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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. Licht’s To-Do List This Offseason
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht was spared, but the Glazers fired head coach Dirk Koetter after back-to-back 5-11 seasons. Licht will get one more year – as will his quarterback Jameis Winston, who is playing under his fifth-year option worth $20.92 million – to show some real progress during the 2019 season.
So why did Licht get the chance to hire a second head coach and go through his sixth round of free agency and the draft? Even Licht couldn’t answer that question when posed to him at his press conference on Monday.
“Right now, I’m just grateful to be here,” Licht said. “I’m grateful to be here, I’m grateful to be standing here. I told that to Dirk [Sunday night]. He told me that he was happy that I was here. Right now, like I said, the Glazer family has put their confidence in me to find the next head coach and I’m grateful for that opportunity. And we’re committed to find that guy.”
While Licht was a bit tongue-tied about why he was spared, Pewter Reporters Mark Cook, Trevor Sikkema and I discussed the reasons why he got the opportunity for one more year in our PR Roundtable on Wednesday.
The Big Takeaway
So now what? What does Licht have to accomplish in what looks like a make-or-break offseason for him in Tampa Bay? Here is a list of five things on his docket over the next two months prior to free agency and the 2019 NFL Draft.
1. Hire A Coach To Replace Koetter
This is obviously Licht’s top priority and sole focus right now. Is it ultimately going to be former Arizona head coach Bruce Arians and all of the upcoming interviews are just a charade? Licht and Arians worked together with the Cardinals in 2013 before he left to become Tampa Bay’s general manager in 2014 and there is a strong mutual respect between the two men.
On the surface, this looks like a foregone conclusion because a lot of Arians’ former assistants, including offensive line coach Harold Goodwin, running backs coach Stump Mitchell and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles are available, in addition to defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, who is already in Tampa Bay. It was a similar foregone conclusion when Lovie Smith was fired after the 2015 season and Licht and the Bucs were interested in promoting Koetter, the team’s offensive coordinator at the time, but without trying to make it look like a palace coup, Licht interviewed several other candidates, including Goodwin to satisfy the Rooney Rule requirements, before hiring Koetter a week later.
But this year with Arians it could be quite different. Yes, Arians has expressed interest in the job, but at age 66 with some previous health concerns I wouldn’t be surprised if Licht said, “I’m interested too, so think about it for a week while I interview some other people.” I think Tampa Bay’s G.M. will use this week to interview other candidates and compare them to Arians, who is a proven and known commodity to Licht.
While Licht is doing that, Arians is talking it over with his wife and making calls around the league to possible assistant coaches to gauge their interest in joining him in Tampa Bay. Arians has the week to truly gauge his health and excitement level about getting back into the NFL after his brief retirement. That’s what I think could be happening, and if Licht actually finds what he believes to be a better candidate in the process, he’ll do what’s right for the organization and pull the trigger on that guy. And keep in mind that the Glazers will have the final say anyway – it’s their team.
Licht interviewed Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and has an interview with Minnesota defensive coordinator George Edwards lined up for Friday. Licht will also interview Dallas defensive backs coach and play-caller Kris Richard after the Cowboys’ playoff game this weekend. All three are minority candidates and Bieniemy’s interview already satisfied the Rooney Rule.
2. Align Personnel With Coaching Philosophy
Licht has said that he doesn’t have a preference for hiring an offensive-minded or defensive-minded head coach – just the right guy for the Bucs. The important thing for Licht will be to do a better job of matching personnel with the offensive and defensive philosophies of the next coaching staff.
There was a bit of a disconnect between some of the assistant coaches and the front office about some of the players on the roster being the right scheme fits. Sometimes it was Licht drafting promising players without the coaches seeing eye-to-eye on talent and having a specific plan for developing those players, other times it was the assistant coaches not effectively communicating what traits they favored in players, which led to a few unfortunate personnel moves.
Licht, director of player personnel John Spytek, director of college scouting Mike Biehl and director of pro personnel Rob McCartney will really need to spend some time with the new coaches in the film room studying what kind of players are the right scheme fits. The Bucs need to really hit a home run in free agency and the draft this year with several instant impact players to turn a 5-11 team into a playoff contender.
3. Create Salary Cap Room
In last week’s SR’s Fab 5, I outlined how the Buccaneers have the fifth least amount of salary cap space in the NFL entering 2019, but can create up to $60.255 million by cutting or trading up to 10 players. With just $17,857,759 worth of salary cap room, the Bucs will need to create at least $40 million to re-sign some of their own players and draft picks, while adding a few new pieces in free agency.
I won’t spend too much time on this section because I talked about it last week and delve into which Bucs players are slated for free agency in the next section of this week’s SR’s Fab 5. Just know that after years of being flush with cap space, Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg will have some work to do and some tough decisions to make for the first time in a long while, including what to do with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who will turn 31 in February and is slated to make $13 million this year.
4. Figure Out If Smith Gets An Extension Or The Franchise Tag
The Bucs were working out a multi-year contract extension with left tackle Donovan Smith, who is scheduled to hit free agency in March, during the season, but slammed the brakes on when he had some rough games over the second half of the season. According to STATS, Smith surrendered a career-high 6.5 sacks this season after allowing five last year, which was the same amount he gave up as a rookie in 20155. Smith was also flagged for two false starts and three holding calls, which were the fewest of each of his career.
Despite his penchant for being inconsistent and perhaps a bit lazy on a few plays, which often happen at the most ill-advised times, Licht and the Bucs front office like Smith more than fans do. Smith isn’t a Top 10 left tackle. He’s more like a Top 15 left tackle, but still could earn $12-$13 million per year on the open market due to the fact that he’s tough and reliable, starting all 64 games he’s played in since becoming a second-round pick in 2015.
Don’t be surprised if the Bucs opt to pay Smith a little more at $14 million in 2019 by using the franchise tag on him for one year. The front office would love to see Smith improve with a different offensive line coach continuing his development before locking him up for the long term.
5. Offer Contracts To Alexander, Humphries And Santos
The Bucs have 21 combined unrestricted and restricted free agents entering 2019, but not all of them will be back. Wide receiver Adam Humphries, who was playing on a one-year tender as a restricted free agent this past year and turned in a career year with 76 catches for 816 yards and five touchdowns. He was one of Winston’s top targets in 2018 and Licht and Greenberg will do everything they can to keep him as long as his average salary per year doesn’t go north of $5.5 million. The cap-crunched Bucs would love to have him back with a hometown discount.
Kicker Cairo Santos finished the year making 77.8 percent of his field goals between his time with the Rams and the Bucs. In Tampa Bay, he connected on 9-of-12 field goals (75 percent) and made all 17 of his extra points. Santos doesn’t have the strongest leg and was just 3-of-6 beyond 40 yards, including 0-of-1 from beyond 50 yards, but he was more accurate than either Roberto Aguayo or Nick Folk over the past two seasons. He’ll get at least a one-year prove-it deal, or perhaps a two-year contract.
Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander was having a good year before tearing his ACL against Cleveland nearly halfway through the season. Alexander had 45 tackles, two forced fumbles and a sack in six games before his untimely injury ended his contract year.
Alexander’s timetable to return to the field is in question right now and that complicates his contract status with the Bucs. Will Licht and Greenberg try to get Alexander to accept a one-year, prove-it deal to see how he rebounds from his ACL surgery? Or will the team show good faith – and take a leap of faith – and offer Alexander a long-term contract that is slightly below market value between $8-$9 million per year? Time will tell.
The FABulous Ending
Licht has a lot on his plate over the next two months as the Bucs prepare for free agency and the NFL Draft. The good news is that with Greenberg at his side, along with a very capable front office, it all should fall right into place as long as he makes the right head coaching hire and brings in the right kind of assistant coaches that can take a talented roster and make an instant impact.