FAB 3. 5 Former Arians Players The Bucs Could Target
While new Bucs head coach Bruce Arians likely won’t be able to pry running back David Johnson and cornerback Patrick Peterson away from Arizona in the trade market, there are some of Arians’ former players that are slated for free agency that could be had in March without giving up any compensation.
The Big Takeaway
Here are five players that played for Arians in Arizona that could be lured to Tampa Bay.
ILB Kevin Minter – Tampa Bay
Minter, a second-round pick in Arians’ first draft in Arizona in 2013, spent his first two seasons in the NFL playing in Todd Bowles defense, and then re-joined Bowles in New York for training camp last August before being released in the final roster cut-down. Bucs general manager Jason Licht, who helped draft Minter in Arizona in 2013, signed the 28-year old linebacker to serve as a fill-in for the injured Kwon Alexander. Minter played well, notching 10 tackles and a sack in a limited role before a calf injury landed him on injured reserve in five games.
Minter has recorded 265 tackles, six sacks, four passes defensed and one forced fumble in his six seasons in the NFL, including 94 stops and a safety in 2015 and 81 the next season, in addition to 3.5 sacks before signing a one-year deal with Cincinnati in 2017. After signing with the Jets in the offseason and not making the team in August, Minter was on the street until Licht signed him in October.
The Bucs are really banged up at linebacker with Kendell Beckwith missing the entire 2018 season recovering from a broken ankle, and Alexander and rookie Jack Cichy suffering torn ACLs. Having a player like Minter who already knows Bowles defense gives the Bucs an insurance policy at the inside linebacker spot in Tampa Bay, and a possible starter with some size at 6-foot, 246 pounds.
WR J.J. Nelson – Arizona
Arians loves having a deep threat wide receiver on his roster, and despite drafting John Brown in the third round in 2014, the Cardinals added another speedster in Nelson, a fifth-round pick in 2015. Brown proved to be the more complete receiver and signed a one-year, $5 million deal with Baltimore last year after Arizona didn’t re-sign him. Brown emerged as a primary weapon in the Ravens’ passing game and wants to re-sign with Baltimore rather than hit free agency.
While Brown may not be an option for the Bucs, Nelson could be had in free agency to provide a Arians with a speed receiver, especially if Tampa Bay parts ways with DeSean Jackson, whom the team may not be able to afford at $10 million this year. Nelson recorded 81 catches for 1,439 yards (17.8 avg.) and 10 touchdowns in his four seasons with Arizona. After catching 11 passes for 299 yards (27.2 avg.) and two scores as a rookie, Nelson had a career-high 34 receptions for 568 yards (16.7 avg.) and six touchdowns in 2016, and had 29 catches for 508 yards (17.5 avg.) and two scores the next season.
Nelson’s production dropped off mightily once Arians left, catching only seven passes for 64 yards (9.1 avg.) and no touchdowns. The 5-foot-10, 160-pounder isn’t big, but he can make big plays with his 4.28 speed. Nelson had seven plays of 40 yards or more for Arians with three 100-yard receiving games with the Cardinals.
G Mike Iupati – Arizona
Tampa Bay has not had a capable guard to play opposite Ali Marpet since Pro Bowler Logan Mankins in 2015. After trying the likes of Kevin Pamphile, J.R. Sweezy, Evan Smith and Caleb Benenoch at guard to no avail, perhaps Arians will turn to one of his former veterans in Iupati, a four-time Pro Bowler.
The Cardinals signed Iupati to a five-year deal worth $40 million in 2015 and after a Pro Bowl season in his first year in Arizona, injuries hit Iupati, causing him to miss most of the 2017 season with a triceps injury, followed by a back injury and a knee injury that cut last year short in early December.
Iupati turns 32 in May, but may have a few good years left in him if he can stay healthy. At 6-foot-5, 336 pounds he’s a mauler in the run game and a wide body that can still hold up in pass protection. He could serve as a bridge until a young player like Alex Cappa, last year’s third-round pick, develops and takes over at guard. If Iupati would be up for a one- or two-year deal at a reduced salary around $5 million it could be a wise signing to bolster the weakest spot on Tampa Bay’s offense.
DB Tyrann Mathieu – Houston
Mathieu is one of Arians’ favorite players. A former third-round pick in Arizona in Arians’ first draft in 2013, Mathieu made the Pro Bowl in 2015 when he played safety and nickel cornerback, making a career-high 89 tackles with 17 pass breakups, five interceptions, including a pick-six, one forced fumble and one sack. A torn ACL and a shoulder injury limited his effectiveness the next two seasons and he hit free agency in 2018, signing a one-year, prove-it deal with Houston worth $7 million.
Starting all 16 games for just the second time in his career, the Honey Badger had 89 tackles, eight pass breakups, five tackles for loss, three sacks, two interceptions for the Texans defense. The problem for the cap-strapped Bucs would be Mathieu’s price tag. He would command at least $7 million per season given last year’s solid season in Houston, and that might be too rich for Tampa Bay.
The Bucs could use a playmaker in their secondary in addition to a veteran presence. At age 26, Mathieu is still in his prime and can flex between strong safety and nickel cornerback and play in the box effectively despite his 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame. Tampa Bay has some young, intriguing safeties on its roster with Justin Evans, a former second-round pick, Jordan Whitehead, last year’s fourth-rounder, Isaiah Johnson and Andrew Adams, who led the Bucs with four interceptions last year. But Mathieu brings the experience of playing in 66 games under Arians with 57 starts and has familiarity with playing in Bowles under defensive backs coaches Nick Rapone and Kevin Ross.
S/LB Deone Bucannon
If the Bucs pass on Mathieu, Arians and the Bucs could target another Arizona safety in Bucannon, who played a hybrid strong safety-linebacker role under Bowles in 2014 and really hit his stride with the Cardinals the next season. As a rookie, Bucannon, who was the team’s first-round pick, had 81 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. In 2015, he posted 112 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, three pass breakups, three sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one pick-six and became a big-time playmaker.
The 6-1, 211-pound Bucannon has been banged up over the last three seasons, missing a total of 10 games over that span. The Cardinals picked up Bucannon’s fifth-year option last year, but he didn’t fit into Steve Wilks’ scheme and managed just six starts. In 2018, Bucannon had only 38 tackles, one sack and one fumble recovery.
Like Mathieu, Bucannon could step in as a veteran strong safety and add experience and physicality to Tampa Bay’s revamped defense. Bowles really used Bucannon’s athleticism and playmaking ability in creative ways, especially in his nickel package making Bucannon the Cardinals’ “Moneybacker,” which is a coverage linebacker. Bucannon’s modest production last year in Arizona could allow the Buccaneers to come in with a reasonable one-year, prove-it deal to lure him to Tampa Bay and reunite him with Bowles and Arians.
The FABulous Ending
It will be interesting to see what former Cardinals players Arians can persuade to join him in Tampa Bay. Free agency is a two-way street, and the Bucs’ sudden salary cap challenges may ultimately prevent the Bucs from landing one of those players – even if the interest from the player playing for Arians again is there. Players often follow the money, and rightly so as NFL football is paid profession with a relatively short shelf life.
Don’t be surprised to see the Bucs target a former Jets player or two that played under Bowles over the last couple of seasons in New York, too.