FAB 4. Bucs Won’t Wait To Lock Up Stars
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg are going to be quite busy this offseason. In fact, they might be busier than they have ever been inside the walls of One Buccaneer Place in 2018.
NFL free agency starts in about a month and the NFL Scouting Combine starts at the end of the month. That’s when contract negotiations will kick into high gear and Licht and Greenberg, who is the team’s salary cap wizard and lead negotiator, will be meeting with a host of agents in Indianapolis.
The first priority is trying to get some priority free agents re-signed, such as cornerback Brent Grimes, wide receiver Adam Humphries and tight end Cameron Brate, who is a restricted free agent. The team wants to sign Brate to a long-term contract extension rather than just offering him a one-year tender. Brate has been one of the top tight ends in the league for the past two seasons in terms of production and scoring, and he’s Jameis Winston’s go-to guy. That fact is not lost on the team.
And don’t worry. This doesn’t mean that O.J. Howard will take a back seat to Brate. Remember that Dirk Koetter loves running a two-tight end offense (12 personnel) and that Brate and Howard tied for the team lead in touchdowns with six in 2017.
Over the next month, the Bucs are expected to release running back Doug Martin, defensive tackle Chris Baker and possibly defensive end Robert Ayers by the start of free agency, which technically begins on March 14, although teams can negotiate with agents on March 12. The Bucs may not pursue re-signing guards Kevin Pamphile and Evan Smith, or running back Charles Sims. They’ll take a wait-and-see approach with those three.
Licht and Greenberg will also be surveying the landscape when it comes to other players slated for free agency. Among the top targets is believed to be Baltimore center Ryan Jensen. His signing would prompt the Bucs to move Ali Marpet back to guard after he spent one year at center.
The Bucs will be looking for free agent help along the offensive line, defensive line, running back, cornerback and safety in order to position themselves to take the best players available in the draft and not have to draft for need in April. Tampa Bay likely won’t go crazy in free agency the way they did in 2014 when Licht and head coach Lovie Smith spent tens of millions of dollars on defensive end Michael Johnson, left tackle Anthony Collins, quarterback Josh McCown, cornerback Alterraun Verner, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald and tight end Brandon Myers.
But even after free agency, Licht and Greenberg won’t be done. Although they won’t tackle a contract extension for quarterback Jameis Winston, opting instead to pick up his fifth-year option, the Bucs do plan on signing wide receiver Mike Evans to a long-term extension. Evans, who was Licht’s first draft pick as Tampa Bay’s general manager in 2014, is currently scheduled to make $13.2 million under the fifth-year option the team picked up next year.
Although the Bucs have in excess of $61 million in cap space in 2018, and that number could swell by an additional $17 million if Martin, Baker and Ayers are released, they can’t go crazy in free agency because they need to save some room for extensions of their own players. And that doesn’t mean just for Evans and Brate.
The Bucs will attempt to also do contract extensions for members of the 2015 draft class – offensive linemen Ali Marpet, linebacker Kwon Alexander and offensive tackle Donovan Smith. Those three players are entering contract years in 2018 and Licht and Greenberg would like to get them locked up with multi-year extensions before they hit free agency. The team was able to do that with contract extensions for defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David, offensive tackle Demar Dotson and running back Doug Martin before those players became free agents.
Expect contract extension talks for Marpet, Alexander and Smith to heat up after the draft and into summer. The Bucs will likely wait until after free agency and the draft to see which offensive linemen are acquired to find out where Marpet will wind up, as there is a difference in pay between centers and guards. Licht and Greenberg were able to extend David and Dotson in August during training camp, while McCoy happened in October of 2014.
Usually, NFL front office staffs and coaches take the last week of June and the first three weeks of July off for summer vacation. Licht and Greenberg will too, but will keep their cell phones handy and might have to step away from the pool to do some summertime negotiating to get members of Tampa Bay’s stellar 2015 draft class under contract, in addition to locking up Evans long-term.