Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers 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.
Sikkema’s Story of the Week
All right, I’ll just say it: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had one of the best free agency periods in the entire NFL relative to what they needed to do.
Now that we’ve gotten that bomb out of the way, let’s dissect it.
I was one of the people criticizing the Buccaneers during the time period of players hitting the trade market as it seemed general manager Jason Licht was sitting on his hands. I had a sour taste in my mouth from the organization deciding to bring back every single decision-maker and coach (minus defensive line Jay Hayes, eventually) from a highly disappointing 5-11 campaign where I knew the philosophy of this team was to build through the draft and not risk as much immediate help for bigger name players and higher risk changes.
I watched as cornerback Marcus Peters went from Kansas City to the Los Angeles Rams while the 32nd, dead-last pass defense in the NFL (Tampa Bay) just watched the transaction go by. I watched as Robert Quinn, a player who three years ago had just come off back-to-back-to-back double-digit sacks seasons, moved from Los Angeles to the Miami Dolphins for just a mid-round pick while the 32nd, dead-last sack team in the NFL (the Buccaneers) let him get away, failing to out-bid a low price. I watched as Michael Bennett, a player who not only was a familiar face for Tampa Bay, but one that the Bucs’ own players were even campaigning for the organization to go out and get was moved for nothing more than a fifth-round pick and some loose change to a team that just went to the Super Bowl.
I rolled my eyes as each of those opportunities came and went, knowing how much the Bucs roster needed to improve, and in two of those cases, Tampa Bay even bid on the players for trade (Quinn and Bennett) but ultimately didn’t end up with them. We were told that the Bucs have a value on every player in the NFL, both in trade and in salary compensation. The Bucs likely offered what they believed both of those players were worth, but were just outbid. To me, that just screamed like a team that settled for its plan instead of a move outside the box that needed to be made – and a team that ultimately missed. I thought the Bucs were doomed to begin to rebuild if they couldn’t drastically improve out of nowhere.
What was Licht doing? I mean, did anyone tell him that 2018 is a make-or-break year for him? That it was a make-or-break year for all of them? All we heard all year was “our guys are our guys” or “the cavalry isn’t coming” when referencing the poor play of the existing starters. This was the time! This was the time to get that cavalry, to get those new guys. They had the fourth-highest cap space in all of football and winning, established teams were instead the ones picking these players up and restructuring their deals as they flirted with the cap floor coming off successful seasons. It shouldn’t have been them; it should have been Tampa Bay.
At least, that’s what I thought. I had the itch for aggressiveness in acquisitions and turned it into blame – perhaps too much, but not unwarranted in its entirety.
Bucs WR Mike Evans – Photo by: Mary Holt/PR
It was right around that time that the first domino of free agency fell for the Buccaneers. On March 9, wide receiver Mike Evans signed high five-year, $82 million dollar deal that made him the highest paid player in the NFL in terms of total money, but not in terms of average per year, which was key. Earlier in the offseason we were told that Evans and his camp were in no hurry to sign a new deal, as Evans’ deal wouldn’t be up until next year anyways and the amount that star players are paid in the league goes up every year.
Instead of letting it play out and allowing Evans and his agent to see a player like Odell Beckham Jr. sign a mega-deal for a wide receiver, which will be happening soon, they decided to craft a deal that enticed Evans to sign early with a high amount of guaranteed money, but one that wouldn’t kill them against the cap.
That, in and of itself, was a free agency win before the new year even opened. The Bucs locked up one of their top guys, and did so in a way that benefited them the most. It was because of the way that deal was done, and in the timing in which it was done, that will give the Buccaneers the luxury to be more aggressive in the future with an already established roster piece in place.
That future didn’t take too long to see the benefits from, as the next piece of the offseason was extending tight end Cameron Brate. If you recall, Brate led the NFL in touchdowns for a tight end in 2016 with eight when he was the only one running the show. He wasn’t at the top of the tight end list in 2017, but that can be rooted in the fact that the team also gave looks to their first-round draft pick, tight end O.J. Howard. When you take the knowledge that Brate was one of the best tight ends in the NFL when used a feature player and line that up with the $40 million dollar extension, which made him just the 13th-highest paid tight end in the league, that was another free agency win, as Brate would have surely fielded offers from other teams in free agency next year.
Evans’ contract falling the way it did and Brate’s contract doing the same allowed for thew Bucs to have extra cap space to work with right away, or at least more than market value would have suggested for re-signing the two. That allowed the Bucs to stay on-par with their philosophy, which is something we’ll get into later.
Tampa Bay went into the offseason knowing it needed cornerback help. Its options in free agency were to either trade a pick for a high-contract player, signing a big-name guy or to leave the position unattended until the draft. Instead of going out and trading for Aqib Talib, betting on Richard Sherman or overpaying Trumaine Johnson, the Bucs decided to convince Brent Grimes to play with them for one more year on a $10 million dollar deal. On the surface, Grimes making $7 million with $3 million in incentives in one season at his age, even with his relative talent, is a bit of an oversight. But, where I was may have been shortsighted in my thoughts about the deal, the deal was actually clever.
Keeping Grimes for another year does mean the team will have to do this all over again next season. But, now getting into the Bucs’ offseason philosophies, they believe that the best talent on their team is always going to come through the draft, and that the point of the free agency period is to allow themselves to fill holes here and there to be able to take the best player available at whatever number pick they have – and that goes beyond just the first round. By signing Grimes, they allowed themselves to have more money to deal with in free agency in the trenches while keeping a guy they trust, and also allowed them to not be forced to take a defensive back with their earliest pick, which is a big deal since it’s in the Top 10.
From there, the deals began to fall into place. First, defensive tackle Beau Allen agreed to his three-year, $15 million dollar contract in an attempt to replace the dismissed Chris Baker. After that, in a move that was highly criticized at the time, but in retrospect looks like a pretty good addition, the Bucs upgraded their kicker with Chandler Catanzaro. Tampa Bay already upgraded the defensive line depth with Mitch Unrein, too.
Ravens C Ryan Jensen – Photo by: Getty Images
Then, the Bucs were successful in courting center Ryan Jensen down to Tampa Bay on a four-year, $42 million dollar deal to improve a disastrous interior offensive line group which likely wasn’t going to have all but one of their starters back. Finally, the big move to round out the big moves was the signing of pass rusher Vinny Curry to a three-year, $27 million dollar deal, which in reality is a one-year, $6.5 million contract in terms of guaranteed money. Each of those moves, along with the team bringing back the likes of safety Keith Tandy, defensive end Will Clarke and linebacker Adarius Glanton gave the Bucs both new looks and established depth, all of which went into their offseason philosophy.
Tampa Bay may not be done and may still sign a few new faces before the draft rolls around and it is on the clock with the No. 7 overall pick, but a week after the NFL’s new year has begun, I think it’s fair to look back at the strategy that was. I think if you asked most people, they’d say that as long as the draft will bring another one or two starters, at least, that the offseason ended with a lot more sunshine than it began with. But, that also brings up the question.
How much of what came to be was rooted in patience and planning, and how much of it was bail-outs and luck being on their side?
To come to the correct answer to that question, we have to start from the beginning. And I don’t just mean the beginning of this offseason.
Assembling a team in the NFL requires the correct chemistry between both a general manager and a head coach. When Licht was hired by the Buccaneers in 2014, it was his first general manager job. The interesting wrinkle in that first job was that he was hired after the Buccaneers had hired their coach Lovie Smith. This usually happens the other way around. There’s some speculation here on my part, but Licht, being a first-time GM in his early 40’s, trying to come up with team-building chemistry with a long-time NFL head coach who took a team to the Super Bowl likely had its balance of power skewed, and I don’t mean that in an alpha way, but one that may have held its poison, just more subtly.
We all know that Smith’s tenure as the Buccaneers head coach was less than ideal and didn’t go as planned. Smith’s defenses did not play up to par and his offenses weren’t much better. Some of that can be attributed to the players that were brought in, but even that has to come from a chemistry between a coach and a general manager.
Jason Licht and Lovie Smith – Photo by Buccaneers
Over the years we’ve learned from difference sources around situations that there were cases in the draft and in free agency of players that either Licht wanted to bring in that Smith didn’t agree with or vice versa. That, naturally, would cause holes on a roster – enough holes for one of them to take a hike, as Smith did.
As Licht was getting his feet wet in his first few years as a GM, I think it might have been natural for him to cater to the desires of his experienced head coach, even if the scheme he was building wasn’t a good one. When Dirk Koetter was hired by Licht in 2016, Licht had more experience under his belt, and I think he trusted himself more. I think the chemistry between Koetter and Licht is better than it was with he and Smith, if nothing else but for the experience of both and the nature of which the chain of command was established.
But, even if that’s all true, it’s hard for a general manager to survive a coaching change like that. There’s a likelihood that, even if you bring in the right guy after that, you’re not going to have the three or four years it usually takes to build a winner of a certain coach because you’ve already been on the clock as a general manager and the losses have mounted – hence the need for a new coach. Instead, you’re trying to make up for a roster full of mistakes that you know you can’t just cut and start over. Drastic change can be good, sometimes even needed, but it’s rarely what actually plays out. What Colts general manager Chris Ballard is doing in Indianapolis, now having less than 80 percent of the team’s starters still on the roster from when he took over two years ago, just doesn’t happen often.
Now, I’ll stop myself here and say that I’m not trying to be a Licht apologist. The players he brought in are ultimately on him, non-ideal coach or not, and even after he got rid of Smith and had full control of a draft, that first draft in 2016 might have set his team back even further if defensive end Noah Spence and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves can’t get to producing — not to mention the disastrous Roberto Aguayo pick. That’s all on him. I’m not deflecting any of that. This hole the Bucs have been in is just as much, probably even more, on Licht and he’s even said that himself.
But, in 2017, things got a bit more calculated, and this offseason has been a continuation of that, and in a “what have you done for me lately?” world, Licht has done well. In 2017, the Bucs drafted talent over need – no matter what. They took a second tight end with the No. 19 overall pick in Howard and they took an additional linebacker in the late third round. Both of those picks, along with wide receiver Chris Godwin and safety Justin Evans, proved to be brilliant moves. I think Licht, who was in just his fourth year as a general manager, stopped listening to everyone else in 2017 and picked the guys he thought were good.
I think that’s what he’s doing in 2018, as well, mostly in spite of his past self. He didn’t listen to the people who were yelling at him to go after the big names; instead he was re-signing his own big names. Licht didn’t break the bank where he didn’t need to; instead he stuck with his plan. Instead of signing players with high bust rates, players that might have fizzled out play-wise and personality-wise in Tampa Bay, he quietly signed two of the best run defenders on the defensive line in the NFL last season, a pass rusher who is hungry for more snaps coming off a Super Bowl, and one of the most improved offensive line pieces in the NFL – a player who will bring a mean streak to the trenches.
Licht needed to have a plan that was well calculated and one he needed to stick to it, but he also needed to get lucky. He needed to have a plan to structure contracts in a way that allows Tampa Bay to get out of deals like the one Doug Martin, Baker and Robert Ayers had. The Bucs needed to get lucky with the fact that the Eagles couldn’t keep Allen and Curry, and they needed to get lucky that Jensen chose Tampa Bay when he didn’t have to.
At the beginning of the offseason, as players were becoming available, Licht didn’t pay for the name; he stuck to a plan. He made signing his own big-name players a priority, and making sure he left room to do more of that soon. He and cap guru Mike Greenberg kept playing ahead and didn’t stop to attempt to play catch up. They trusted their process, because even if it might ultimately cost them their jobs if this team doesn’t perform better in 2018, they weren’t about to ruin the structure they’d worked so hard to create just to risk it all on players that hadn’t even done anything for them.
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
And that brings us to where we wrap all this up. At the end of the day, this team just has to coach better.
Whether you believe it or not, the talent on this Buccaneers team is already in place. It’s not complete by any means, but it’s fit to compete – it was last year and is even more so this year. Almost every single media outlet and media personality picked the Buccaneers to make the playoff last season. Why? Because a lot of it is there, and after trimming the fat and signing some new blood, it looks even better.
Now, were some of the pieces not what people thought they would be in 2017? Yes. But, many have been remedied. This team moved on from Baker, Martin, Ayers, offensive linemen Evan Smith and Kevin Pamphile and safety T.J. Ward. Those cuts still count as good moves. You know why? Because they didn’t cost the Bucs anything due to how Greenberg structures their deals.
The team just has to be coached better. End of story.
The game plan, the talent evaluation, the execution; they have to get better luck with injuries in 2018, but they also just have to coach better.
This is on Koetter.
This is on Mike Smith.
This is on Todd Monken.
This is on George Warhop.
This is on Brentson Buckner.
This is on Jon Hoke and Brett Maxie and so on.
It will continue to be on Licht, too, but, so far, after free agency, I think he’s held up his end of the deal, especially knowing where he might be come draft time — say for running back, defensive back and more trench help, but at the right costs.
If the point of free agency really is to set yourself up to be able to take the best player available at any draft spot and grow with them organically as the cornerstones of your team, the players who never hit free agency because they’re that good, then the Bucs set themselves up to do that in 2018.
That will be the final telling tale of how successful this offseason was for the Buccaneers. But, as of right now, they brought back one of the best wide receivers in the game, they signed two top players at their positions to team-friendly deals in Grimes and Brate, they got two of the best run-stoppers in the NFL, they acquired a nasty interior offensive lineman, the Bucs got one of the more hungry pass rushers in the league, and they did all that at low cost with high reward at healthy longevity.
The talent is there, and they did it the right way, even if it took some frustration and a little luck.
Now they just have to coach it up.