The Bucs really did the impossible this offseason. After head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht made it a point of emphasis to “keep the band together”, Tampa Bay became the first team in the salary cap era to bring all 22 starters back from their Super Bowl victory the season before. But with quarterback Tom Brady now under contract through the 2022 season and an extremely talented core assembled, we can only assume that the Bucs won’t look at their Super Bowl window as a closing venture heading into next offseason.
Here I’ll look at all of Tampa Bay’s impending free agents for next offseason, broken down into tiers based on snap percentage from the 2020 regular season, and what their future may look like after the 2021 season comes to a close.
But it’s important to remember that a lot of the Bucs’ possibilities next year depend on a rebounding salary cap, and how high that number goes. OverTheCap currently projects the league’s salary cap to sit at $203 million, which would leave Tampa Bay just under $33.7 million in available cap space and 20 unrestricted free agents.
Players With Over 75 Percent Of The Bucs’ Snaps In 2020
Table of Contents
OG Alex Cappa (99.7 percent): What an ascension it’s been for Cappa over the past three years. After being selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft out of Humboldt State – a DII school in California – it was a slow start for Cappa in the NFL. As a rookie he played less than 10 percent of the Bucs’ offensive snaps, sitting behind tackle-turned-guard Caleb Benenoch who would ultimately be released by Tampa Bay the following offseason.
Cappa would then become a full-time starter in 2019, making massive strides over the past two years. The long-haired guard’s rise culminated in a 2020 season in which he played 99.7 percent of the Bucs’ offensive snaps and started all 16 regular season games before being forced out of Tampa Bay’s Wild Card game against Washington with a season-ending ankle injury. Per Pro Football Focus, Cappa had an overall grade of 62.7 in 2019 and a 69 overall grade in 2020. Over his 16 starts last season, Cappa allowed just 27 pressures, 13 quarterback hits, and no sacks, while committing only two penalties.
Cappa’s potential return in 2022 will likely depend on his asking price. While he’s worked his way to reliable starter status for the Bucs, if he doesn’t come cheap enough I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bucs replace him through the draft or find another option in free agency next offseason.
C Ryan Jensen (98.9 percent): Jensen was an absolute home run addition to the Bucs’ offensive line for Licht. Despite signing him to an expensive four-year, $42 million contract, Jensen has absolutely lived up to the price tag. His first year in Tampa was admittedly average, but since then Jensen has not only set the standard for the Bucs’ desired culture change, he’s also been among the best centers in the league.
With that said, Jensen will be turning 30 in 2021 and the Bucs’ may opt to go younger – and cheaper – at the position. The team could add his eventual replacement in the 2021 NFL Draft if Jensen is expected to go looking for one more big contract in free agency next offseason. The Bucs are already paying big money to Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet on the offensive line, they won’t allocate those same kind of resources to Cappa and Jensen in 2022. Finding future starters on the interior offensive line is critical in this year’s draft.
OLB Jason Pierre-Paul (88.71 percent): The fact of the matter when it comes to Pierre-Paul is simple: he’s a freak. He’s suffered devastating off-the-field injuries to one of his hands and his neck, and he’s always present on the Bucs’ injury report during the season. Yet he also started all 16 games for the Bucs in 2020 while notching 14 quarterback hits and 9.5 sacks.
The Bucs will most certainly be looking for his eventual replacement as early as this upcoming draft, but it wouldn’t shock me at all to see Pierre-Paul remain with the Bucs for another year or two on a short-term contract, much like Ndamukong Suh has for the past two years. He’ll be 32 this upcoming season with a couple of major injuries in his history, but Pierre-Paul doesn’t look like he’s let any of that slow him down yet.
S Jordan Whitehead (86.4 percent): By all accounts Whitehead seems to be loved by his teammates and the Bucs’ front office, and for good reason. Whitehead is never going to be a guy that will head to Orlando for the Pro Bowl every year, but he’s found a niche in Tampa Bay’s defense and plays that role well. Whitehead is an aggressive, downhill box safety who plays with the kind of reckless abandon for his own safety that just makes football fun to watch. He can read and diagnose runs well to get into the backfield, he’s a sure tackler and he can even sub at a linebacker spot in the occasional big nickel package.
He has his struggles in man coverage, but when he’s tasked with playing downhill he’s at his best. Still, his limitations could result in him being replaced as a free agent next offseason, especially if a more lucrative contract offer comes calling and safety Mike Edwards matures this season. I think there is a chance that Whitehead is back in Tampa on a new contract following 2021, but that will likely be dependent on the offers he receives elsewhere.
CB Carlton Davis (85 percent): Over a three-year span Licht flooded his defensive secondary with draft picks, and it’s resulted in an extremely young and talented unit, with Davis leading the way.
It took him a few years, but by 2020 Davis had become the Bucs’ true lockdown corner. He was great in coverage, came up with four interceptions and was often tasked with shadowing the opponents’ best receiver. That ability to follow and diminish some of the best receivers in the NFL is a rare trait and it’s something that has become a crucial element of Tampa Bay’s defense. All things considered though, he’s only had one season of upper-level play and a lot of potential money is riding on his play in 2021. If Davis can post a season similar to 2020, he’ll garner a massive contract next offseason.
Either way, I fully expect Davis to be the Bucs’ most important pending free agent along with Chris Godwin next offseason. No. 1 corners are hard to find and even harder to replace, so expect the Bucs to make a strong push to retain Davis.
TE Rob Gronkowski (75.3 percent): I think that while Gronkowski enjoyed his time “testing out” free agency this season and wants to do it on a yearly basis, he returned to the NFL to play with quarterback Tom Brady and they likely come as a package deal.
He proved in 2020 that he still has plenty of football left in him and even managed to play his first 16-game season since 2011. If Brady is actually coming back for the 2022 season, I would expect Gronkowski to be back as well.
Players With 50-75 Percent Of The Bucs’ Snaps In 2020
DT Ndamukong Suh (73.9 percent): Suh has been a crucial and reliable cog along the Bucs’ defensive line since joining the team in 2019. After toying with the idea of retirement this past offseason and enjoying the arrival of twins, he claims that he still has the fire and ability to keep playing.
But now on his third consecutive one-year deal with the Bucs and due to turn 35 in 2021, I think this upcoming season may be Suh’s final rodeo in red and pewter. The Bucs will search for his eventual replacement in their upcoming drafts.
WR Chris Godwin (62.8 percent): A former third-round selection, Godwin took a major step forward in 2018 before breaking out for 1,333 yards, nine touchdowns and a Pro Bowl selection over just 14 games in 2019. Proving himself among the upper echelon of receivers, he’s a major target for the Bucs to get extended long term.
Tampa Bay placed their franchise tag on Godwin for the 2021 season and will pay him just south of $16 million dollars for this upcoming year, but I wouldn’t expect it take long before extension talks continue after an unsuccessful run at getting one worked out before the tag deadline. I have to think the Bucs will find a way to make it work, but with the salary cap expected to explode over the next few seasons, Godwin could be backing up the Brinks truck for his next contract. Some good news for the Bucs: the wide receiver market in free agency has cooled off substantially of late, with his past offseason resulting in few big offers, even for quality pass-catchers.
DL Will Gholston (57 percent): One of the longest-tenured members of the Bucs’ roster as the team’s fourth-round draft pick all the way back in 2013, Gholston played his best football in 2020 at 29-years old. He was already a common name to potentially fall victim to salary cap-related cuts this offseason, but the Bucs were able to make the money work and keep Gholston on the roster with a cap hit of $5.5 million.
After racking up 20 quarterback hits, eight tackles for loss and three sacks in a rotational role last season, Gholston could put himself in line for one more solid contract in the league, and I find it hard to believe that will come with Tampa Bay. Gholston has proven himself to be a productive and talented role player, but with the Bucs looking for cap space next offseason, I would have to think that his ride with the Bucs will come to an end after 2021.
Players With 0-50 Percent Of The Bucs’ Snaps In 2020
RB Ronald Jones II (42 percent): Jones was another player who took a while to come around, but played really solid football in 2020. Jones totaled eight total touchdowns, averaged an absurd 5.1 yards per carry and finished the year at 978 rushing yards, falling just short of the 1,000-yard mark due to two missed games at the end of the Bucs’ season.
While he’s proven himself to be a reliable starter in the NFL, it would be downright detrimental to Tampa Bay’s future salary cap if they signed him to a big-money contract extension. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bucs drafted Jones’ eventual replacement as early as the 2021 draft.
DT Steve McLendon (40 percent): McLendon was the oldest defensive tackle to take a snap in the NFL last season at 34-years-old and his return on a one-year deal was genuinely unexpected to me. Whether it’s through retirement or replacement, I don’t see McLendon being re-signed next offseason.
RB Leonard Fournette (35.7 percent): While Fournette had a great stretch of play through the playoffs and at the tail end of Tampa Bay’s regular season, he was largely average for most of the year. Realistically however, I fully expected that run of play to land him a more lucrative deal elsewhere but his return does give Tampa Bay a lot of comfortability at the position for this upcoming year alongside Jones and newly-acquired pass-catching back Giovani Bernard.
Fournette has gone on record to say how much he grew as a person and player in the Bucs’ locker room last year and I think that another solid year of production will ultimately land him a multi-year deal back in a starter’s spot somewhere else next offseason.
DT Vita Vea (21 percent): Vea’s inclusion is merely a formality at this point, as Licht has confirmed that the Bucs will be picking up his fifth-year option for the 2022 season.
WR Justin Watson (14.8 percent): Watson has had multiple chances to find a spot in the receiver’s rotation and run with it since joining the Bucs, but it just simply never worked out for him. Fortunately he carved a niche out for himself on special teams and has experience working in all phases of that unit.
If Watson returns next offseason, it will be reminiscent of cornerback Ryan Smith in year’s past, coming cheap and with the expectation that most of his work will come on special teams.
TE O.J. Howard (12.3 percent): Howard is another interesting player, as the talent and physical ability is abundantly clear, but he just hasn’t found a way to stay on the field during his career. If he’s able to finally have that breakout season that everyone has expected from the former first-round selection, then the Bucs will face a tough decision next offseason. Howard’s next contract could land somewhere in the $6-8 million-per-year range in free agency next season.
If he can’t find success in the best offensive situation of his career, or sees another season end early on account of an injury in 2021 however, it’s hard to see him making a return. This is a critical year for Howard, as his career is at a crossroads, largely due to injury.
OT Josh Wells (10.3): Wells has been with the Bucs for two years now, getting three starts and serving as Tampa Bay’s primary replacement at the tackle position.
With six years under his belt and familiarity within the Bucs’ offense, he’s a likely candidate to remain the spot-starter at tackle on one-year deals worth the veteran’s minimum up until Tampa Bay finds a younger replacement.
ILB Kevin Minter (8.7 percent): Minter is just a great guy to have in the locker room. He provides a veteran presence with eight years of experience in the league, he’s familiar with the defense as he joined the Bucs after being drafted by Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles in Arizona in 2013, he’s a solid linebacker in the run game and he can step in to start in a pinch.
With all of that said, I would look for Tampa Bay to eventually find a younger replacement to backup Devin White and Lavonte David.
Jaydon Mickens (7 percent): Mickens has bounced between the Bucs’ practice squad and active roster while occasionally stepping in at receiver due to injuries and primarily serving as the Bucs’ return specialist. Moving forward, I believe the Bucs could find better options for the role.
OG Aaron Stinnie (<1 percent): Stinnie was a postseason hero to many fans, stepping in valiantly to start the Bucs’ final three playoff games en route to their second Super Bowl in franchise history. In his three postseason games against the Saints, Packers and Chiefs, Stinnie allowed just one sack, one quarterback hit and one hurry.
Still, Stinnie found extremely limited action in just three regular season games and was only given a chance to start after offensive linemen Joe Haeg and Ted Larsen fell short in their opportunities. The coaching staff and his teammates have applauded his growth since joining the Bucs as a waiver claim in 2019, but as of now he’s simply a depth piece. As long as other teams view him that way then the Bucs will remain his best situation next offseason. But if an injury occurs and he’s able to show more promising tape in 2021, another team could provide a better offer.
RB C.J. Prosise: Prosise was signed to the Bucs’ practice squad in January but I don’t see him as part of a long-term plan for Tampa Bay.
RB Giovani Bernard: Bernard was recently signed as a cheap, veteran addition aimed at improving the Bucs’ receiving game out of the backfield. On just a one-year deal worth the veteran’s minimum, I don’t necessarily see him sticking around past 2021. But with Fournette and Jones both due to be free agents next offseason, Bernard may come back for another year if he remains cheap and the Bucs find it a burden to replace all three backs in one offseason.