With NFL free agency slated to begin at 4:00 p.m., here is the latest information regarding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that PewterReport.com has learned.
Bucs Miss Out On McKinnon
The Buccaneers were interested in Minnesota running back Jerick McKinnon until his price became too high and they bowed out. According to sources close to McKinnon, who has never rushed for 1,000 yards in his career, he is set to make around $7.5 million per season on average, which is crazy.
That would make him the league’s fourth-highest paid running back behind only Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell ($14.544 million), Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman ($8.25 million) and Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy ($8 million). If McKinnon makes close to $7 million as expected, that’s more than Jacksonville’s ($6.786 million), Houston’s Lamar Miller ($6.5 million) and Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott ($6.239 million).
McKinnon, who is just 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, simply isn’t in that class of running back; he’s not a feature back. McKinnon has never rushed for 600 yards in his four seasons in the league, and although he has versatility as a pass-catcher, evidenced by a career-high 51 receptions for 421 yards and two touchdowns last year, that’s just too much to pay for a complementary back. The Bucs liked McKinnon and saw him as a third-down back and an upgrade over Charles Sims, but not as a feature back worth that much money.
Expect the Bucs to turn to the running back-rich NFL Draft and select a running back or two to complement Peyton Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers – two players the organization believes in. One of those picks will be a premium pick in the first three rounds, and the other would be a Day 3 selection or an undrafted free agent. Remember, Barber and Rodgers went undrafted, too.
Defensive Tackle Help In Tampa Bay?
Although the Bucs like big defensive tackles, evidenced by the fact that the last three players acquired at that position were 320-pound Chris Baker, 340-pound Sealver Siligia and 330-pound Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, who was the team’s seventh-round pick last year, don’t expect Tampa Bay to get involved in the sweepstakes for either Ndamukong Suh or Dontari Poe. The reason? Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
McCoy has a cap charge of $12.75 million and is the sixth-highest paid defensive tackle in the league. Would Suh come to the Bucs for less money or more money than McCoy? Who would get to play three-technique tackle and who would be relegated to play nose tackle? I don’t see how the organization thinks high-priced two three-technique defensive tackles with egos and distinctly different personalities could co-exist in the same locker room.
NFL free agency isn’t like Madden Football where you can just acquire players and stick them anywhere. It has to be the right fit from a salary cap standpoint, a scheme standpoint and a team chemistry/locker room standpoint – otherwise it doesn’t work.
The Bucs have already committed to McCoy, and rightfully so as he’s been one of the better players in franchise history as a six-time Pro Bowler. So why not put more of a pure nose tackle, like Poe, next to him? Poe, a former first-round pick in Kansas City, signed a one-year, $8 million deal last year with Atlanta and had a good, but not great season.
After recording a combined 2.5 sacks in his final two seasons with the Chiefs, Poe had 2.5 sacks with the Falcons last year, in addition to 37 tackles. The 6-foot-3, 346-pound defensive tackle will likely command at least $8 million – if not more – this year in free agency because of the lack of available quality talent at the position.
The Bucs don’t want to tie up $20-22 million at the defensive tackle position between McCoy and Poe only to get a combined 9-11 sacks. The 2018 NFL Draft is flush with quality defensive tackles, headlined by Washington’s Vita Vea, a 347-pound monster, so expect Tampa Bay to draft one this year to compete with Tu’ikolovatu for the right to play next to McCoy.
If the Bucs do make a move in free agency it will be for a second-tier defensive tackle like Philadelphia’s Beau Allen, or perhaps re-signing 31-year old defensive tackle Clinton McDonald – although Tampa Bay would like to get bigger and younger at the position.
Bucs Will Target Offensive Line In Free Agency
Expect the Bucs to be players for Baltimore center Ryan Jensen, who is the top-rated player at his position in free agency. The 26-year old Jensen made $1.7 million last year with the Ravens and really helped their running game, which was resurgent with halfback Alex Collins.
Jensen was also stout in pass protection and the amount of sacks and pressures he gave up last year was on par with the likes of Atlanta’s Alex Mack, Jacksonville’s Brandon Linder and Dallas’ Travis Frederick, who are three of the best and highest-paid centers in the league. The average salary of those players is $9.5 million per year and that’s what it might cost to sign Jensen.
Expect several teams to be in the bidding for Jensen and it’s not a slam-dunk that the Bucs will ultimately sign him. It’s going to be expensive, and Tampa Bay may bow out if the price exceeds $10 million per year.
Another player that could be on the radar is former Bears guard Josh Sitton. The 31-year old Sitton, a former Pro Bowler, still has some gas left in the tank and could be a short-term fix for the Bucs at left guard where the team is looking to replace Kevin Pamphile and Evan Smith, two free agents who are expected to depart Tampa Bay.
The Bucs wanted Carolina guard Andrew Norwell, but not at $66.5 million over five years, which is an average of $13.3 million per year. Cleveland signed Pittsburgh’s Chris Hubbard to a five-year deal worth $37.5 million, an average of $7.5 million per season. Sitton could likely command $7-8 million per year, and Tampa Bay could be looking into him or another less expensive guard that would fit into their salary cap plans and still be viewed as an upgrade over Pamphile and Smith.
Secondary Help Appears To Be A Secondary Priority For Bucs
Tampa Bay re-signed its top target at cornerback when it re-upped with Grimes for one year at $7 million with an additional $3 million in incentives. The team also re-signed restricted free agent Javien Elliott, who will compete for the nickel cornerback role this year.
Don’t look for the Bucs to target E.J. Gaines or any other cornerback that is likely to receive an average of $5 million per year or more. This is a deep draft for cornerbacks and the Bucs plan to use a pick or two to find competition for Vernon Hargreaves III and Ryan Smith.
The Bucs could target another safety to compete with Chris Conte for the right to play opposite Justin Evans. The team has some interest in Ron Parker, who was released by Kansas City in a cap-cutting move, but he is more of a free safety than he is a strong safety, and Tampa Bay would like to keep Evans at free safety. The free agent outlook at the safety position is a bit hazy, as the team has not yet been reportedly linked to any available safeties. The Bucs may also address safety in the draft.
Bucs’ Philosophy Entering 2018 Free Agency
The Bucs have several pressing needs, but shouldn’t they overpay a little bit to address those needs, especially in a year in which head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht are on the hot seat? Not necessarily.
Licht and Koetter are expecting the Bucs to rebound this season and being here for the long haul, and they are planning for the long haul as a result – not attempting a quick fix just to save their jobs and put the team in a bind either from a talent or salary cap perspective. It’s either going to work out they way they expect, or they are going to leave the team in great shape for the next regime.
The organization’s philosophy is to assign a value to a player and once that value is exceeded on the open market the Bucs move on, and here’s why. If a team like Tampa Bay gets desperate and overpays by $1 million per season for this guy, and $2 million per season for that guy, and $3 million per season for that guy it all adds up. That’s $6 million more than the Bucs should have paid according to their in-house values and it can come back to bite them.
That $6 million may not seem like a lot for a team that has over $45 million left to spend in free agency this year, but that amount is nearly what it took to re-sign tight end Cameron Brate or cornerback Brent Grimes. That $6 million is likely how much the Bucs will spend on all of their rookies combined this year. Keep that in mind.
Where the Bucs’ Salary Cap Stands Right Now
Tampa Bay started the 2018 season with $71 million in salary cap room. Mike Evans’ extension will cost the team an extra $5 million because he was already on the books for $13.2 million due to his fifth-year option. That brought the Bucs down to $65 million. The one-year contract for cornerback Brent Grimes is $7 million per year, as is the 2018 cap value for Cameron Brate’s new deal. That brings Tampa Bay’s available cap space to about $51 million.
Wide receiver Adam Humphries’ $2.914 million one-year tender and the the combined salaries for restricted free agents running back Peyton Barber ($630,000), cornerback Javien Elliott ($630,000) and linebacker Adarius Glanton ($1.04 million) total another $5.214 million. That leaves Tampa Bay’s cap space at approximately $45.786 million.
The Bucs will need to leave about $6 million for the rookie salary pool and at least $4 million for in-season injury replacements, and Tampa Bay would like to extend the contracts of middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, offensive lineman Ali Marpet and left tackle Donovan Smith before the start of the season as each is entering a contract year. The team would rather pay a good deal of money now than pay more later when 2019 free agency draws near. The Bucs will have to earmark about $30 million for those extensions.
The reality is that Tampa Bay only has between $15-16 million in cap space to operate with heading into free agency. That’s enough to sign a top-tier player or two, in addition to a couple of moderately price players, but that’s it. Don’t expect an avalanche of signings this week as a result.
So don’t think the Bucs have $71 million in cap room – or even $45 million after their recent re-signings. Tampa Bay would rather spend money on their own proven guys than take a chance on players that could turn out to be the next Chris Baker or Bruce Carter. Fans may not want to hear that, but I’m reporting what I know in this column – not advocating for what the Bucs should necessarily do.
Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg are also mindful that another wave of free agency will occur in nearly month right after the draft, followed by a third wave of free agency when roster cuts occur in September prior to the start of the season. That’s when the Bucs spent $3.875 million to sign safety T.J. Ward last year – a move that ultimately didn’t pay off.
The Bucs can free up an additional $6 million by releasing defensive end Robert Ayers prior to March 18 when he is due a $1 million roster bonus, which is part of the $6 million cap charge he has for 2018. Tampa Bay can also clear about $4.5 million by releasing oft-injured guard J.R. Sweezy. So there could be a safety net of an additional $10.5 million worth of cap space that the Bucs can use if it can find upgrades at defensive end and guard in free agency and decide to move on from Ayers and Sweezy.