason. Near the end, we talk about the Bucs signing Watt specifically.

Now, this doesn’t mean it will be easy. It will require some serious legwork and creativity on the part of the Bucs to make this happen. It may also require cutting Cam Brate (which has a strong chance of happening anyway) and either cutting Will Gholston or asking him to take a significant pay cut. After all, with Watt on board, Gholston’s starting spot would be gone, and cutting he and Brate would save the team $12 million in 2021. That’s probably enough to sign Watt right there.

I know, I know. Sentimentality is strong for this 2020 roster, but the reality is that you don’t pay your No. 3 tight end $6.5 million dollars, and you don’t pay your fourth-best interior defensive lineman $5.5 million, not when you’ve got Watt on board. It’s a business, and these are clearly the right business moves to make.

As for Watt, I asked two salary cap experts what he’s likely looking for at this stage of his career, with a lengthy injury history and the defensive lineman’s 32nd birthday coming up in about six weeks. The answers I received were pretty consistent: about $10-12 million a year to sign with a contender, on probably a two-year contract. So for two years, we’re probably looking at something like a $25 million contract, with $20 million guaranteed.

That’s extremely doable for the Bucs, especially with cuts to Brate and Gholston, so now the question becomes: is Watt worth it?

To me, that answer is undeniably yes. Watt played on the worst defensive line in the NFL last season and still managed five sacks and 14 tackles-for-loss. Watt graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th-best edge defender on the 2020 season and produced an elite pass rush win rate despite being the most double-teamed edge in the NFL by FAR, yet still produced an elite pass rush win rate.

Watt’s football character and work ethic would obviously fit in right away in Tampa Bay, and he would allow Todd Bowles even more creativity with his defensive fronts. Want to stand up Watt to rush on the edge and kick Pierre-Paul inside on pass obvious downs? Done. Want to play Watt at 3-technique on literally any down? Done, he’s an elite run defender playing over the guard or the tackle. Want to drop a defensive tackle into coverage as Bowles did on a handful of snaps last season with very little success? How about a guy with Watt’s wingspan in the middle of the field? Sure beats Suh or Rakeem Nunez-Roches in that role.

Simply put, a player of Watt’s caliber does not become available every offseason, and definitely not at the price that Watt will be available at. He may not be peak Watt, but the Bucs don’t need him to be. What they need is another pass-rushing threat to pair with Vea on the inside, and getting someone with Watt’s positional flexibility and complete skill set is only icing on the cake. Plus, because Watt is only looking for a short term deal, his health and longevity becomes less of an issue for Tampa Bay. It’s a win-now move with a ton of upside and very little downside.

Again, this is definitely all possible for Tampa Bay, even if it requires a little creativity. They can do it. The question is, will they? I think the move makes a ton of sense on every level. The Bucs biggest priority for the offseason should be finding  another pass rush threat on their defensive line, and J.J. Freaking Watt just became available in an all-in offseason for a reasonable price that the Bucs can afford with no damage to their long-term cap situation. Tampa Bay has already shown an understanding that their Super Bowl window is now, making an expensive move to acquire Rob Gronkowski and being aggressive on several other cheaper moves like signing Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette and trading for Steve McLendon. There will be other suitors in Chicago and Green Bay, among others, but if Watt wants to go all in for a Super Bowl in 2021, he probably can’t find a better place to do it than Tampa Bay.

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

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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BucWhatYaHeard
22 days ago

WOWWWWW…just friggen wow. Just imagine. Just when Buc fans thought we reached the top of the mountain…news like this comes out. Hopefully we are able to get this done. Would be amazing

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bmayhew
22 days ago

Not to be that guy but, if the bucs can resign everyone (the important ones) and add JJ Watt in free agency, then draft a rb, edge, and DT in the first 3 rounds I think they could run the table in 2021 and win every game. There will be some other very tough teams out there like Rams and Chiefs and Ravens and teams usually will drop a game they should have won but i think the bucs would have a legitimate shot at the perfect season

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BleedOrange78
21 days ago

Well…I’m sorry but I’m more than than a bit skeptical. Both Gronkowski and Suh are going to take 3-4 million???…After making around 10 million the year before and being pretty damn good at their job and being key players in a Super Bowl championship season…Just so Watt can waltz in and make about TRIPLE what they’re going to make? What incentives are you talking about – a couple million for putting on the uniform? Another couple of million for breathing? Is the plan to make Suh and Gronk retire by low balling them like that and free up cap space?… Read more »

Last edited 21 days ago by BleedOrange78
Spitfire
Reply to  BleedOrange78
21 days ago

No, you missed the “With incentives part” which pushes the incentives to the next year and keeps their cap hit down this year. So in the end they could get like $7-9 mil while only counting $3-4 mil against this years Cap.

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43 Is Only Old in Human Years
Reply to  Spitfire
21 days ago

At some point the bills are going to come due. They can play with incentives, signing bonuses and the other loopholes but sooner or later it all comes due. I remember how frustrating it was to watch Sapp, Lynch, and Brooks become casualties of a mismanaged salary cap. We have the foundation we need for long term success build upon it. I would love for the Bucs to have the same sustained success of a Pittsburgh or Baltimore. You don’t see those teams chasing the big names year after year and you don’t see those team dismantling themselves because dead… Read more »

BleedOrange78
Reply to  Spitfire
21 days ago

Entirely possible I mistead or flat-out don’t understand Jon’s point about “incentives”. If their base salary is 7-8 mil plus incentives added on, then MAYBE this works. But I’m still skeptical. Things like ego and sense of self-worth are key components in all contract negotiations. But again, if Licht can make it happen, FANTASTICS and Go Bucs!!!

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Theydidwhat
21 days ago

Time will tell. Listened to the Jason Licht cast yesterday and liked what he had to say. “Going to let things settle down for a few days” while not commenting on player statements about money. The Bucs are in great shape financially, but are not going to overpay for someone should another team make a huge offer. We will resign the guys who want to be here as well as ones who want to play for the Bucs because the culture has changed and will be championship run ready again. Between free agency and the draft we will be even… Read more »

76Buc
21 days ago

Why not trade Cam and Goldy instead of cutting them. We could stockpile low round draft picks like NE does. They must have some market value.

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scubog
Reply to  76Buc
21 days ago

Because their comparatively high salaries would go with them making them less attractive to a potential trade partner.

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PatrioticChief
21 days ago

They say great minds think a like. If that’s true, I must be great, because Ledyard repeated almost point for point a discussion I had with some buddies about Watt. Watt to Tampa makes a crap ton of sense to me.

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Spitfire
21 days ago

I like it, I’m all for bringing in the best people they can as long as it doesn’t start to screw our future. The best thing Brady can do for this team is not only championships, but even better to change the culture here to a winning one where even after he leaves with 3 rings, our team is still dedicated to believing they can win it all and we can continue on playing winning football. So don’t screw our future but do everything they can do to win now.

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Buc76
21 days ago

I tend to agree with the sentiment that how are You going to get Gronk and Suh to take 3 to 4 million? That close to if not an insult. Get watt to take 8 or 9. He walking into a probable Super Bowl opportunity. He should jump at that. You have to be careful how you do this

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Buc76
21 days ago

Also is Warren Sapp’s number retired?

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scubog
Reply to  Buc76
21 days ago

I don’t remember if it has been officially retired, but you won’t see anyone wearing #99, #55, #20, #40 or #47. And for that matter, I don’t recall a #42 since Ricky Bell passed away.

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peter benet
21 days ago

Money isn’t really an issue here–Gronk says he’s saved all his last salary of $ 50 M.

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twspin
21 days ago

Go Figure. Very few Superbowl winning teams, if any, have been able to keep all their star players. Simply as Mike Jaggar use to say, Not enough Jam to go around. Spin it anyways ya wants, Players want huge paydays. They only come around once. And Shaq spittin he wants to stay..But when a team offers him lights out money? He’s runnin straight to the bank..as he should. I don’t know who they will be, But I suspect we will lose 2 to 3 starters. Watt might be worth pursuing. Its all about the money and what the Bucs payin… Read more »

Last edited 21 days ago by twspin
FLBoy84
Reply to  twspin
20 days ago

Agree that Shaq likely goes for the $$, but if we’re able to land Watt to replace Goldston, I could see a decent FA or Rnd 1/2 Edge/OLB rookie added to the D with little drop off in overall production.

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drdneast
21 days ago

I have always thought of Cam Brate as expendable as well but not after this year. OJ Howard has proved he can’t finish a season without being on IR just like Jack Cinchy. Both may be good hard workers but both have proved to be brittle in the NFL. With Howard’s injury history, I can’t see why he would be worth the money he is making and if anyone should take a pay cut it’s him. Gholston has seemed to have found a home in the 3-4 but JJ Watt is definitely an upgrade and Ghoston isn’t getting any younger… Read more »

drdneast
21 days ago

On. one more thing. Gronk may love playing with Brady but I don’t think he loves him enough to take a $6 million pay cut. Ditto with Suh. If you are lucky you might get them each in the $6 million range. Although both are old by NFL standards, they are both coming off good years.
If Suh signs he might have one year left and Gronk two. Same with David. God knows about Brady. But what all of this points to is the Bucs having to reload in two years and they better draft wisely.

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BleedOrange78
Reply to  drdneast
21 days ago

I see others took away the same meaning from this article as me…I don’t understand the logic of asking your “star” players to take massive pay cuts while an injury-plagued “newbie” comes in for a lot more cash. If it works, GREAT but I don’t find that realistic.

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Last edited 21 days ago by BleedOrange78
RW
RW
Reply to  BleedOrange78
19 days ago

That “injury plagued newbie” is still a great player and at his peak was better than anyone on the roster except Brady. And he would be taking a large pay cut to come to play for the Bucs. If he is willing to come to the Bucs for $8 million or so you do it.

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spartan
21 days ago

One of the reasons why we will be in cap heaven in 2022 is because Brady’s 25 million comes off the books. That and others need to be replaced one way or another. So robbing peter to pay paul seems a bit short sighted.

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43 Is Only Old in Human Years
21 days ago

Trouble with being the best team money can buy is that someday all those bills come due. We are less than a week from winning the Super Bowl with a stifling defense that did not include Watt, why do we need him. The article suggests cutting Brate in hopes that Howard can somehow stay heathy will some how pay the bills…yeah I know about his “potential”. The greatest ability in football is availability and neither Watt or Howard have been successful at staying healthy. I would think that instead of chasing a dream to strengthen our strengths we start try… Read more »

MichBuc
21 days ago

While I’d be okay with the Bucs signing Watt, I wouldn’t want to cut Will Gholston, Cam Brate, or lowball Suh to do it. Watt has missed 31 games in the last 5 years, Gholston has missed 4, and their numbers from last year are comparable (5/3 in sacks, 52/44 in tackles).

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inspecto
Reply to  MichBuc
20 days ago

RIGHT YOU ARE! i DON’T KNOW WHY EVERYONE IS PICKING ON GOLDSTON
he was a good player for us this year keep what works.

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Last edited 20 days ago by inspecto
RW
RW
Reply to  MichBuc
19 days ago

I like Gholston but if you think he is the equivalent to Watt or even close based on basic stats, you are sadly mistaken.

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scubog
21 days ago

There likely will be a lot of other suitors for J.J. Watt that will drive up the price. Certainly if he is able to stay healthy he could be a great addition. Let the “bean-counters” calculate the money considerations. Easy enough to do a two year deal with most of the salary pushed to 2022 when the funds are more available or a bigger signing bonus spread over the two years. It can be done.

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The Wall
21 days ago

Can we cut Howard? How much would that save us? We seemed to do great without him. Can’t see cutting a Brady favorite like Brate.

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Theydidwhat
Reply to  The Wall
20 days ago

Brate proved how important he can still be. I think he will take less to stay with the Bucs.

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Dman
21 days ago

JJ Watt would make this a fun defense and it’s worth trying to figuring out the $$$. Would not cut either Brate or Gholston. Trading or releasing OJ Howard makes the most sense. I’d hate to lose Godwin, so let’s see what Licht and Greenberg can do. I’m not crazy about breaking the bank for Barrett. He had a great 2019, mediocre 2020 and only came around when he had Vita Vea next to him. We need to rebuild the D line through the draft, this year’s as good as any to start.

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Captain Sly
21 days ago

More than likely the way this’ll shake down will be Shaq gets franchised $19mil, Gronk gets 2yrs $12mil fully guaranteed, Suh 1yr $6mil and unfortunately not because he’s not worthy but his value on the open market is too much for the Bucs so Chris Godwin is the odd man out..Jason Licht could sign JJ Watt but then you’re waving good bye to Shaq and that is a mistake. Keeping Shaq Barrett is 1st order of business this offseason IMHO. Go Bucs!

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peter benet
20 days ago

The best way to repeat is to sign both JJ and Shaq; Suh may retire–if so, keep Gholston too. I’m afraid the Packers might grab Wisconsin alums JJ and James White, making them tougher to beat.

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plopes808
18 days ago

If Shaq decides to break the bank somewhere else, that’s the only reason we should go for Watt. Like a lot of others have said, the cap looks good in 2022, but if Brady stays it will get tight real quick. I can’t see asking Suh and Brate to take a pay cut when they’re clearly very important pieces to this team. Gholston may not put up numbers, but has been playing very well. I don’t see Watt playing the same number of snaps at his age.

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