TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ offseason will be one of the most uncertain in recent memory for a variety of reasons.
Quarterback Tom Brady retired earlier this month.
Tampa Bay is projected $55 million over the salary cap.
The Bucs have several new assistant coaches including offensive coordinator Dave Canales.
The Bucs face challenges if they want to continue to contend for playoff runs while maximizing on 1,000-yard receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and a top-tier defense.
With Brady carrying a salary cap hit of $35 million in 2023, the Bucs will have to make several roster cuts to become cap compliant by the start of the league year on March 15, and that doesn’t account for money they’ll need to potentially attract a free agent quarterback and re-sign core players such as inside linebacker Lavonte David, who has said he’d like to remain a Buccaneer for the remainder of his career.
Here’s a look at potential cuts of players under contract, as well as some key decisions they’ll have to make in re-signing players.
Left tackle Donovan Smith carries a $17.9 million cap hit. Smith turns 30 in June and is coming off arguably his worst season. Cutting him would clear $9.95 million in cap space. The thinking would be to move All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs to left tackle. They could then try 2022 second-round draft pick Luke Goedeke at right tackle or could try their luck in the draft. Either way, they’re no longer charged with the task of protecting a 45-year-old Hall of Fame quarterback.
At the end of the season, Bowles said that the Bucs have to get better at long-range kicking, and it’s no secret that Ryan Succop struggles from kicks of more than 50 yards. While he went 12-for-12 from 40-49 yards last season, and his 12 field goals from that range were second most of his NFL career, he went just 2-of-7 from beyond 50. His 28.6% ranked 32nd as he attempted the most kicks from that range of his career. His 81.6% field goal percentage in 2022 was his worst in a non-injured season since 2013. Succop carries a $4 million cap hit and would save the Bucs $3.25 million if cut, with $750,000 in dead money.
Running back Leonard Fournette is due to make $8.47 million, with $2 million guaranteed if he is on the roster on the third day of the new league year. Cutting him would save the Bucs $3.47 million but would include $5 million in dead money. There were some concerns with Fournette’s weight last year, and he only averaged 3.5 yards per carry — second only to his abbreviated 2018 season as a career worst.
Tight end Cameron Brate could also be cut or retire. His cap number is $4.96 million. Cutting him would save $2 million, but there would be $2.96 million in dead money. After the Bucs’ playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys, it was clear he was taking stock in his life and what’s next after suffering a concussion this season and a neck sprain that resulted in him leaving the field on a stretcher and missing a total of six games.
Potential restructures and extensions
The Bucs will also need to restructure some of their pricier contracts or sign key players to extensions, which can include tacking on voidable years. But would they be willing to continue to push money toward the future?
While the salary cap for the upcoming season rises to $224.8 million — up from $208.2 million in 2022 and a new record high — it is expected to rise significantly in 2024, thanks to the league’s $100 billion media deals taking effect in 2023. For comparison, the cap decreased from $198.2 million in 2020 to $182.5 million in 2021.
After signing a new deal last offseason, Godwin is set to count $23.75 million toward the cap, but a restructure could give them up to $14.19 million in cap space. An example of this is Evans saving the Bucs $10.3 million last year from what would have been a $20.62 million cap hit by converting some of his base salary to a bonus. An extension would also make sense, as would an extension for Evans, who is entering the last year of his current deal and set to count $23.7 million against the cap this year.
Defensive tackle Vita Vea already restructured his contract last season, converting his $10.6 million salary into a signing bonus to create $7.64 million in cap space. His cap figure last season was just $4.25 million, but those figures jump to $15.65 million in 2023, $18.74 million in 2024, $19.24 million in 2025 and $19.91 million in 2026 — with no guaranteed money the last two years of the deal.
Cornerback Carlton Davis III is another restructure candidate, as he’s set to make $14.5 million. A simple restructure would save the Bucs $6.71 million while a simple restructure for Vea could save them $8.57 million.
Another thought would be signing some core young players to early extensions and backloading their contracts. Devin White is set to count $11 million toward the cap in his fifth and final year, while nickelback Antoine Winfield Jr. is set to count $3.71 million against the cap. There’s nothing prohibiting the Bucs from doing those deals now.
Free agent decisions
The Bucs will have some key decisions to make this offseason, aside from how to address the quarterback situation and David, particularly in their defensive backfield. Cornerback Jamel Dean took his game up several notches this past season to earn the role of an outside starter opposite Davis.
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who was previously a starter before being beaten out by Dean, will also be a free agent. His versatility to play outside and nickelback is also a plus. But if they had to choose between him and Dean, Dean’s 6-foot-1 size and 4.3 40-yard dash time may help make the decision easy.
Safety Mike Edwards, who earned his way into a starting role but did not have the ball production the team had hoped for in an extended role, will also be a free agent.
There’s also decisions to be made about defensive lineman William Gholston, who has been with the team since 2013 and has not missed a game in the past five seasons, and outside linebacker Anthony Nelson, who led the Bucs with three forced fumbles and contributed 5.5 sacks last year, tied for second on the team.