FAB 4. 5 Critical Camp Questions – Bucs Front Office
PewterReport.com’s 20 Critical Camp Questions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wraps up with a look at the camp questions facing general manager Jason Licht and the team’s front office. Here are five big questions as the start of Tampa Bay’s 2018 training camp is just days away.
1. Will the Bucs extend the contracts of Kwon Alexander, Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith in camp?
That’s the plan. The current trend in the league is to lock up key contributors to long-term contract extensions before or during a player’s final contract year. That’s a practice the Bucs have undertaken for years under general manager Jason Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg, evidenced by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy’s extension in October of 2014, linebacker Lavonte David’s extension in August of 2015 and right tackle Demar Dotson’s extension in August of 2016.
Getting Alexander, Marpet and Smith under contract before they are scheduled to hit free agency in 2019 is a priority for Licht and Greenberg. To avoid the possibility of an in-season distraction, the ideal time to do it is August during training camp and that’s what the front office will attempt to do while evaluating all of the talent in trying to find the best 53 players for Tampa Bay’s opening day roster.
All three will command rich deals that will likely put them in the top 10 highest-paid players at their position. The problem will be finding enough cap space as Tampa Bay only has $14,385,757 to work with after signing its rookies, doing offseason extensions for tight end Cameron Brate and wide receiver Mike Evans and acquiring a slew of players in free agency as well as the trade for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
Look for Greenberg to give Alexander, Marpet and Smith slight raises in 2018 while the big money really kicks in next year. Greenberg may even have to use signing bonuses rather than just guaranteed base salary for the first time to get some of these deals done as signing bonus money is prorated over the life of the contract, which helps present day cap situations, but can come back to bite a team if the team has to cut the player as the remaining signing bonus proration accelerates and becomes dead cap money. In the end, Greenberg will likely need to leave about $3 million to cover signing street free agents during the season as injury replacements, so he’ll have to get creative and use the $11-plus million he’ll have for the extensions wisely.
2. Will the Bucs upgrade the strong safety position in August or September?
Maybe. It’s possibly the weakest position on the team in terms of quality depth and talent. Tampa Bay was seriously considering using its first-round pick on Florida State strong safety Derwin James this offseason. This coming on the heels of signing J.J. Wilcox last year during free agency and then trading him and adding former Pro Bowler T.J. Ward in September right before the start of the 2017 season.
The Bucs did draft the undersized Jordan Whitehead in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, but he missed a good deal of the offseason workouts with an injury, so it’s hard to say how much of an impact he’ll make this year and whether or not he’ll challenge Chris Conte for the right to start. Odds are that Conte will be the opening day starter at strong safety, but what would really hinder the safety position overall would be losing free safety Justin Evans to injury.
Evans is an emerging playmaker, and having to move Conte to free safety and start the inexperienced Whitehead would severely hurt the Bucs secondary. Finding a veteran strong safety that could not only add experienced depth, but perhaps challenge Conte for the right to start, would be ideal.
Is there such a player out there? Ward’s release by Denver last year was a bit of a surprise, so it’s up to Licht, director of pro personnel Rob McCartney and director of player personnel John Spytek to identify possible safeties that may be training camp cuts and be prepared to pounce if the right player becomes available.
3. Will the Bucs find any help in Tennessee?
There might be one particular player of interest. Not only will Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht be evaluating his Buccaneers when they square off against the Titans in Tennessee for two days worth of joint practices, he’ll also be scouting the Titans roster while catching up with good friend and former right-hand man Jon Robinson, who is Tennessee’s general manager. The joint practices will allow Licht, director of pro personnel Rob McCartney and director of player personnel John Spytek the opportunity to see if any Titans players stand out and might be a good fit in Tampa Bay.
Whether it’s pulling the trigger on a trade during training camp or just waiting to see who becomes available during the roster cut-downs in September, the Bucs might get some good intel from their trip to Tennessee and seeing the Titans players practice in person. Licht will also get the truth on any Titans that the Bucs may be interested in from his close relationship to Robinson.
Although the Titans run a 3-4 scheme on defense, there might be some players, especially in the secondary, that could help Tampa Bay. And the Titans have at least one player on offense that the Buccaneers coveted in the draft – Washington State quarterback Luke Falk, who was selected in the sixth round. Tennessee has a young star at the QB position in Marcus Mariota and a veteran backup in Blaine Gabbert, and might decide to only keep two quarterbacks, which some teams around the league do. Look for the Buccaneers to scout Falk hard in person in August.
4. Will the Bucs look at other teams’ QBs in camp?
Yes. Bucs director of player personnel John Spytek and director of pro personnel Rob McCartney will be keeping an eye on the other 31 teams’ quarterback situations more than ever before this August due to the fact that starter Jameis Winston has been suspended three games. If Winston violates the NFL’s code of conduct one more time he’s subject to a year-long suspension from the league, which would all but end his career in Tampa Bay.
With 35-year old Ryan Fitzpatrick playing what is likely his final season in the NFL, and Ryan Griffin still being a relative unknown after not taking a snap in a regular season game through his first five years in the league, the Bucs’ quarterback picture is blurry past this season. Is Griffin the long-term answer as Winston’s backup? Does he have enough talent to step in and be a competent NFL starter?
That’s doubtful, which is why the Bucs need to upgrade their backup QB spot, and there’s no sense in waiting on the 2019 NFL Draft. Aside from keeping tabs on Tennessee’s rookie QB Luke Falk, Spytek, McCartney and general manager Jason Licht should do some digging on former Minnesota starter Teddy Bridgewater, who is currently the New York Jets’ third-string quarterback.
I’ve written extensively about how the Bucs should gamble and trade for Bridgewater right now as he attempts to recover from a knee injury that caused him to miss the last two NFL seasons after a promising start to his pro career in 2014-15. There might be other options out there to explore, and McCartney and Spytek need to keep one on Tampa Bay’s roster during training camp, and another eye on the QB position league-wide.
5. Will the Bucs pull the trigger on a trade at glut position?
Maybe. It’s hard to imagine that Tampa Bay’s once depleted defensive end now suddenly has a glut of talent, but it’s a credit to the hard work of general manager Jason Licht and his scouting staff in adding talent this offseason. The acquisition of defensive ends Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul, and defensive tackles Beau Allen, Mitch Unrein and Vita Vea may mean that some Bucs holdovers like Will Gholston or Will Clarke become expendable and might impress enough in the preseason to be moved in a preseason trade for a mid-to-late-round draft pick.
The Bucs also have a surplus of capable receivers. Mike Evans is the star and Chris Godwin is a rising force at the position that will steal reps from DeSean Jackson. If the Bucs traded the 31-year old Jackson, who could be in his final season in Tampa Bay as his contract expires after 2019, they would save $3.5 million in cap room, but take on $7 million worth of dead cap money this year. If the right team came calling and offered a Day 2 draft pick for Jackson it might be worth it as the Bucs have depth with Adam Humphries, Bobo Wilson, who starred in the OTAs, Freddie Martino and Justin Watson, the team’s fifth-round draft pick. Humphries might also be expendable for a Day 3 pick as he is on a pricey one-year deal as a restricted free agent and is likely playing his final season in Tampa Bay.
And don’t rule out the Bucs flipping one of their cornerbacks for a late-round draft pick. The addition of David Rivers in free agency and Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart in the second round of the draft significantly added competition to the roster. Veteran Brent Grimes, Davis and Stewart are locks, and Rivers, Vernon Hargreaves III, Ryan Smith, Javien Elliott and Marko Myers will be battling for the remaining three spots. If Stewart wins the nickel job and other players show promise, it could make Hargreaves expendable. If that’s the case, the Bucs could look to trade him and try to eat the remaining $8.377 million worth of dead cap room depending on how much cap space they have remaining.