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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Bucs’ Future Forecast
When Bucs general manager Jason Licht approaches the NFL Draft each year he doesn’t just look to fill immediate needs. With the help of director of football administration Mike Greenberg, Licht looks beyond the current season to fill future needs, too.
That’s a big reason why Licht drafted defensive tackle Vita Vea with the team’s first-round pick last year. Vea played nose tackle, three-technique tackle and five-technique defensive end at the University of Washington in Jimmy Lake’s multiple defense, which used 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.
Despite having six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy on the team, in addition to two new nose tackles in Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein, Vea made sense for the long term because it typically takes even the most talented defensive tackles a year or two to really become really dominant.
McCoy and Bucs Hall of Famer Warren Sapp each had just three sacks in their rookie seasons, and that’s how many Vea was able to record as well. Licht didn’t draft Vea as much for 2018 as he did for 2019 and beyond, as the team is looking to part ways with the 31-year old McCoy and his $13 million salary either this year or next year. Unrein is already gone, and it’s a safe bet that Allen will depart Tampa Bay after the 2019 season, too.
If he continues to ascend in his second season, Vea could be a Pro Bowl-caliber by 2020 and the leader of the defensive line – at least that’s the expectation at One Buccaneer Place.
Another example of this practice is the Bucs drafting wide receiver Justin Watson last year in the fifth round, anticipating the loss of DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries this year.
So let’s take a look at Tampa Bay’s roster in 2020 and those Bucs players that will be entering this season in a contract year, just like Licht and Greenberg are doing.
The Bucs have 39 players under contract for 2020, but several of those players will be on the roster bubble during training camp, including the likes of outside linebacker Demone Harris, defensive end Pat O’Connor, wide receiver K.J. Brent, kicker Phillip Andersen, punter Hayden Hunt and others.
In all, about 20-24 players – including the likes of Vea, wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, offensive linemen Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith, linebacker Lavonte David among others – out of those 39 figures to still wear red and pewter in 2020. So the Bucs already have a little less than half of what will comprise the 2020 53-man roster. Players from the 2019 and ’20 draft classes, in addition to next year’s free agent class will comprise the rest of next season’s 53-man roster.
The Bucs currently have $131,250,192 on the books for player contracts in 2020, according to OverTheCap.com, including $71,722,957 spent on offensive players and
$55,072,235 currently allocated for defensive players. The NFL salary cap figures to increase close to $200 million next year, so the Bucs will have approximately $60–$70 million worth of salary cap as of right now with an early estimate, but there will be a slew of pending free agents, which we’ll discuss momentarily.
Here are the current Top 12 highest-paid players in Tampa Bay for 2020.
WR Mike Evans – $16.75 million LT Donovan Smith – $14.5 million DT Gerald McCoy – $12.5 million DE Jason Pierre-Paul – $12.5 million LG Ali Marpet – $11.025 million LB Lavonte David – $10.75 million C Ryan Jensen – $10 million TE Cameron Brate – $6 million DE Will Gholston – $4.75 million DT Vita Vea – $4,042,974 TE O.J. Howard – $3,530,182 P Bradley Pinion – $2.7 million
Of course one big contract that is missing is that of quarterback Jameis Winston, who is set to make $20.92 million this season in his fifth-year option. Should Winston play well enough to become the first drafted quarterback in Tampa Bay history to earn a second contract with the Bucs, he’ll likely have a cap value north of $22 million in 2020. All of a sudden, Tampa Bay’s projected $60-$70 million in cap room gets slashed to about $48-$58 million.
Here is a list of the pending 2020 free agent Buccaneers (projected starters are noted with an asterisk*)
QB Jameis Winston* RT Demar Dotson* CB Vernon Hargeaves* ILB Deone Bucannon* RB Peyton Barber* SLB-DE Carl Nassib* ILB Kevin Minter* K Cairo Santos* WR Breshad Perriman* SLB Shaquil Barrett* RG Earl Watford* NT Beau Allen WLB-DE Noah Spence QB Blaine Gabbert CB Ryan Smith DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches RT Caleb Benenoch SLB Devante Bond OL Evan Smith
That’s 19 unrestricted free agents next year for Tampa Bay.
In addition to preparing to lose some of the 11 projected starters that are set to hit free agency in 2020, Licht must also prepare to replace some defensive stalwarts in McCoy – possibly as early as this year if he’s traded or released as a cap casualty – and linebackers Lavonte David and Jason Pierre-Paul.
David will turn 30 next January and will be entering the final year of his contract year in 2020, making $10.75 million. Pierre-Paul turns 31 next January and will also be entering the final year of his contact in 2020, making $12.5 million. Will those players be worth those hefty salaries two years from now? More importantly, will the Bucs want to re-sign David in 2021 at age 31, and will Pierre-Paul get re-signed at age 32 in two years?
Drafting for need is necessary at times, but it’s never ideal because if a team misses on a draft pick, it then must usually turn to free agency to find a much more expensive, immediate replacement. Drafting potential replacements for David and Pierre-Paul this year is not mandatory, but it will become more urgent in 2020 and will possibly become a need at that time.
The Bucs’ immediate needs as it pertains to 2019 are the right side of the line with contracts for Dotson, Benenoch and Watford up after this season, in addition to cornerback with Hargreaves and Smith in the final year of their contracts.
Tampa Bay’s biggest need in the future at first glance appears to be at linebacker where the contracts for Nassib, Barrett, Minter, Bucannon, Bond and Spence are up after this season. And don’t forget that linebacker Jack Cichy is coming off a torn ACL and that Kendell Beckwith’s status is up in the air regarding his return to health due to his fractured ankle from last offseason.
Some of those pending free agent linebackers figure to return in 2020, but the Bucs will need more young talent, especially for a 3-4 scheme that relies on a stable of playmaking linebackers, and Greenberg and Licht would love that to come in the form of linebackers on cheaper rookie contracts rather than via free agency.
Licht and the Bucs will be filling some immediate needs later this April, but will also be drafting for the future with an eye on 2020, too.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org