“Whenever Tom wants back, he’s back.” Bruce Arians was emphatic in stating that, in the event Tom Brady swiftly reverses his decision to retire from the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be waiting with open arms. That the red carpet would be rolled out for the greatest quarterback of all time is no surprise, especially for a team that appears to be facing a rebuild without Brady on board to elevate a roster under threat of losing a host of its core contributors in the offseason.
Were the season to start today, the Buccaneers would likely be starting Kyle Trask at quarterback. In addition to the challenge of trying to fill the void left by Brady, the Bucs have a plethora of players set to hit unrestricted free agency this month. That list includes Chris Godwin, Ryan Jensen, Carlton Davis, Jordan Whitehead and Ndamukong Suh, and the Bucs were given another need to address through the surprise retirement of guard Ali Marpet.
Exacerbating those issues is the fact the Bucs are against the wall when it comes to the salary cap. According to Over The Cap, Tampa Bay will start the new league year $2.37 million under the cap, leaving the Bucs with limited room with which to maneuver as they attempt to remain a playoff contender.
That cap number will improve when the Bucs process the retirements of Brady and Marpet but, between their finances, their quarterback situation, and their emerging roster holes, they look to be staring a rebuild in the face.
However, at 69 years old and coming off a Super Bowl win in 2020 and then a run to the Divisional Round, Arians’ appetite for a rebuild will not be high.
So, how do the Bucs avoid going in the tank in the short term? There are several steps they can take to stay atop what looks like an increasingly wide-open NFC South.
Find an affordable system fit
The apparent easy answer to the previous question would be to strike a trade for one of the premier quarterbacks who may or may not be available this offseason. Russell Wilson stands out as an obvious fit for a coach who loves to push the ball downfield.
Yet such a trade would impact the Bucs’ ability to replenish other areas of their roster with draft picks and would make Tampa Bay’s salary cap calculation a more challenging one.
The Bucs’ most feasible path to staying competitive is not to parachute in a superstar quarterback at a high price. It is to build the team around a more affordable signal-caller who fits what Arians wants to do on offense.
If the Bucs go down that route, then the names are unlikely to be ones to inspire. There may be debate over whether Mitchell Trubisky deserves another shot to start in the NFL, yet there is no doubt he has the arm to thrive in an Arians’ attack, with his athletic ability bringing potential added upside to the offense.
Another quarterback with plenty of experience of slinging it deep in college and the pros, Gardner Minshew, may be available in a trade at a cost that would not be prohibitive. Bucs fans may raise their eyebrows at the prospect of going from Brady to Trubisky or Minshew, but a coach who has regularly espoused the virtues of Blaine Gabbert will not be daunted by the prospect of trying to compete with either of those quarterbacks.
The Bucs have spent the last two seasons playing with an all-time great who elevated those around him. Given their financial situation, they may now have to settle for a quarterback who might need the Bucs’ roster to lift him to another level.
Changing the structure
Tampa Bay could use more wiggle room, even with the space Brady and Marpet’s retirements will create, against the cap to make moves to retain a roster core capable of elevating its quarterback.
General manager Jason Licht doesn’t need to look far for inspiration as to how to engineer space. Division rivals the New Orleans Saints have consistently found ways to do so when seemingly extremely compromised by their cap position.
The Saints have often relied on contract restructures, and that is certainly an avenue open to the Bucs.
Per Over The Cap, the Buccaneers could save $11.1 million by restructuring edge rusher Shaquil Barrett’s contract. They would save a maximum of $10.97 million by kicking some of the money on left tackle Donovan Smith’s contract into future years.
On top of that, Tampa Bay can save $3.5 million by releasing Cameron Brate. Greg Auman of The Athletic anticipates Brate will stick with the Bucs on a new deal, appearing to suggest he will remain on the roster at a more team-friendly price than the $7.28 million he is set to count against the cap in 2022.
The Bucs might look to be in a precarious spot with the salary cap right now but, as has been the case with the Saints and other teams who have had to work around financial constraints, they have some flexibility to put themselves in a more comfortable position and improve their prospects of contending in the immediate future.
With their in-house free agents, those hopes rest on the Bucs’ front office showing an astute understanding of positional value.
Prioritizing the line
The term ‘premium position’ in modern NFL parlance typically refers to quarterback, edge rusher, tackle, and cornerback. Yet many inside front offices would consider center to be in that group.
As such, wide receiver Chris Godwin may be seen as the Bucs’ top free agent, the priority for a Bucs team hoping to engineer a smooth transition for the quarterback taking the reins from Brady should instead be to retain center Ryan Jensen.
Through playing with Brady, Jensen has developed into one of the most valuable assets for a quarterback, a Pro Bowl-caliber center completely at ease with the offense. Having seen their offensive line overrun by the Los Angeles Rams in Brady’s final game, it would be prudent for the Bucs to focus on fortifying the interior through retaining Jensen and Marpet’s backup Alex Cappa, who is also poised to enter unrestricted free agency.
That is not to say the Buccaneers should not explore the possibility of using cap space to franchise tag Godwin. However, with the 2022 NFL Draft again strong at wide receiver, serious thought should be given to replacing him with a rookie and instead utilizing resources on bringing back cornerback Davis and safety Whitehead, who can ensure the defense stays among the elite.
A similar assessment may have to be made with veteran free agents like Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Rob Gronkowski and Leonard Fournette. Each of that quartet has played a pivotal role in the Bucs’ recent success but, for the Bucs to be set up for success in both the short and long term, it is those younger members of a championship core that need to take precedence.
The Buccaneers don’t necessarily have to sacrifice all of their old heads yet, with resources limited, some must be allowed to move on to pastures new.
In essence, there is a balance to be struck between holding on to some of the key cogs of the championship core and accepting the inevitable turnover that occurs when the bill comes due after going all-in for a title.
The Buccaneers can escape a rebuild and instead reload their roster for a run at a clearly still winnable division. However, the lack of compelling options to replace Brady may place the onus on Arians to live up to his richly deserved quarterback whisperer reputation and make sure the Bucs avoid heading into a painful period of transition.