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 Stat of the Week
After finishing the 2017 season with a 5-11 record, we know that things have to change for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Something has to be different going into next season – after all, insanity is doing the same thing over and over with the same process and the same components and somehow expecting a different result. Are the Buccaneers insane?
We hope not.
Unfortunately, though, they started off the offseason flirting with that insanity line by announcing that they were keeping their entire coaching staff after failing to lure Jon Gruden back to the sidelines in Tampa Bay. Same roster, same coaching staff, sounds kind of like wishful thinking to me when hoping results will be different.
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter – Photo by: Getty Images
But, it’s not like the Buccaneers’ 2017 season was a complete disaster. Okay, maybe compared to expectations it might have been, but hear me out. The defense clearly did not get it done and their side of the ball needs a lot of help, but on the flip side, the Bucs were close to something meaningful. Quarterback Jameis Winston had the best year of his career when it came to efficiency stats. The third-year signal caller had career highs in completion percentage (63.8), yards-per-attempt (7.9), yards-per-game (269.5), quarterback rating (92.2) and a career low in interception percentage (2.5).
Heck, even the receiving group was poised to look better with more consistency and less injuries. Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson had their flashes with fine catch percentages and receptions-per-game averages while tight end’s Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard were both Top 10 in the NFL when it came to yards-per-catch at the position. There were things to like all around in the passing game, or at least things to build on for an aerial attack that was Top 5 in the league when it came to total yards and yards-per-game.
You know what wasn’t there? A freakin’ run game – or at least a willingness for it.
The Buccaneers ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing yards-per-attempt at 3.7, and they were 26th in the NFL with only 389 total attempts in 2017. They were the second-worst team in the NFL when it came to plays of 20+ yards or more on the ground and they were tied for the worst when it came to plays of 40+ yards or more on the ground. Not only were the Buccaneers bad overall when it came to running the ball, they weren’t even good at it situationally. Tampa Bay had the fewest rushes in the league on third down last year. That meant that when the Bucs even got themselves into manageable short yardage situations, they weren’t even willing to do the short yardage things.
Tampa Bay had so many weapons in the passing game on offense and even with the frustrations there were signs of life. But, football is and forever will be something that begins by running the football. On first down, you have to establish the run and get good yards out of it most of the time – the Bucs didn’t. On third down, you have to be able to run it down a team’s throat, especially on 3rd-and-short – the Bucs didn’t. In the red zone, the way you convert three points into six points is by dominating the game by running the ball; less chaos, less to go wrong; more in your control – the Bucs didn’t.
Tampa Bay needs a ground game, and when I say that, I don’t mean any running game. Doug Martin is on his way out the door, Jacquizz Rodgers isn’t a feature back and Charles Sims isn’t a between-the-tackles runner. Peyton Barber is a good running back, and he should stay, but he’s not a hero. The Bucs need a hero.
The Bucs need Pittsburgh’s Pro Bowler, Le’Veon Bell.
Le’Veon Bell is this free agency class’ prized possession, and though you could roll your eyes at the notion of Tampa Bay luring him down from Pittsburgh just because you haven’t heard their name in the national media conversation, it might be more plausible than you think – and totally worth it if the Steelers don’t use the franchise tag on him.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
First, let’s just make his impact clear. Over the last five seasons, Bell has been one of if not the best backs in the NFL for four of them (the other being his rookie year). In 2014 it was Bell and Dallas’ Demarco Murray, in 2015 it was Bell and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (if Bell didn’t get hurt), in 2016 it was Bell and Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott and in 2017 it was Bell and Los Angeles’ Todd Gurley. Every year a new running back comes to the top of the league leaderboards, but each and every year one name is constantly in the conversation in both rushing and receiving and that’s Le’Veon Bell.
Bell has rushed for 5,000 yards and has more than 2,500 receiving yards in just five seasons. His 4.3 yards-per-carry average is among the best in the league for feature backs and his 42.9 receiving yards per game is also among the league’s best for the position. Best of all, for the Buccaneers, Bell knows how to get it done when it matters. In the four playoff games he’s been in, Bell has averaged more than 100 yards per game. In his last three mostly healthy seasons, Bell has accounted for 2,215, 1,884 and 1,946 all-purpose yards.
But, let’s get to the numbers that really matter, the numbers that it would take to ink Bell as a Buccaneer.
Bell played the 2017 season under the franchise tag for the Steelers, a tag that paid him $12.1 million. If they were to tag him again, they would be paying an extra $2 million dollars for a total of $14.5 million in 2018. The Steelers can do that, if they want to, between they dates of February 20 and March 6, but Pittsburgh only has a little over $7 million in salary cap room right now. So without some restructuring or roster moves, the Steelers can’t afford him.
Bell has said publicly that he would consider sitting out the entire 2018 season or possibly retiring if the Steelers choose to place the tag on him again. We all know Bell isn’t going to retire. After all, he’s only 25 years old. But, the threat is a real one for the Steelers, and not to mention it makes your organization look bad if you tag a player, especially a franchise piece, two years in a row.
Bell made the most money in the NFL for any running back last year at that $12.1 million mark. The next closest behind him was Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman at $8.25 million. Bell isn’t going to take a pay cut from that, and it’s likely going to take more to sign him long-term. The report is that it will take a little more than $15 million per year to sign Bell to a long-term deal, which would obviously make him the highest paid running back in the NFL (almost by double).
For Bell, though, it’s not as much about total money or yearly money as it is about guaranteed money (what hurts against the cap). For running backs, they know their lifespan is short in this game. They get hit basically every time they touch the ball and it doesn’t matter if you start when you’re 18, 22, 26, whatever, eventually the hits and the cuts in the ground and the violent changes of direction take their toll. That’s why running backs want all the guaranteed money they can get – because for them the next game is never a guarantee itself. Once most good running backs hit the age of 30 their skills rapidly decline.
To sign Bell away from the Steelers it’s likely going to take a five- or six-year contract that pays out about $16 million a year with about $50 million of that guaranteed. That likely means that, in the first two years, Bell will probably count about $20 million against the cap with extra guaranteed money with the third year also including about $10 million of his $16 million fully guaranteed with the last two or three years more team friendly.
That’s a big commitment for a running back, but you can’t just think of him like that – he’s not average. Over the last four seasons with Bell as a feature player, the lowest the Steelers have ranked in total offense has been seventh, and they were No. 1 in the league with him last year. At just 25 years old, he’s worth the price.
But, is his acquisition worth the risk of losing Mike Evans?
This weekend we reported that Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans isn’t in any hurry to get a deal done. Last year, the Bucs picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract and he is set to play the 2018 season making $13.2 million. That’s nearly a $10 million upgrade from he was making on his pre-option rookie deal. But, the time will come to pay Evans and, at the latest, that time will be the 2019 free agency period. But, the Bucs are trying to win and make a playoff berth now, and as of right now, they have the chance to be a player for Bell.
Bucs WR Mike Evans – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
Evans has plenty of Buccaneers records under his belt in just four seasons of play – and is just 24 years of age. Evans holds the franchise record for most receiving touchdowns in a season (12 – twice), most receiving touchdowns by a rookie in a season (12), currently has the most receiving yards per game in a career (75.4) and most consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons with four. With health on his side, he’ll be the franchise’s best receiver of all-time as he closes out his rookie deal this year.
Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown is currently the highest paid receiver per year, making $17 million per season with the Steelers. Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins has the largest contract value at $81 million over six years, averaging $16.2 million. Atlanta’s Julio Jones is the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFC South division, and the fifth-highest paid receiver in the league, averaging $14.25 million per season.
Evans, whenever he signs, will like command a deal that would make him the highest paid wide receiver in football – unless that gets topped by New York Giants Pro Bowler Odell Beckham, Jr. or Miami’s Jarvis Landry, who were also receivers in the 2014 draft class. If it gets done this offseason, it will likely be in the ballpark of $90 million total for about an $18 million payout per-year average.
If they wait until next offseason and give Evans and his agent the chance to see Beckham, Amari Cooper or others sign their deals, locking up Evans will likely cost the Bucs north of $100 million total. Plus, all of this has to be taken into account while knowing in the back of your mind that the Bucs are going to have to pay quarterback Jameis Winston something like a $30 million-per-year, $150 million dollar deal in the next year or two, as well.
So, is signing Bell worth risking Evans long-term?
With Evans, the Bucs have finished their last four seasons in the following way:
2014: 29th in scoring offense – 2-14 record
2015: 20th in scoring offense – 6-10 record
2016: 18th in scoring offense – 9-7 record
2017: 18th in scoring offense – 5-11 record
With Bell, the Steelers have finished their last four seasons in the following way:
2014: 7th in scoring offense – 11-5 record
2015: 4th in scoring offense – 10-6 record
2016: 10th in scoring offense – 11-5 record
2017: 8th in scoring offense – 13-3 record
Now, obviously a lot more goes into scoring points and a total record than just one offensive player that isn’t a quarterback, but there’s no denying that Bell has not only performed well himself, but has elevated the entire offense around him in the process. I would argue that Evans does some of the same, but I think he is capped in how much he can do that by the nature of his position. After all, Bell touches the ball an average of 24.8 times per game. Evans only touches the ball 5.1, on average. If you want to bring in Evans’ blocking and being a decoy/threat, those elements exist for Bell as well, and likely even more so than for Evans.
Both are the same age, both have plenty of individual success, but one has more team success than the other. Would choosing Bell over Evans elevate the Bucs offense more? Would it be enough for you to choose Bell over Evans, if forced to choose?
What if I told you the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t have to? That’s right. What if I told you it’s not only plausible, but might even be advised to go after and keep both.
Here’s how it can happen.
The Buccaneers are currently sitting at $60.5 million in free cap space. That includes Evans being the highest paid player on the team for 2018 making $13.2 million. The Bucs are likely going to move on from Doug Martin ($6.75 million) and Chris Baker ($4.875 million). They might also be moving on from Robert Ayers ($5 million), but even if they don’t, releasing Martin and Baker will clear another $11.625 million in cap space which would bring them up to a total of $72.125 million to work with – and that’s before any salary cap adjustments by the league prior to the start of free agency.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Let’s say Evans is the big priority, which, in all honestly, is the likely situation. Adding another $5 million onto what he’s making this year would put him at $18.2 million per year against the cap. That’s about right for a new deal as the highest paid wide receiver. That only brings the Bucs down to $53.925 million in cap space. Now, let’s get to Bell.
Let’s say Tampa Bay gives Bell what he wants. Let’s say Bell gets $15.5 million per year on an average with a five-year deal, but his first two years are front-loaded and guaranteed. The Bucs are going to need a lot of guaranteed money to get Bell away from Pittsburgh, so we’ll have to assume it’s between about $50-55 million total guaranteed. With the deal being front-loaded, I ballpark the Bucs would be committing about $25 million to Bell in his first season to sweeten the deal – let’s not get tricky with signing bonuses and just talk guaranteed salaries. Bell making half of his guaranteed money in the first season would still leave the Bucs with $28.925 million in cap space for 2018 with Evans and Bell both locked up.
If you tone down Bell’s guaranteed money to just $20 million in the second season (making his contract pretty team friendly from the on out), the Bucs would have an extra $5 million to work with there, and then when Ayers’ contract expires in 2019, as well, that’s another $5 million there. That leaves room for the team to sign Winston to what many believe will be a $30 million dollar per-year deal.
Would that put the Bucs close to the cap space limit in 2019? Sure it would, but you have that much cap space for a reason. This is the Bucs’ window, use it. Doing this might make for some tough decision with Cameron Brate, Brent Grimes and might even hold off on things for Donovan Smith and Kwon Alexander for decisions to be made later, but for Bell? They’d likely only be able to keep one of the names I just mentioned (assuming no other big contract players get moved), but come on. It’s Le’Veon Bell.
Imagine Bell and Evans and not having to choose – the Bucs have set themselves up to attack free agency in such a manner. Imagine an offense with Winston, Evans, Bell, Jackson, Howard and Godwin, hell, maybe throw Quenton Nelson in there, too, with Marpet. All of them under 26 years old and on the books for a playoff window of a few years, at the least. If the 2017 playoffs taught us anything, it’s that scoring a high amount of points reigns supreme in this era of the game. Get as many as you can.
Bell in Tampa Bay. Could it be?
It can be if the Steelers don’t franchise him again.
Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: email@example.com
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