The Buccaneers made left tackle Donovan Smith a multi-millionaire on Tuesday.
But a good deal of Tampa Bay fans are less than thrilled with the fact that Smith will end up making an average of $13.6 million per season to remain in red and pewter, and some Bucs fans are actually incensed at the thought of Smith getting that much money coming on the heels of him giving up a career-high 5.5 sacks last season in a contract year.
In effort to explain the team’s rationale – not necessarily justify it – to Bucs fans, there are some facts that must be considered. To understand where Tampa Bay is in all of this with Smith, it’s important to go back to the beginning.
Former Bucs LT Anthony Collins – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht and former head coach Lovie Smith made a mistake in signing former Bengals left tackle Anthony Collins, who was one of the more sought after free agents, in 2014. Collins was a bust who took the money from his big payday and ran. That’s the perils of free agency, and the Bucs have been victim to it plenty of times with the likes of wide receiver Alvin Harper, running back Derrick Ward, cornerback Eric Wright and defensive tackle Chris Baker throughout the years.
Thankfully, the Bucs didn’t compound their mistake by hanging on to Collins, and they cut him after one disastrous year. Licht had spent a fifth-round draft pick in 2014 on Purdue left tackle Kevin Pamphile, but he was better suited inside, so he wasn’t an ideal long-term candidate to protect a quarterback’s blindside.
After spending the No. 1 overall draft pick on quarterback Jameis Winston in 2015, Licht came back near the top of the second round and drafted Penn State junior left tackle Donovan Smith to serve as Winston’s pass protector. To this day, Smith remains the best left tackle from the 2015 draft class.
Because he started all 16 games as a rookie and showed promise, the Bucs ruled out drafting another left tackle over the last three years as the team had other more pressing needs, such as the secondary and defensive line.
In hindsight, it would have been advantageous to draft another player capable of competing with Smith and starting at left tackle, but it is so difficult to find starting-caliber blindside pass protectors. They don’t grow on trees.
It’s a position that teams historically have to draft as the good ones rarely hit free agency.
Smith isn’t a Top 5 left tackle, but he is a Top 15 left tackle at age 25. Led by Tennessee’s Taylor Lewan’s $16 million per year average, there are 11 left tackles that currently make $11 million or more per year. New deals for left tackles this year will start at $12 million per year. That’s the cost of doing business in the NFL right now.
Bucs LT Donovan Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Smith, who has started all 64 games he’s played in over four years in Tampa Bay, would fetch that much in free agency from another team as he would be the top left tackle on the market.
Tampa Bay had one of three options: re-sign Smith to an extension with two years worth of guaranteed money, use the franchise tag on him or let him go in free agency.
Let’s examine all three scenarios and what that would mean to the Bucs in 2019 and beyond.
Signing Smith To A Long-Term Extension
Table of Contents
The Bucs wwere hopeful to get Smith to sign a long-term extension with a manageable $11 million – $13 million average per year salary. This wil help the team’s salary cap for the long term, and Licht and new head coach Bruce Arians are hopeful that more accountability and better coaching from run game coordinator Harold Goodwin and offensive line coach Joe Gilbert will take Smith’s game to the next level where he can eventually become a Top 5-10 left tackle in the league with proper development and more maturity.
Smith has great athletic ability, strength and size at 6-foot-5, 338 pounds. Where he needs to improve is sustained focus and effort, and having a new voice in the offensive line room should help Smith – and the Bucs – for the long-term.
Using The Franchise Tag On Smith
Tampa Bay had planned to use the franchise tag on Smith if negotiations on a long-term deal didn’t produce an agreement by 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 5. The franchise tag amount is $14.067 million, and the problem for Tampa Bay long-term is that if Smith played well in 2019 and was deemed worthy of re-signing to a long-term extension, negotiations in 2020 would have started at $14 million per year because that is what he is deemed worthy of if the Bucs had used the franchise tag on him this year.
Tampa Bay would have missed an opportunity to get Smith about $2 million cheaper per year, and if the Bucs plan on franchising Smith again in 2020 his payday skyrockets from $14 million to $17 million per league rules, which would not be advantageous for the team.
Not Re-Signing Smith
The Bucs could ave let Smith walk in free agency, but did not pursue that course of action. At the very most, Tampa Bay would have gotten a compensatory pick at the end of the third round for losing Smith, but would of had to spend a 2019 draft pick on a left tackle to replace him.
The Bucs do not view Alabama’s Jonah Williams as a left tackle prospect and the 2019 draft class is thin at quality left tackles. There is no guarantee that the Bucs would be to secure one of the better left tackles in the draft with other teams needing help at that position, nor is there a guarantee that the player that Tampa Bay drafts this year would be as good as or better as Smith, a four-year starter, would be.
Bucs LT Donovan Smith and QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Keep in mind that the real pressing issue in Tampa Bay this year is evaluating the play of Winston, who is in his fifth-year option, and deciding whether he is worth paying in excess of $20 million per year long term. In order to create the best possible conditions for a fair evaluation of Winston, having competent left tackle play is critical this year. Putting a rookie at left tackle this season would likely hinder that objective.
In the end, the Bucs didn’t have much of a choice other than to re-sign Smith or use the franchise tag on him. Some might suggest that in hindsight the team should have used a draft pick on a left tackle candidate, but hindsight is always 20-20.
Keeping Smith may not have been the best option unless his play improves, but for right now, it’s the only option Tampa Bay had to pursue given what’s not available in free agency or this year’s draft class, and the considerations regarding protecting Winston in a critical year for the long-term course of the franchise.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com
PewterReport.com prides itself on being the most complete, comprehensive news source covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and delivering inside scoop on the team found nowhere else.