Ah, the NFL off-season. I do love it so. The East/West Shrine Game. The Senior Bowl. The NFL Combine. Free agency. The Draft. It’s a non-stop rollercoaster ride for football fanatics. I’ve already put out my first mock draft. And I’ve already put out a list of possible free-agent targets for the Bucs as well. Now it’s time to put it all together and give you my game plan for bringing winning football back to Tampa Bay next season.
I’m going to hit all four major parts of a typical NFL off-season, including the salary cap situation, the Bucs free agents, the free agency itself, and then the draft. I will give you a step-by-step game plan of what I think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers need to do this off-season to be a winning team in 2020.
THE SALARY CAP SITUATION
According to Spotrac.com, the Buccaneers will have about $92 million in cap space this off-season. I think they’ll need to create a little more in order to accomplish my goals for this off-season, so I have selected a few players that could have their contracts restructured to get that accomplished.
Mike Evans- $16.75M base/$18.35M total cost
Even though he is one of the best receivers on the planet and he deserves every penny, I would ask that he re-works his deal a little bit to be more cap friendly. The team needs to give Chris Godwin a contract extension, and it would only make sense for Evans to help make that happen. Right now, he’s the fifth highest-paid wide receiver in football. I would ask him to take a $15M base/$17M total salary for 2020 to free up about $2 million in cap space.
Donovan Smith- $14.5M base
He’s also the fifth highest-paid player at his position. The difference is that I’m not so sure that he’s worthy of it. I’m not as down on Smith as some fans are, but he could definitely be better and more consistent. He is still a solid left tackle, though, so I’d ask him to drop down to $12.5M as his base salary.
Ali Marpet- $11M base
This salary makes him the third highest-paid left guard in all of football, and while he may be deserving, I would still consider asking him to take one for the team. Just dropping his pay to $10M this season would still keep him in the top five guards in the league, but it would free up another million in cap space.
Ryan Jensen- $10M base
He’s the sixth highest-paid center in the league (notice the pattern here?) and is definitely worth the money, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask him to restructure his deal. Every little bit helps in this situation.
Cam Brate- $6M base
When he was re-signed back in 2018, he was well worth the big contract. Now his role has changed in Arians’ offense, and I don’t think it would be out of line to adjust his pay accordingly. Restructuring him to a $4.5M deal plus performance incentives would make more sense, plus it saves the Bucs $1.5M in cap space right now.
Will Gholston- $4.75M base
As with the rest of these guys, Gholston is well-deserving of his current contract. Even though he only finished with 38 tackles and 1 sack in 16 games in 2019, he did a lot more behind-the-scenes stuff that doesn’t make the stat sheets. However, he could be a candidate for restructuring. He’s due to make the $4.75M in 2020, but then he’s also due $5.5M in 2021 as well. If the Bucs can rework his contract to be more cap-friendly and maybe throw in some performance bonuses, I think it would be the best situation for both parties.
Depending on how many of these guys agree to help out the team and restructure their current contracts, the Bucs could potentially add another $8 million or so to their cap space. I wouldn’t expect all of them to go along with it, nor do I expect Jason Licht to hit all of them up for discounts, but this is MY off-season game plan, not his, so I’ll do whatever I want to get some more cap room. In this case, the Bucs would have right at $100 million available for this off-season. However, it’s not just about free agency. The Bucs will likely be looking to work out contract extensions for both Lavonte David and Chris Godwin this off-season. David is the eighth highest-paid inside linebacker in the league right now. He may be nice and sign a new contract for about the same money for a chance at a Super Bowl run in the next year or two, but you just never know what will happen. For the scenario, I’m banking on the hometown discount and giving him $10.5M per for the next four years. Godwin’s situation is different. He’s still playing on a third-round pick, rookie contract, so he’s going to get a huge pay raise. Even though he was a top-5 receiver for 2019, I can’t justify giving him top-5 receiver money at this point. Especially with Mike Evans already making $16.5M a year. But what I would do is offer him top tier #2 receiver money, which comes out to about $8M a year for the next two years. After extending these two contracts, the Bucs are right where they were before at about $92 million in cap space heading into free agency.
2020 BUCCANEERS FREE AGENTS
Perhaps the biggest question mark this off-season is will he be back or is he gone? His contract is up, and he’s officially a free agent. Word on the street is that the Colts are already gunning for him in free agency. But should the Bucs decide to keep him (and I think they will), the smart move for them would be to hit him with the franchise tag. It gives them one more year to evaluate him during his second year in Arians’ offense and decide if he really is the long term solution here in Tampa. That franchise tag comes with a $27 million price tag, but if he has a “massive year” like Carson Palmer is predicting, then it will be well worth it. The downside here is that if he does have a “massive season”, then a new contract will cost the Buccaneers a fortune. So they might be thinking that getting a long term contract done now is the best decision. At least there’s a chance of getting him a little cheaper than they would next year if he does perform well. From what we here at Bucs Life have heard, negotiations for a long term deal are underway. I’m hoping for something sensible like a $24M per for 4 years.
The Bucs have a ton of free agents on their defensive line, and I think it’s imperative that they re-sign most of them. Hopefully, this group had so much fun being the best run defense in football and getting the third-most sacks in franchise history that they are all willing to come back at a decent price. Shaq Barrett is going to get the biggest payday here after leading the league in sacks, but he’s not greedy about it and re-signs a deal for $13M a year. Jason Pierre-Paul soon follows, and even though he could probably get more money with another team, he re-signs for $8M a year. Ndamukong Suh is about to be 34-years old, so he comes back at a senior citizen’s discount of $7.5M a year. The odd men out here could be Beau Allen and Carl Nassib. As much as I’d like to see them return, the math just might not be there. Nassib could be replaced by second-year player Anthony Nelson at a much cheaper price, and the Bucs could find Allen’s replacement in the draft. Luckily for both of them and us, those contract restructures allowed us a little extra money to re-sign both of them as long as they are willing to play for less money than they could get in the open market. Allen made $4M in 2019, so I’d offer him a deal for $3.5M per year. Nassib would get a slight raise, after making $2M in 2019, re-signing for $2.5M per year.
Yes, he filled in nicely over the last few games of the season when Evans and Godwin went down with hamstring injuries. But with the Bucs already spending $20 million on their top two wideouts, I don’t see him getting a huge pay bump. As long as there’s not much outside interest, I think Perriman can be re-signed for $5M a year.
I like Dot. And while I don’t expect him back as a starter, he would be terrific as a reserve tackle. However, with the change in jobs comes a change in pay scales. If he’s willing to re-sign for $2.5M per year, then I’d love for him to finish his career where it started. If not, then good luck to you, sir.
This group consists of guys like Ryan Smith, Kevin Minter, Mike Liedtke, Earl Watford, Antony Auclair, and Tanner Hudson, all of which should be able to be re-signed for $1.5M per year or less. I would say $5M should be enough to get this group back in Tampa.
2020 NFL FREE AGENTS
I don’t foresee the Bucs spending much money in free agency, nor will they need to do so. If everything above falls into place, they should have about $18 million in cap space left. Now about $6 million of that will be set aside for draft picks, which leaves $12 million or so for the Bucs to do some free-agent shopping. There’s only a couple of positions that I would address in free agency, so here’s what I would do.
RB Carlos Hyde
Ronald Jones looks like he’s ready to take over the load in the Bucs backfield after finishing 2019 with just over 1,000 total yards from scrimmage. Peyton Barber is a free agent, and I’m not re-signing him. Instead, I look to free agency and find Hyde, who is coming off of the first 1,000 rushing yard season of his career despite sharing the workload in the Texans backfield with Lamar Miller and Duke Johnson. According to Spotrac.com, he has a market value of just $3M per year, but I’ll offer him $4M to come to Tampa to be the new version of “Thunder & Lightning” with Jones.
CB Morris Claiborne
The Bucs starting corners are set with Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean on the outside and Sean Murphy-Bunting at nickel. But they have to add some depth. As it sits right now, Ryan Smith would be the next man up on the outside, and MJ Stewart is the reserve nickel. Then they have second-year players Mazzi Wilkins and John Franklin behind them. They have to add some depth and experience to this group. Claiborne does just that. He played for Todd Bowles with the Jets and had two of the best years of his career. It’s time to reunite them and see what happens. I’d offer him $3.5M per year to play for his former coach as a reserve corner.
S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
The Bucs safety position is perplexing. The group is so full of promise, yet surrounded by so many questions marks. Jordan Whitehead is a solid starter, but what is there behind him? Mike Edwards had an inconsistent rookie season. Justin Evans is coming off of dual surgeries. MJ Stewart can’t be trusted. They need to add a solid veteran to this group, and Clinton-Dix would fill that role nicely. He’s coming off of a solid year with the Bears where he finished with 78 tackles, 5 passes defended, and 2 interceptions. Chicago might try to keep him around, but if the Bucs can get him for something around $4M per year, then they should pull the trigger.
That’s as active as I’d be in free agency. And now for my 2020 NFL Draft picks.
2020 NFL DRAFT
Going into this draft, the Bucs just need to add depth and plan for the future.
Round 1- Pick 14: DT Javon Kinlaw, South Carolina
Even though I was able to re-sign Suh and Allen in free agency, it wouldn’t hurt to go ahead and draft Suh’s eventual replacement here. At 6’6/310lbs, Kinlaw is one of the best interior defensive linemen in this draft. In his last two seasons with the Gamecocks, he totaled 73 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and 7 passes batted down. He’s tall, thick, and athletic with a good combination of quickness, power, and strength. He also has the versatility that Todd Bowles looks for with the ability to play the 5-tech in a 3-4 or slide inside in a 4-3 front. I was really tempted to go offensive tackle here since that’s the Bucs biggest positional need, but if Kinlaw is still sitting there at #14, then I’m taking him.
Round 2- Pick 45: OT Mekhi Becton, Louisville
Even though I did re-sign Demar Dotson to be a reserve tackle, he does need to be replaced as the starter. Becton is a mammoth at 6’7″/365lbs and moves well for his size. His power, athleticism, and length allow him to sustain blocks and move defenders in the run game, while his solid base, strong anchor, long arms and massive paws make him reliable in pass protection. The only red flag with him is his weight. He’s played as high as 370lbs and as low as 330lbs, so if he can show up to the NFL Combine in shape and tests well, then he could end up being a first-round pick. I’m rolling the dice a bit, waiting until the second round for him. This is a fairly deep class for offensive tackles, but the Bucs probably shouldn’t wait any later than this to grab one if they want a starter quality OT to replace Dot.
Round 3- Pick 76: QB Jordan Love, Utah State
Here’s your QB pick! Even though I re-signed Jameis Winston keeping him in Tampa for a while, they still need an insurance policy for the future. Love might fall in this draft due to some off the field stuff and because his 2019 season was full of interceptions; 17 of them, which was strange after he threw for 32 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions in 2018. He has a strong arm and throws the deep ball and sideline routes very well. And what does Bruce Arians’ offense consist of mostly? Deep balls and sideline routes. It’s been said that he has “Mahomes-type” traits like the cannon arm, mobility, and improvisation. The 6’4″/225lb QB isn’t quite Lamar Jackson when it comes to being a dual-threat quarterback, but he can definitely do some damage with his legs. He’s an aggressive thrower with good pocket awareness and an ability to throw on the run. He sounds like a fun weapon for Arians to get his hands on.
Round 4-Pick 114: S Reggie Floyd, Virginia Tech
Even though I did sign Clinton-Dix in free agency, safety could still be a position of need this off-season. Justin Evans should be recovered from his feet surgeries, and D’Cota Dixon should be healthy and ready to compete for a spot in training camp as well. So it couldn’t hurt to add another ballhawk on the back end of this defense. And that’s just what Floyd was at Virginia Tech. At 6’/222lbs, he’s a big, physical safety with an abundance of physical tools and traits. His physicality, range, and explosiveness are unique. His sideline to sideline speed and exceptional ball skills make him good at playing deep zone. His aggressive style of play and linebacker-like stopping power, make him good as a box defender. That versatility makes him a perfect fit for Todd Bowles’ defense in the hybrid safety/linebacker role.
Round 4- Pick 139: DE/OLB Jason Strowbridge, North Carolina
Sure, I was able to re-sign Barrett, JPP and Nassib in free agency, but it never hurts to add another versatile player to this d-line. At 6’5″/285lbs, he has the size, strength, and power to play almost any position in both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts. He’s a solid run defender, but shows flashes of being a good pass rusher as well with his athleticism, agility, and quickness. In his last 3 years at Chapel Hill, he totaled 114 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, and 10 sacks.
Round 5- Pick 159: RB Jonathan Ward, Central Michigan
Even after signing Carlos Hyde in free agency, the Bucs could still use another running back in the stable. Especially one that could compete as their third-down back. Ward can do just that. At 6’/205lbs, he finished 2019 with 1,108 rushing yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry, 34 catches for 329 yards and 16 total touchdowns. He was limited with an injury in 2018, but in 2017 he finished with 1,017 yards averaging 5.7 yards per carry, 48 catches for 470 yards, and 13 total touchdowns. He’s got the short-area quickness, power, and balance that teams look for in a running back, but with the long speed, solid route running, and strong hands that make for a good receiving back. Hyde and Jones can handle the workload on first and second downs, but Ward would add a true dual threat as a third-down back in this group.
Round 6- Pick 194: ILB Antoine Brooks Jr, Maryland
This is one of my favorite players in this draft. At 5’11″/215lbs, Brooks is slightly undersized to play inside linebacker for most NFL defenses, and some scouts have him listed as a safety. But that makes him perfect for the “moneybacker” position in Todd Bowles defense. In his last 2 seasons, he totaled 139 tackles and showed a strong ability to play behind the line of scrimmage with 19 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He also put his coverage abilities on display with 7 passes defended and an interception. He’s a freak athlete with 4.75 speed and explosiveness to go along with being a fierce tackler and serious competitor.
UNDRAFTED FREE AGENTS
CB Thakarius Keyes, Tulane
Even after re-signing Ryan Smith and signing Morris Claiborne in free agency, the Bucs could still use some more depth. At 6’1″/200lbs, Keyes has the size and length to play physical at the line as a press-man corner, but he also has the 4.5 speed to play off receivers. He had 38 tackles, 12 pass breakups, and an interception as a junior. He hits like a strong safety when playing the run. He played inside and outside, and he was a special teams ace in college, so he could add versatile depth to this cornerback group.
OL Kohl Levao, Hawaii
We got our starting right tackle in the second round, but now we need to add some more versatility and depth to the o-line. At 6’4″/340lbs, he has good size, but still moves well. He definitely needs work on his technique, but with his length and power when he gets his hands on you, you’re done. The best thing about him is his versatility. He played mostly right tackle at Hawaii, but did play some center as well. He looks like more of a guard for the NFL.
CB Dajour Nesbeth, Tennessee State
At 6’/190lbs, he could come in and compete for the backup nickel corner position. He battled injuries in 2019, but he totaled 88 tackles, 21 passes defended, and 5 interceptions in his sophomore and junior seasons. He’s got decent size, 4.5 speed, and solid ball skills.
WR Devin Duvernay, Texas
TJ Logan should be healthy and back as the Bucs return man for 2020, but he could use some competition. At 5’11″/210lbs, he doesn’t have the typical NFL receiver size, however, his straight-line speed is for real. He’s tough, runs hard, and breaks tackles, which makes him a good option for a return man.
MY 2020 ROSTER
QB- Jameis Winston, Ryan Griffin, (R) Jordan Love
RB- Carlos Hyde, Ronald Jones, (R) Jonathan Ward, Dare Ogunbowale
WR- Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Breshad Perriman, Scotty Miller, Justin Watson, (R) Devin Duvernay
TE- OJ Howard, Cam Brate, Antony Auclair, Tanner Hudson
OL- Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa, (R) Mekhi
Becton, Demar Dotson, Mike Liedtke, Earl Watford, (R) Kohl Levao
DL- Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, Beau Allen, Will Gholston, (R) Javon Kinlaw
OLB- Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaq Barrett, Carl Nassib, Anthony Nelson, Pat O’Connor, (R) Jason Strowbridge
ILB- Lavonte David, Devin White, Kevin Minter, Jack Cichy, (R) Antoine Brooks
CB- Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Ryan Smith, Morris Claiborne, (R) Thakarius Keyes, (R) Dajour Nesbeth
S- Jordan Whitehead, Mike Edwards, Justin Evans, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, MJ Stewart, D’Cota Dixon, (R) Reggie Floyd
ST- Bradley Pinion, Matt Gay, Zach Triner, TJ Logan
This entire off-season hinges on one decision. What do they do with Jameis? That single decision has an effect on what they do in free agency. It has an effect on the draft. It affects the salary cap. It affects everything. From what I’ve heard, the Bucs are in negotiations with Winston’s camp for a long-term deal. If that’s actually the case, then this is my blueprint for what the Bucs need to do this off-season to take that next step in 2020. This team is not that far off. All they need to do is figure out the QB situation, and fill in a few holes and they should be ready to go. As for now, we are all waiting on the news about Jameis Winston.
Until then, as always, GO BUCS!!!