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FAB 1. These Bucs Need To Step Up

It’s early. We’re two games in to the Bucs’ 2020 season, and there is a lot of football to be played.

Yet we have seen some interesting clues already about the possible future of a handful of players in Tampa Bay unless they pick up their play over the next 14 weeks of the season. I’m not necessarily talking about role players like Scotty Miller or LeSean McCoy dropping touchdown passes last week, either.

I’m talking about some bonafide star Buccaneers that aren’t living up to their paychecks quite yet. Why is this important? Because the loss of revenue by NFL teams this year from the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the 2021 salary cap floor to $175 million. That’s a reduction of just more than $17.5 million of the Bucs’ current cap standing, which is $192,560,876, according to OverTheCap.com.

The Bucs will have less to spend in 2021 and currently have $28 million in salary cap space for next year. But keep in mind that players like outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, inside linebacker Lavonte David and wide receiver Chris Godwin are not under contract in 2021, and the team will need about $7 million to sign its rookie class next summer. So Tampa Bay will need more than the $28 million in order for the team to better its roster in 2021.

So which Bucs need to pick it up to ensure they stick around Tampa Bay in 2021? Let’s take a look.

LT Donovan Smith

2020 Cap Value: $14.5 million (guaranteed)
2021 Cap Value: $14.25 million (not guaranteed)

Bucs LT Donovan Smith

Bucs LT Donovan Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Smith has been a big disappointment on offense to start the 2020 season. And to make matters worse, the sixth-year veteran has been outplayed by rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs so far, and the Bucs’ first-round pick didn’t even have the benefit of the offseason program or the preseason to develop. Smith has a Pro Football Focus overall grade of 61.5 through two games, including a 56.4 grade as Tom Brady’s blindside pass protector.

Smith, who has surrendered three hurries, one hit and one sack along with committing two penalties, has proven to be the weak link on the offensive line so far. That’s not good, considering he’s the highest-paid offensive lineman in Tampa Bay, making $14.5 million this season. To be fair, the former second-round pick has battled through a knee injury, but he has one more year left on his deal, as his $14.25 million in 2021 is not guaranteed. If Smith doesn’t drastically improve, the Bucs won’t hesitate to move Wirfs to left tackle next year and send Smith packing.

OLB Shaquil Barrett

2020 Cap Value: $15.828 million (guaranteed)
2021 Cap Value: Unrestricted free agent

Bucs OLB Shaquil Barrett

Bucs OLB Shaquil Barrett – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

The Bucs used the franchise tag on Barrett instead of re-signing him to a long-term extension, and maybe that was a wise move in hindsight. Barrett had four sacks through the first two weeks of the 2019 season, but has zero to start the 2020 campaign. That could change as Barrett returns to Denver and takes on a really struggling right tackle in Elijah Wilkinson this week.

Barrett has also moved from the right side where he recorded most of his 19.5 sacks last year, to the left side and has seen more double teams as a result of last year’s success. Making the Pro Bowl and becoming a double-digit sacker is what led to Barrett’s $11.828 million pay raise from a year ago. The Bucs will expect him to produce at last year’s level to justify being paid at this year’s level. So far, Barrett has 10 hurries in two games, but no sacks, QB hits or forced fumbles. He’s also got a 51 grade from PFF compared to last year’s 77.7 grade.

TE Rob Gronkowski

2020 Cap Value: $9.25 million
2021 Cap Value: Unrestricted free agent

Bucs TE Rob Gronkowski

Bucs TE Rob Gronkowski – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Gronkowski has only been targeted four times in two games with 11 yards on two catches at New Orleans in Week 1, but no receptions last week against Carolina. Gronkowski looks rusty from a year off, or perhaps he’s lost a step at age 31 with past injuries taking a toll, as he hasn’t been able to separate in coverage.

PFF has given Gronkowski a 60.4 grade to start the year after he earned a 75.2 grade two years in 2018. That’s significant because he had earned a 90.2 grade or higher the previous seven years in New England as the best tight end in football. Gronkowski has earned a 68.3 run blocking grade through Week 2, including a 74.9 run blocking grade against Carolina. But paying $9 million for a good blocking tight end is a luxury the Bucs won’t be able to afford next year.

TE Cameron Brate

2020 Cap Value: $4.25 million (guaranteed)
2021 Cap Value: $6.5 million (not guaranteed)

Bucs TEs Cameron Brate and OJ Howard

Bucs TEs Cameron Brate and OJ Howard – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Brate is a role player and isn’t a starter – although he’s paid like one at $4.25 million. Brate is the 13th-highest paid Buccaneer on the team and he’s only played 11 snaps on offense compared to 81 snaps by O.J. Howard and 97 by Gronkowski. As the team’s third-string tight end there isn’t much Brate can do to help his cause outside of step in due to an injury to Howard or Gronkowski.

Brate is a luxury that the Bucs won’t be able to afford next year, especially with a $6.5 million base salary, which isn’t guaranteed. The only way Brate will stick around is if Gronkowski departs and he is elevated to the No. 2 tight end spot and takes a big pay cut, as he did this season. Brate saw a lot of action in training camp, but has not been a part of the Bucs offense outside of goal line personnel where Tampa Bay typically uses three tight ends.

NT Vita Vea

2020 Cap Value: $4,042,974 (guaranteed)
2021 Cap Value: $4,716,803 (guaranteed)

Bucs DTs Vita Vea and Rakeem Nunez-Roches

Bucs DTs Vita Vea and Rakeem Nunez-Roches – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Vea, the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2018, will definitely be on the team next year, but the big decision Tampa Bay has to make is whether to pick up his fifth-year option for 2022. The fifth-year option value for Vea in 2022 would be north of the $8.255 million that defensive tackles picked outside of the Top 10 received. Has Vea shown he’s worth as much as $9 million yet?

Vea has seen his snaps reduced from Week 1 (57) to Week 2 (41), while reserve nose tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches’ snaps increased from 25 to 34, and defensive end Will Gholston, who registered his first sack of the season, saw him increase from 34 to 37. Vea has just three tackles and two penalties in two games while Nunez-Roches, who was an undrafted free agent, is right behind with two tackles. The 33-year old Suh likely won’t be around in two years when Vea would be set to make $9 million, so the Bucs could simply shift the money from one defensive tackle to another. But Suh has made far more splash plays in Tampa Bay over the past two seasons than Vea has, and that has to change in order for the Bucs to make that much of an investment into a part-time player at nose tackle.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

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, Reynol