Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Bucs beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
But this week we switch it up a bit.
Bucs Free Agency Preview
Hello? Is this thing still on? Man, I have been slacking on the Cover 3’s lately. For that, I apologize. But, as many of you all know, I’ve been trying to do my thing over at The Draft Network, as well, as draft season is really kicking into gear. Many of you have shown a ton of support to me and the guys over there. For that, I am thankful, but rest assured I am still a part of PewterReport.com and will still be covering the Buccaneers in 2019.
So right now it’s time to get back to business; it’s time to get back to Bucs.
We’re sort of at an awkward time in the NFL football calendar. We’re on the eve of the Super Bowl and Lord knows the only reason us Tampa natives tune in is to watch the Patriots lose – which they don’t do enough, right? The Senior Bowl has come and gone, but there is still a month or so until the Combine, so there isn’t as much draft hype as there will be in a few weeks. So when I sat back and tried to put myself in the shoes of you all to think about what would be a good topic to write, it came to me pretty quickly.
Bucs free agency.
This free agency period is going to have a big impact on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – as will each free agency period during Bruce Arians’ tenure, multiplying in importance depending on how short his time in Tampa ends up being. The Buccaneers aren’t in the worst cap shape in the league, but their money to play with this season is not nearly what it was the previous two or three seasons, at least not yet.
As it stands right now, the Buccaneers have the fourth-least cap space in the league at just over $12 million. Of the three teams with less wiggle room than them, the Vikings have just $1.2 million and then the final two are the Jaguars and the Eagles, who have minus-$10.1 million and minus-$16.2 million, respectively.
But the Buccaneers do have quite a few big decisions to make when it comes to their free agents in 2019. Let’s look at all of those first, then hit the explanations for the ones that could play a big role in the future of what this franchise does.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents
S Isaiah Johnson
OL Mike Liedtke
First of all, what are exclusive right free agents?
Exclusive-rights free agents (ERFAs) are players with two or fewer seasons in the league whose contracts have expired. The team they finished the previous season can tender a qualifying offer, which is a one-year contract usually at the league minimum, and if they do, the player has no negotiating rights with any other teams and must choose to either sign the tender with the team or sit out the season.
These kinds of moves are usually made on depth players who went undrafted. If you get drafted at any point, you will be signing a four-year deal. First-round picks can be signed up to five years with an option attached, but anything beyond that gets a four-year deal.
Offensive lineman Michael Liedtke and safety Isaiah Johnson both fall under the undrafted umbrella. Both of them returning to the Buccaneers next season completely depends on what the new coaching staff thinks of them. But, stay or go, they will be signing for the league minimum.
Restricted Free Agents
RB Peyton Barber
S Andrew Adams
CB DeVante Harris
LB Devante Bond
CB Javien Elliott
OT Leonard Wester
Restricted free agents (RFAs) are players who have been in the league for three seasons and whose contracts have expired. RFAs can negotiate with other teams like UFAs can, however, if a player accepts an offer from a new team, their old team will have the right to match the offer and retain the player. If the old team decides not to match the offer, they could receive draft pick compensation for losing that player, depending on the level of the qualifying offer made.
Due to the after effects of signing an RFA away from a team, these moves don’t happen often. Most of the time the player would have to be really good for a team to want to pay them a big contract as well as lose a draft pick for them, and then if the player is that good, it’s not likely the original team would choose not to match, hence why it doesn’t happen often.
The only two players who I see as safe in that group are running back Peyton Barber and offensive tackle Leonard Wester. There is a good chance the Bucs choose to let those other players walk. The turnover on the coaching staff was likely foretelling of the potential turnover throughout the roster. After being in the league for so long, Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will likely fill the roster with guys they know who they could pick up later in free agency and even into training camp.
Unrestricted Free Agents
OT Donovan Smith
LB Kwon Alexander
CB Brent Grimes
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
WR Adam Humphries
S Chris Conte
RB Jacquizz Rodgers
QB Ryan Griffin
LB Adarius Taylor
LS Garrison Sanborn
K Cairo Santos
LB Kevin Minter
LB Cam Lynch
DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches
CB Josh Shaw
Now this is the grouping of players that could determine a lot for the Buccaneers in 2019. Being an unrestricted free agent means that the team you’re coming from has no control over whether you stay or go outside of what they can offer you, minus, of course, slapping a player with the franchise tag. The only player that I could see the Buccaneers doing that to is left tackle Donovan Smith if they aren’t comfortable giving him a long-term deal, but even then I would be skeptical of that happening. The Buccaneers haven’t used the franchise tag on anyone since they did back in 2012 with Connor Barth (which was a low-end tag), and have only used it twice since 2007.
As a 26-year old, healthy left tackle with a ton of experience under his belt and not missing a start due to injury, Smith will likely command Top 5 tackle money in free agency because offensive linemen always get overpaid in free agency. The Top 5 paid tackles in the league – Taylor Lewan, Nate Solder, Jake Matthews, Trent Williams and Russell Okung – make anywhere from $13.3-$16 million per year. Smith also has the advantage of coming into a free agency pool with not a lot of other alluring options for teams to sign. Outside of New England’s Trent Brown, Smith may be viewed as the top left tackle in free agency.
Because of that, his price will be more in his hands than say the hands of a saturated market. If there were a handful of left tackle option in free agency, Smith’s price might be closer to a number relative to both his strengths but also his weaknesses. But since there isn’t much out there beyond him, a team would likely overpay him.
With just $12 million in cap space, as it stands right now, signing Smith would require some moving parts. All of that might make it seem like an obvious for the Bucs to be open to moving on, but with right tackle Demar Dotson aging and right guard Caleb Benenoch not playing up to par, asking a new head coach to replace three offensive linemen in one offseason is a tall – perhaps unreasonable – task. Keep that in mind, especially knowing Arians wants to win right away.
Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander is the next piece. It’s been reported that Alexander, who is coming off a torn ACL, is looking for a contract that will pay him between $10-$12 million per year. Only five inside linebackers in the NFL make more than $10 million per year: Benardrick McKinney, Eric Kendrick, Alec Ogletree, Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly. If you ask me, only two of those players are worth that much money, and it’s the last two guys on that list — who also make the most.
Is Alexander on their level? I would argue no. I think Alexander is a very good player that would fit well with Arians and Bowles both schematically and with attitude and mentally. He’s a guy Tampa Bay would like to retain, but not at that price on a long-term deal, especially coming off his injury. If Alexander is going to be signing a multi-year deal worth $10-$12 million dollar deal this offseason, it shouldn’t be in Tampa Bay.
Wide receiver Adam Humphries is the third main piece here. Humphries will not be anything higher than the third-best option the Buccaneers have in their passing attack – behind wide receiver Mike Evans, tight end O.J. Howard and wide receiver Chris Godwin. So how much do you pay your WR3/4? A little birdie told me not too long ago that Humphries was looking for something in the $7-$8 million per year dollar range when negotiations between his camp and the team opened up. That puts him on the same level as guys like Golden Tate, Mohammed Sanu, Marquise Goodwin, Robert Woods and Kenny Stills – some of those guys are No. 2 wide receivers.
I’m not sure Hump is on the same level as those receivers, but there are also players like Tavon Austin, Michael Crabtree, Jordy Nelson and Albert Wilson who also make that much money that I would say Humphries is better than. Unfortunately for Hump, though, of the guys on that list he is both better and worse than, they are mostly No. 2 wide receivers on their respective teams.
Can the Bucs afford to spend that on their fourth-best option? I don’t think they can. Humphries would have to get down to the $5-$6 million dollar range for him to be worth it on this specific depth chart, if you ask me.
As for the rest, 35-year old cornerback Brent Grimes and 35-year old quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick are surely both gone, and if you ask me, backup quarterback Ryan Griffin should be, too. The Bucs had their chance to play Griffin. What good is a 28-year-old quarterback who has never played a single snap in an NFL regular season game? At that point, just sign a true vet.
I don’t see strong safety Chris Conte or running back Jacquizz Rodgers being brought back, either, and I think this coaching staff would choose to re-sign linebacker Kevin Minter over Adarius Taylor. Kicker Cairo Santos deserves to be brought back, but outside of him, I don’t see any easy returns for this team. The Bucs need to fill out their roster for training camp competition and depth, and perhaps because of that some of these guys stay. I’m sure some will — I’m sure some will.
But with a new coaching staff and new systems on both offense and defense, why keep guys from the old system if there are options out there that might know the offense and defense – and these coaches – better?
That brings us to the next page. Who should the Bucs target in free agency?