In a two-part series, I’ll be taking a detailed look at the Bucs current and future level of “need” at every position, beginning with the offense on Monday and ending with the defense on Wednesday. Here’s the scale I’ll be using to assess the team’s level of need at each position.
3 = Critical Need
2 = Moderate Need
1 = Ancillary or Future Need
0 = No Need
Under Contract: Tom Brady (1 year)
Free Agents: Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Griffin
Roster Outlook: As a pair of 32 year-old quarterbacks, I wouldn’t expect there to be much of a market for Gabbert or Griffin this offseason, especially given some of the signal callers that are available. GM Jason Licht and head coach Bruce Arians have made it clear they value Gabbert’s skill set and that he’ll be given an opportunity to prove himself if Brady ever does retire, so count on him being back. If Griffin wants to stay at it, he’ll probably be back too, ready to defend his No. 3 spot against another rookie challenger.
Draft Outlook: Some will say the Bucs should start looking for Tom Brady’s successor, and I don’t disagree, but the conclusion of that search is very unlikely to occur this offseason. The options at No. 32 are unlikely to warrant many franchise-caliber options, and the Bucs won’t be in position to make a big jump up the board either. We’re more likely to get a Brady extension this spring than his future replacement, but don’t rule out the Bucs possibly adding a quarterback later in the draft, similar to the flier they took on Josh Rosen as a developmental option this past season. They’d still like to add some youth to the room, it just isn’t a top priority right now.
Need Meter: 1
Under Contract: Ronald Jones (1 year), Ke’Shawn Vaughn (3 years)
Free Agents: Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy, Kenjon Barner, T.J. Logan
Roster Outlook: Barner and Logan could be back for cheap, but McCoy is almost guaranteed to be gone, and Fournette probably priced himself out of Tampa Bay with his playoff performance. Someone will overpay for the recent production and former pedigree of the still-young Fournette, which should be just fine with Tampa Bay. He was the best 3-down option on the team in the playoffs, so the Bucs wisely handed him the starting job, but Fournette is still an average all-around back, and the Bucs simply need a more valuable receiving option back there next to Brady.
Jones clearly isn’t that guy, as he’s proven to the team over three seasons that he can’t be counted on as a receiver or pass blocker. Vaughn was even more incompetent as a rookie, but he’ll be given every opportunity to prove he can pick up at least a handful of snaps in 2021. The Bucs are still in need of a significant upgrade at the position for next season, especially in the passing game, after their current RB room combined for 17 drops last season, per Pro Football Focus. James White and Rex Burkhead could be cheap options, but the Bucs best bet might be to re-load through the draft if possible.
Draft Outlook: Running back is a legitimate option for the Bucs at No. 32 overall, but it is far from a necessity for the team to take a back there. They could trade down for a runner or take one later in the draft, as the value of the running back position simply doesn’t carry as much weight as other spots on the field. At least one or perhaps all three of the draft’s well-rounded feature backs like Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Alabama’s Najee Harris and UNC’s Javonte Williams should be on the board at No. 32, but the Bucs may be able to slide back into early day two and still pick up their future at the position.
Need Meter: 3
Under Contract: Mike Evans (3 seasons), Scotty Miller (2 seasons), Tyler Johnson (3 seasons), Jaydon Mickens (1 season), Justin Watson (1 season)
Free Agents: Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown
Roster Outlook: Three of the Bucs top four wide receiver spots are locked in for next year, and it remains very unlikely that Chris Godwin will play anywhere other than Tampa Bay, at least for the 2021 season. As for Brown, I’m sure the Bucs would love a receiver of his caliber back in the fold, but at what cost? The Bucs have more important pieces to spend precious cap dollars on, and it is really unclear what Brown’s market will be like this offseason. Giving any significant amount of guaranteed money to a player with Brown’s off-field history, especially when there are potentially several months until he’s back in the facility, is a huge risk the Bucs don’t need to take given their depth at the position.
Of course, Brown is still an outstanding football player and there is no question his presence would make the Bucs better and deeper at a position Arians is always loading up on in the offseason. It’s all about risk assessment, especially with cap dollars limited this offseason.
Draft Outlook: You may have heard me mention on the Pewter Report Podcast that I think wide receiver could be a surprise early pick for the Bucs, if they fall in love with a player. Under this scenario, Godwin would be on the tag for the 2021 season and Brown will have signed elsewhere. But if those two things happen, there is no guarantee Godwin would be back for 2022 and beyond, as a strong season in 2021 (a repeat of his 86-1,333-9 from the 2019 campaign, for example) would allow him to push the market to be the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL, especially if the cap goes back up as expected in 2022.
If that’s the situation the Bucs find themselves in during the draft in April, they could hit up a deep wide receiver draft in the first or second round for Godwin’s eventual replacement. The catch, of course, is if they already see Tyler Johnson as “that guy”, and not the long-term depth solution or backup to “that guy”. His rookie season was pretty solid, but not dominant enough to convince me he could fill Godwin’s shoes long term. That’s a critical role in Bruce Arians’ offense, and if the team thinks 2021 might be Godwin’s last ride with the team, finding his replacement will be a priority if they fall in love with a wide receiver in this draft or the next one.
Need Meter: 1 (right now)
Under Contract: O.J. Howard (1 year), Cam Brate (2 years), Tanner Hudson (ERFA)
Free Agents: Rob Gronkowski, Antony Auclair
Roster Outlook: It’s a pretty sure bet that Gronkowski will be back for the Bucs next season, as he almost certainly doesn’t have a desire to play elsewhere, and has consistently said he wants to be back in Tampa Bay and play again this season. With O.J. Howard returning from a torn Achilles, that puts Brate back in another awkward position, as he really isn’t the ideal blocker they want at the No. 3 tight end spot, but he’s the best receiving No. 3 tight end in the NFL, for sure.
Brate is slated to make $6.5 million this season, and obviously that’s not going to happen in Tampa Bay. The Bucs could ask him to take another pay cut, this one probably steeper than the $1.75 million they took off his 2020 salary, which knocked Brate down to $4.25 million for the year. The cut might be double that this offseason, so Brate will have to decide if he wants less money and less of a role to stay in Tampa Bay, a place he loves and has spent his entire career, or move on to another franchise, where he will almost certainly command more money and far more playing time.
In a league starved for receiving talent at tight end, Brate would be a strong name on the market after his impressive postseason, but he really does love Tampa Bay. The Bucs could also just cut him outright and save all $6.5 million in cap space to make other moves, especially if they want Antony Auclair back for close to the minimum.
Draft Outlook: The future beyond 2021 is unclear for every tight end on the roster, as Gronkowski may just return on a one-year deal, Howard will be a free agent after this season and Brate’s availability is year-to-year under his current contract structure (no more guarantees). Because of the uncertainty, the Bucs could look to address this position at any point in the draft if they fall in love with a specific player. The beauty of drafting without many crying needs is that it makes it a lot easier to exercise “select the best player available” practices.
Need Meter: 1
Under Contract: LT Donovan Smith (1 year), C Ryan Jensen (1 year), RG Alex Cappa (1 year), LG Ali Marpet (3 years), RT Tristan Wirfs (4 years), OG Aaron Stinnie (ERFA), OG John Molchon
Free Agents: OT Josh Wells, OL Joe Haeg, OG Ted Larsen
Roster Outlook: The Bucs are in the rare position of returning their entire starting offensive line after the group’s best season yet this past year, but the future is currently uncertain at three of the five positions, with no depth to speak of behind them. Yes, Stinnie played well enough in relief of Cappa during three playoff games, but I don’t think the team will be settled on him as a future starter when/if Cappa moves on after this upcoming season.
As for Smith and Jensen, it wouldn’t shock me to see some extensions thrown on each player’s contract this offseason, as salary cap moves that would keep both around long term and lessen their cap hits for 2021. Jensen will be 30 in May, while Smith will turn just 28 in June. It will probably be easier to tack a couple years on Jensen’s contract, but Smith could want to hit free agency with a chance to get paid if he has another strong year in 2021. The Bucs will have to offer a strong long-term extension and hope Smith’s play doesn’t dip if they decide to open contract talks with him this offseason.
Either way, depth is sorely needed on the offensive line, especially with Haeg almost certain not to return and A.Q. Shipley forced to retire due to injury. I definitely think the Bucs will look for cheap veterans up front after seeing them make moves for Haeg, Shipley and Larsen this past season, but the draft should be considered as well, especially if no extension is reached with Smith.
Draft Outlook: The Bucs might need multiple offensive line starters in 2022, so I’d expect to see them acquire a lineman or two through the draft, depending on how the board falls. They don’t currently have any clear-cut future starters in their offensive line depth, although Stinnie will probably get a chance to prove himself again this season. Licht selecting an offensive lineman at any point in the 2021 NFL Draft wouldn’t surprise me, but there is still a lot of potential movement to happen with the Bucs current group this offseason, especially if Smith or Jensen get extended and Marpet get restructured as expected. Those moves will tell us a lot about how the Bucs feel about the long-term prognosis of one of the best units on their team.
Need Meter: 2 (future need for starters, significant need for current depth)