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FAB 1. Bucs’ 2021 Future Forecast – Part I

Each December I take a sneak peek at the upcoming Buccaneers offseason in my SR’s Fab 5 column. Almost every December for the past dozen years I’m talking about who the Bucs might be targeting with another Top 10 pick, but this year is different.

This Tampa Bay team might actually make the playoffs – something Raheem Morris’ 10-6 Bucs team came perilously close to in 2010, and something Dirk Koetter’s 9-7 squad almost achieved in 2016. With a 7-5 record, this Tampa Bay team has a chance to earn a wild card playoff spot at 10-6 or 11-5 if it can win the month of December with a 3-1 record or a perfect 4-0 mark.

It’s nice not having to focus on the upcoming draft in the month of November because the Bucs are in postseason contention for a change. But that’s not going to stop me from finally addressing next offseason in this annual feature.

Let’s hope the 2020 season doesn’t end in Week 17 in a home game against Atlanta, but still gaze into the 2021 crystal ball. I’ve got plenty of Bucs vs. Vikings previews in Fabs 3 and 4, yet let’s use the first two sections of this edition of SR’s Fab 5 to check out Tampa Bay’s future forecast, shall we?

Projected 2021 Bucs Salary Cap Space: $32,459,564

This includes 31 players under contract, including 17 of 22 starters on offense and defense. The good news is that Tampa Bay’s entire offensive line and starting secondary is under contract for 2021.

The Bucs have the eighth-most cap space in the NFL, according to OverTheCap.com, while the lowly Jets ($79,634,956) and Jaguars ($79,676,992) have the most available room if the cap is set at $176 million in 2021. Keep in mind that due to lost stadium revenue (tickets, concessions, merchandise, parking) because of COVID-19 this year that the salary cap will decrease significantly from $198.2 million. Typically the salary cap increases around $10 million each year, but it will fall by roughly $23 million in 2021.

Thanks to the exceptional work by director of football administration Mike Greenberg and general manager Jason Licht, Tampa Bay is far better positioned than its NFC South rivals for 2021. Carolina will be $18,205,770 under the cap, while Atlanta is currently $25,254,296 over the cap with 32 players signed. The first order of the Falcons new general manager and new head coach will definitely have to restructure some players’ contracts and simply make some salary cap roster cuts in 2021.

Bucs GM Jason Licht and director of football administration

Bucs GM Jason Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

It’s even worse in New Orleans where the Saints mortgaged the future for another run at the Super Bowl in 2020. The Saints have the worst salary cap situation in the NFL in 2021, as they are currently $93,716,739 over the cap and will have to do far more restructuring and gutting of its roster with 44 players under contract already.

The most important sentence in this entire edition of SR’s Fab 5 is the next one. There will be an absolutely star-studded crop of free agents available next offseason, as nearly every team, including Tampa Bay, will have to cut (or not re-sign) a handful of star players due to their price tags in 2021.

The amount of players with Pro Bowl credentials or Pro Bowl-caliber ability that will be available in free agency will reach new heights next year. The problem is that there will be a glut of talent available, but not enough cap room to go around in the league.

Some star players on good teams that are scheduled to make in excess of $10 million will simply be cut because their cap room will be needed to get under the salary cap. Those players will then have the option to sign with a lesser team with more cap room like the Jaguars, Jets or Bengals for roughly the same amount as they were scheduled to make (or slightly less), or go to another good team that has a shot at making the playoffs for far less money at about $4-5 million.

2021 Bucs Unrestricted Free Agents

ILB Lavonte David
WR Chris Godwin
OLB Shaquil Barrett
TE Rob Gronkowski
DT Ndamukong Suh
K Ryan Succop
DT Steve McLendon
RB Leonard Fournette
WR Antonio Brown
DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches
OT Josh Wells
OL Joe Haeg
QB Blaine Gabbert
QB Ryan Griffin
ILB Kevin Minter
TE Antony Auclair
CB Ryan Smith
RB LeSean McCoy
FS Justin Evans
CB Ross Cockrell
RB T.J. Logan
RB Kenjon Barner
FS Andrew Adams

2021 Bucs Restricted Free Agents

DE Patrick O’Connor

2021 Bucs Exclusive Rights Free Agents

LS Zach Triner
TE Tanner Hudson
LG Aaron Stinnie
DE Jeremiah Ledbetter

Bucs 2021 Free Agency Analysis

Tampa Bay will have some tough decisions to make with just over $32 million in salary space available in 2021. David, Godwin and Succop are the top priorities to bring back, followed by Barrett, Gronkowski and Suh in that order. Keep in mind that Greenberg will use at least two years worth of guaranteed money to re-sign some of these players, and he can reduce their base salary in the first year (2021) of multi-year deals for immediate relief from next year’s lower salary cap.

Bucs WR Chris Godwin – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Bucs WR Chris Godwin – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Don’t be surprised if the Bucs use the franchise tag on Godwin in 2021 over Barrett, who got the tag in 2020 after leading the NFL in sacks last year with a franchise-record 19.5. None of the major wide receivers under the age of 30 that were slated for free agency in 2021 signed extensions this year, including Godwin, Corey Davis, Kenny Golladay, Curtis Samuel, Will Fuller, Allen Robinson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, T.Y. Hilton, Josh Reynolds, Breshad Perriman and Sammy Watkins. Throw in Marvin Jones, Jr. (31) and A.J. Green (33), and you’ve got a heck of a wide receiver free agent class.

The problem is that the wide receiver price tag was hitting $20 million-plus per year with new deals for Amari Cooper ($20 mill.), Keenan Allen ($20.025 mill.), Julio Jones ($22 mill.) and DeAndre Hopkins ($27.25 mill.), and most teams didn’t want to start shelling out expensive extensions this offseason with the COVID-19 pandemic looming. Only Cooper, Allen and Hopkins signed extensions in 2020.

Smart teams like the Bucs will use the franchise tag on their star receivers, as the tag amount for receivers will fall from $17.865 million in 2020 to likely around $15.3 million if the NFL salary cap is $175 million next year. This does two things to help Tampa Bay.

First, it essentially lowers the average salary per year for new wide receiver deals from $20 million per year to around $15 million per year. That helps the Bucs from an immediate salary cap standpoint whether Godwin is given the franchise tag, as I suspect he will be, or signed to a multi-year extension that averages close to that figure. 

And second, it keeps the hierarchy in place with Godwin’s deal being less than Evans, who averages $16.5 million per year. While Godwin had a Pro Bowl season in 2019 with career highs in catches (86), yards (1,333) and touchdowns (nine), injuries have limited him to just eight games this year, and he’s had modest production – 49 catches for 562 yards and three TDs – as a result.

It would be hard to justify paying Godwin more than Evans when he’s had just one 1,000-yard season compared to Evans’ six 1,000-yard seasons. Thankfully due to the decreased salary cap, the expected decrease in the franchise tag figure, which is a product of that current year’s cap, a down year from Godwin production-wise, and a glut of receivers in free agency, the Bucs can keep Godwin with the franchise tag or a more modest multi-year deal, while keeping Evans as the team’s highest-paid receiver.

As for Barrett, his production has dipped this year, as he has just six sacks entering the final month of the season, and he will be hard pressed to get the $16.828 million he received this season again in 2021. Barrett won’t be the only edge rusher available in free agency, as Yannick Ngakoue, Jadeveon Clowney, Matthew Judon, Bud Dupree (who is coming off a torn ACL), Markus Golden and Melvin Ingram III are also slated to be free agents – in addition to some looming salary cap cuts from other teams. The guess here is that Barrett will take a hometown discount and get re-signed for north of $10 million, which will split the difference between the $4 million he made in 2019 and the nearly $17 million he’s making this year.

David turns 31 in January, and although he’s still playing at a high level and has great value to the franchise as a leader and a playmaking inside linebacker, the nine-year veteran hasn’t made enough splash plays to make the Pro Bowl. David has 90 tackles, which is 19 behind Devin White, but just 1.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery this year.

He’s currently making $10.75 million and will likely want more than fellow teammate Kwon Alexander got on his latest deal, which is $13.5 million. Yet at age 31 and in a declining cap year and playing a position that doesn’t get paid a lot, David may have to settle for a modest raise and an average of $12 million to help the team contend for a Super Bowl in 2021 and ’22.

Bucs TE Rob Gronkowski

Bucs TE Rob Gronkowski – Photo by: USA Today

Gronkowski and Suh will be tough calls. They might have to take about half of what they’re getting paid this year – Gronkowski makes just over $9.7 million, while Suh makes $8 million – to stick around Tampa Bay in 2021 and make another run at the Super Bowl. Succop will likely want a significant raise over his $1.05 million 2020 salary even at age 35 next year, and the Bucs would likely see if he would accept double that at around $2.1 million. The guess here is they settle on $2.5 million in 2021 for a job well done this season.

It’s a safe bet that Fournette ($2.5 mill.), Haeg ($2.3 mill.), Smith ($1.75 mill.), Griffin ($1.64 mill.), McLendon ($1.1 mill.), Brown ($775,000) and McCoy ($750,000) aren’t back next year as the team looks for cheaper and/or better alternatives at those positions. The rest of the Bucs’ lesser priced free agents will likely have to return at or near league minimum deals to help Tampa Bay’s cap situation.

As The Athletic’s Greg Auman reported this week, the Bucs’ 2021 cap is going to be impacted by a couple of players who won’t even be free agents next March. Right guard Alex Cappa and strong safety Jordan Whitehead, who both entering the last year of their rookie contracts, will see their pay double next year due to the Proven Performance Escalator (PPE), which rewards players, who are on their initial NFL contract that were drafted in the third round or lower, with playing time bonus money. Both Cappa and Whitehead will earn around $2 million next year instead of their original base salary of $920,000. So instead of entering the offseason with around $32.5 million in cap room, Tampa Bay will actually have closer to $30 million available.

So now that we’ve previewed where the Bucs stand from a salary cap standpoint with regards to free agency, let’s take a peek at some ways Tampa Bay could create even more salary cap room to keep some of its own free agents and add some potential new free agents, in addition to an early look at the 2021 NFL Draft and the team’s needs in Fab 2.

FAB 2. Bucs’ 2021 Future Forecast – Part II

While it’s too early to pinpoint Tampa Bay’s exact personnel needs without knowing exactly who will return and who won’t in free agency due to the looming salary cap crunch, we can take a macro approach when looking at the roster – not just for 2021 but for 2022, as the team does – to see where more talent is needed. And we can examine where the Bucs could create more salary cap room – not just to keep their own free agents and add a few key pieces starting in March, but also the $7 million or so needed to sign the 2021 draft class.

Top 10 Bucs Salaries In 2021

1. QB Tom Brady – $25 million
2. WR Mike Evans – $16.63 million
3. LT Donovan Smith – $14.25 million
4. OLB Jason Pierre-Paul – $12.5 million
5. G Ali Marpet – $12.02 million
6. C Ryan Jensen – $10 million
7. ILB Devin White – $8.17 million
8. DE Will Gholston – $5.5 million
9. TE Cameron Brate – $6.5 million
10. TE O.J. Howard – $6.01 million

Bucs’ Potential Salary Cap Cut Analysis

Facing the prospects of a salary cap reduction from $198 million in 2020 to possibly $175 million, Bucs general manager Jason Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg will likely have to make some cap maneuvers to create more salary space in 2021. Both could go to Evans and Marpet again for restructures to create cap room, as they have in the past. And if Brady likes it in Tampa Bay, the Bucs could tack on another year to his deal and shift $5 million from his $25 million salary 2021 to 2022 with a $30 million payday two years from now to save an $5 million on this year’s cap.

Bucs QB Tom Brady and TE Cam Brate

Bucs QB Tom Brady and TE Cam Brate – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

It appears Brate and his $6.5 million salary will be an issue next year. He took a pay cut from $6 million to $4.25 million, and will likely have to do so again if he’s not cut outright in a cap-related move. What happens with Rob Gronkowski, who is an unrestricted free agent in 2020, will likely affect Brate’s status in Tampa Bay.

The other players that could be under the salary cap spotlight are Jensen, who turns 30 in May, and Smith, both of whom are entering the final year of their respective contract. Jensen and Smith no longer have guaranteed money in their contracts, which makes them vulnerable.

The Bucs could consider cutting Smith and freeing up $14.25 million in cap room and moving Tristan Wirfs to left tackle next year, as right tackles are easier to find in the draft or in free agency. But Licht and Greenberg both like and respect Smith, who is one of the toughest left tackles in the league, rarely missing games. Arians does, too. The guess here is the Bucs let Smith play out the last year of his contract and pass protect for Brady in 2021 while attempting to earn a contact extension.

Tampa Bay doesn’t have a replacement for Jensen, who has played well over the past two years, on the current roster, so it’s harder to imagine the team parting ways with him as a salary cap casualty despite him set to make $10 million in 2021, including a $750,000 roster bonus in March.

Whether it’s Brady, Evans, Marpet, Brate, Smith or Jensen, the front office duo Greenberg and Licht will be able to carve out at least $10 million or more worth of cap space due to restructures or releases among the team’s Top 10 highest paid Buccaneers.

Top 5 Bucs Needs In The 2021 Offseason

1. Edge rusher
2. Defensive tackle
3. Offensive tackle
4. Pass-catching running back
5. Cornerback

Bucs’ Needs Analysis

Even if Shaquil Barrett returns to Tampa Bay in 2020, it could be on a short-term deal at age 28. With Jason Pierre-Paul turning 31 in January and entering the final year of his contract, the Bucs need some longevity at the edge rushing position. Anthony Nelson, who was drafted in the fourth round last year, has yet to record a sack and his growth was stunted by not having a preseason where he could get some meaningful snaps to gain experience. There is no evidence that he will come close to being the pass rushing force the Bucs need at outside linebacker, so drafting another edge player that can get to the quarterback is an absolute priority.

Bucs DT Ndamukong Suh

Bucs DT Ndamukong Suh – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

If Ndamukong Suh doesn’t return in free agency, defensive tackle becomes an immediate need because of that vacancy. Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Steve McLendon are also unrestricted free agents, so Khalil Davis, a rookie, would be the only defensive tackle on the roster in 2021. The Bucs would need to draft a defensive tackle and sign another defensive tackle or two in the spring.

If Smith returns for the final year of his contract, offensive tackle isn’t that pressing of a need in 2021. But if the plan is to part ways with Smith an