We’ve avoided talking about it, but now the time has come. With the tampering period set to unofficially open free agency on Monday, Bucs fans must think about what life will be like without one or several of the team’s key free agents. After re-signing LB Lavonte David and franchise-tagging WR Chris Godwin, the list of the Bucs top remaining unsigned players is still fairly long:
OLB Shaq Barrett
TE Rob Gronkowski
WR Antonio Brown
DT Ndamukong Suh
K Ryan Succop
RB Leonard Fournette
In this article I’ll examine the Bucs’ “Plan B” if the team loses the aforementioned free agents, focusing on one expensive replacement option, one mid-range option and one cheap option that fits the team in free agency. There will obviously be the need to alter GM Jason Licht’s draft approach based on potential losses in free agency, but we’ll focus on that at another time. Right now, it’s about patching holes on the open market as best you can if one of your key free agents opts for another team in 2021.
*Note: I didn’t include Antonio Brown, because even if the Bucs do lose him in free agency, I would be surprised if they opted to try and replace him with another free agent signing. Their current wide receiver depth would be relied upon to step into Brown’s role.
If the Bucs can’t re-sign Barrett in free agency, there is no obvious solution. Picking 32nd in the draft in an average edge defender class means you can’t count on a rookie to pull a Tristan Wirfs or an Antoine Winfield Jr, and free agency has its’ own pitfalls. Players like Matt Judon and Trey Hendrickson look like fool’s gold signings, and Jadeveon Clowney and Melvin Ingram’s careers are probably moving in the wrong direction, plus health is a concern for both.
Some would clamor for Carl Lawson, but he’s never been a 3-down player in the NFL and he isn’t a coverage option, something Todd Bowles seems to be prioritizing with his edge defenders these days. Yannick Ngakoue is a popular name, but he’s also pretty one dimensional as a career average run defender who is coming off a couple mediocre seasons at the wrong time. At his rumored price, I just wouldn’t be interested.
One player whose career has been moving in the opposite direction of Ngakoue is former Steelers edge defender Bud Dupree, who would be a very natural fit in Tampa Bay given how often Pittsburgh blitzed, utilized him in coverage and relied on his elite run defense on the edge. Dupree has blossomed as a pass rusher of late too, and plays every snap a hundred miles per hour with relentless physicality and effort.
Now Dupree is coming off a torn ACL, which I don’t think will impact his price tag much, but in a year like this one, who knows? In a scenario where Barrett doesn’t return, the current Buccaneer would probably be getting over $20 million per year from another team, and that is more than Dupree is going to command on the open market. Culturally Dupree would fit right in with the Bucs, and his price tag is projected in the $17-18 million per year range – less than what Barrett will get if he leaves.
Dupree is a good pass rusher who has grown a ton in recent years, but he’s not as good as Barrett one-on-one. His run defense might be a tad better however, and he’ll make a lot of splash plays (tackles-for-loss) in pursuit. The fit is a very good one, the only question will be if the Bucs can get a “no” from Barrett fast enough to pivot to a Plan B as optimal as Dupree.
If they can’t, Leonard Floyd is a solid all-around player who would be another natural fit as a standup edge in Bowles’ defense. He plays hard and would put up decent numbers in Tampa Bay with the talent around him up front, especially if he’s able to share the role with a rookie.
If Floyd isn’t an option either, the Bucs may be forced to go the veteran route, pairing an aging player with a rookie and hoping for the best. I don’t expect this to be the case, but if it is, spend the money elsewhere and get Justin Houston to Tampa Bay on a cheap deal. It’s obviously not an ideal situation to be in, but Houston is still a tough customer in the run and pass game, and letting him share the load with a rookie should keep him fresh.
The Bucs losing Gronkowski to another team would be the biggest surprise of free agency, as the veteran tight end has made it clear he expects to be back in Tampa Bay when the dust settles. But hypothetically if Gronkowski were to walk, it would be highly unlikely for the Bucs to explore another dynamic option at the position. They would simply bump O.J. Howard back to the starting lineup and keep Cam Brate around as the No. 2, perhaps bringing in a third option in free agency.
If that third option can’t block, forget about it. We already know Brate isn’t much of a blocker, and Howard has been inconsistent in his career, although 2021 was trending the right way before his torn Achilles. Marcedes Lewis would be the perfect No. 3 tight end for this team, as he can handle all the dirty work in the trenches and provide the leadership the unit needs in the locker room. At 37, Lewis is still one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL, and would be a nice boost to the Bucs run game. He’s tough, physical and in full pursuit of a ring.
The catch is that Lewis could get a chance to stay in Green Bay and take it, leaving the Bucs looking for another option at tight end. Out of nowhere Richard Rodgers impressed last season in Philly, catching 24 passes for 345 yards and two touchdowns after barely playing the two years prior. He’s always been a solid blocker, and he’d help out in the red area too.
If Gronkowski is back and Cam Brate is released due to his $6.5 million cap hit, either Lewis or Rodgers would be savvy additions as No. 3 tight ends for the Bucs this season.
Like Gronkowski, it would be a surprise to see Suh playing anywhere other than Tampa Bay this season, but fitting everyone in under the cap is going to be tricky, so we’ll keep our options open. If Suh walks, the player I would most want to see in Tampa Bay is Shelby Harris, but I’ll admit the price tag is hard to gauge at this point.
In 2020, Harris entered free agency to little interest and decided to return to Denver on a one-year, $3 million deal. He kept his starting job for the second straight season and once again impressed, but the numbers were modest, with 32 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Harris churned out pressures however, with 27 in 264 pass rush snaps per Pro Football Focus, an even better rate than the year before when he recorded six sacks.
Harris’ numbers have never been great, but his tape is pretty consistently good against the run and the pass. I was interested in the Bucs signing him as a free agent last offseason, largely due to the fact that Harris would at the very least be a significant upgrade over Rakeem Nunez-Roches due to his impact on passing downs. Not only can Harris get to the quarterback, he might legitimately be the best defensive lineman in the NFL at knocking down passes at the line of scrimmage, with an absurd 20 swatted balls over the past three years.
Harris spent some time in New York early in his career when Todd Bowles was the Jets head coach, so there is some familiarity there. He’d be a great addition to the Bucs defensive line, especially if they can’t retain Suh.
The other options are solid too, as both Sheldon Rankins and Jurrell Casey should be cheap as they try to get their careers back on track. Rankins has been a solid run defender every year for the Saints, but his pass rush has never really found its legs, and injuries haven’t helped. Rankins should be looking for a cheap, one-year opportunity to enhance his market next offseason, which could be a fit with the Bucs.
Casey barely played last season in Denver before a torn biceps against the Bucs ended his only campaign with the Broncos. At 31 Casey is aging, but he’s still a good pass rusher who can move around a defensive front and give Bowles’ more flexibility in his alignments. And he’ll maintain the high standards set by Suh in the run game and in the locker room.
If The Bucs Lose K Ryan Succop…
Plan B Options
Expensive: None Mid-Range: Nick Folk, Patriots Cheap: Randy Bullock, Bengals
I have no idea what kickers cost, so I just listed the only two unrestricted free agent kickers I would consider if the Bucs lose out on Ryan Succop in free agency. Let’s get the Nick Folk thing out of the way first.
I realize there’s a pretty small chance Folk comes back to Tampa Bay, and I get it. The dude was an absolute nightmare in 2017 for the Bucs, missing five of his 11 field goal attempts and two of his nine extra point attempts before getting sent packing just four games into his tenure there. It almost ended his career, as Folk didn’t play in 2018.
But since that point, Folk is 42-of-45 on extra points and 40-of-45 on field goal attempts in 23 games for the Patriots. He’s been excellent, and for most of Folk’s career outside of that four-game stint with the Bucs, he’s been a very good kicker. I know that logic probably isn’t enough to make Bucs fans feel differently about him, but the facts are the facts. Kickers are a crapshoot year-to-year and even game-to-game, but if the Bucs lose Succop, Folk is a veteran whose career sample size suggests he’d do as well as anyone, and better than most.
But my favorite potential signing may be Randy Bullock, who has quietly plugged away as one of the more reliable kickers in the league over the past few years. Like Succop, Bullock is at his best inside of 50 yards, where he has been remarkably consistent. Bullock has missed just 13 field goals over the past three years, and seven of them have been from beyond 50 yards. 61-of-67 from inside 50 yards over a three-year sample size is a chance I’ll take any day of the week, especially when you consider Bullock is 87-of-91 on extra points in the same time frame. That’s 148-of-158 on kicks inside 50 yards.
Obviously no one wants to lose Succop after the way he kicked last season and the kicking failures the Bucs have endured in recent years. But kickers are so volatile year-to-year that you never want to break the bank for them. If someone offers Succop more, the Bucs will have other options to turn to from this pool of free agents.
If The Bucs Lose RB Leonard Fournette…
Plan B Options
Expensive: None Mid-Range: Jamaal Williams, Packers Cheap: Rex Burkhead, Patriots
Pass-catchers and pass protectors will be sought after skill sets in Tampa Bay at the running back position, but getting a guy that can run the ball a little bit will still be a priority. That’s why I love the addition of Jamaal Williams, one of the more well-rounded free agents in this year’s crop of running backs. Williams could be a feature back for a few games if needed, and would immediately be the Bucs best receiving back heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. His skill set is closer to what the team wanted in Fournette last season, but didn’t really find until some spurts in the pl