Bucs' free-agency priority: re-signing their own, but it will take work

TAMPA, Fla. -- Now that the confetti has settled on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl LV win, the work begins on positioning themselves for a possible repeat in 2021 with more clarity emerging on the league’s financial state for the new year.

The NFL announced Thursday that the salary-cap floor will be $180 million in 2021, up from $175 million in 2020. The salary-cap ceiling has not been finalized yet, but for reference, the cap was set at $198.2 million in 2020, and with new TV deals on the horizon, NFL owners appear more inclined to borrow from future years versus risking a major drop in the cap, which would impact free agency significantly.

With roughly $30 million in salary-cap space, the Bucs’ biggest priority is re-signing their own, even as other outside free agents start coming out of the woodwork expressing a desire to play with seven-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady. It won’t be feasible financially to bring back everyone, nor give everyone what they want. They’ll have to restructure some current deals, likely borrow from future years and rely on Brady’s ability to corral teammates to make sacrifices for the common good. They can bring back several of their most important players. Here’s a look at their top free agents and a forecast on where they end up.

Key pillars

Lavonte David, linebacker

Considered the “heart and soul” of the Bucs’ locker room, many in the organization feel David, a Bucs second-round draft pick in 2012, should never put on another uniform. Coach Bruce Arians said onstage at the Super Bowl parade that David “ain’t going nowhere.” Fellow linebacker Devin White also said he wouldn’t play without him, and together, they’ve formed arguably the best inside linebacking tandem in the league.

David was second on the team in tackles (117) and tackles for loss (14) behind White. Even after nine seasons, at age 31, David is playing at a high level. He earned $10.75 million last season. That number is going to have to come up, but how much?

The Seattle Seahawks' Bobby Wagner is the highest-paid inside linebacker in the league, averaging $18 million a year, and he’s 30, but his deal is backloaded. Wagner's cap number was $14.75 million last year, but in 2022, it jumps to $20.35 million.

The Bucs don’t typically structure contacts that way, but Wagner's deal is a clear example of borrowing from future spending to capitalize on a small window. If the Bucs did that, it would be to capitalize on the second year of Brady's two-year contract.

Shaquil Barrett, linebacker

Barrett told ESPN that he planned to return in 2021. But he’s also looking for a big payday after playing under the franchise tag in 2020 when his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, and the Bucs weren’t able to agree on a long-term deal. He wants long-term stability for his family.

Barrett, who had a breakout season in 2019 with 19.5 sacks, was third on the team in 2020 in sacks (8) and TFL (12.5). If the Bucs franchise-tagged him two years in a row, they’d owe him 120% of what they paid him in 2020 -- nearly $19 million in 2021, which is about what his market value is projected at.

Chris Godwin, wide receiver

It would be hard to envision any scenario where the Bucs allow Godwin to leave. A home-grown third-round draft pick in 2017, Godwin enjoyed a Pro Bowl breakout year in 2019, finishing with 1,333 receiving yards -- third most in the league -- despite missing two games. This season, the 24-year-old Godwin had 840 yards and seven touchdowns in 12 games.

Some have asked how the Bucs can afford to pay both Mike Evans and Godwin. But Evans has already expressed his willingness to take pay cuts and restructure to keep the band together. He’s already restructured his contract multiple times.

“We know he’s up but I hope we do everything in our power to keep him,” Evans said of Godwin after the Super Bowl. “He’s such an unbelievable player and teammate. If we don’t have Chris Godwin, it’s going to be so tough for me and the squad as well.”

Arians said Thursday of Godwin, “He loves it here. It’s hard to leave and go to another system just for money. But it’s not bad paying two No. 1 receivers -- that’s for sure -- when they’re as good as our two No. 1s.”

It’s possible Godwin gets franchise-tagged. The cost to tag him would be about $16.5 million, whereas his market value is considered around $17 million a year. Evans’ cap number is $16.6 million in 2021. A long-term deal could structure Godwin to be more cap-friendly.

Question marks

Rob Gronkowski, tight end

Gronkowski’s former teammate and ESPN analyst Rob Ninkovich predicted that Gronkowski won’t play in Tampa next season, which would be a surprise based on everything that transpired over the past year. Gronkowski came out of retirement specifically to join Brady, one of his best friends. He found a coach in Arians who allows him to be himself -- something he didn’t have in New England and said he appreciates. He also got through the entire season and postseason without missing a game and has credited Arians for helping him stay healthy by giving him "veteran days" off, something he hadn’t had previously.

Gronkowski is also now in close proximity to his mother, Diane Walters, who lives in Fort Myers. Money and accolades aren’t necessarily the driving force for Gronkowski, who retired with $54 million prior to the Bucs trading for his rights and earning $10 million with the Bucs last season, and he has scores of endorsement deals. At this phase in his life, it’s about balance, personal fulfillment, enjoyment, his family and his long-term health. For those reasons, it’s hard to envision him playing anywhere else but Tampa Bay. However, they’ve already exercised the fifth-year option on O.J. Howard for 2021, and they’ll owe Cam Brate $6.5 million in 2021, although he has agreed to take a pay cut before. Compromises will need to be made here.

Antonio Brown, wide receiver

The Bucs took a major chance on Brown by bringing him into their organization and it paid off, giving a huge boost to their offense in a year where their wide receiving corps was plagued by injuries. He even led the Bucs with 49 targets in the final seven weeks of the regular season.

Despite missing the second half of the NFC divisional playoff against the New Orleans Saints and the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers with a knee injury, Brown’s two touchdowns were tied for fourth most in the league this postseason. His versatility in the short, intermediate and deep passing game provided another dimension to the offense.

Brown said right after the Super Bowl how grateful he was that Tampa Bay embraced him and that a return next year would “mean everything” to him. He got to spend the season with Brady, a mentor. He was given a stern warning that if he messed up once, he was gone. But he bought into the team-first concept, he stayed very focused in practices and avoided being a distraction.

Will he continue to go in the right direction without the structure of a season? The trial for his sexual assault civil suit has been moved to December 2021, which could affect his availability should the Bucs bring him back next season. Those are two questions that will need to be answered, but Brady will advocate for him to return. Another one-year, incentive-laden deal could work like the one he had last year.

Ndamukong Suh, defensive line

The 11-year vet continued to play at a high level in 2020, accounting for 7.5 sacks mostly in the absence of Vita Vea while earning $8 million. Considering he made $9.25 million in 2019, he’s demonstrated a willingness to take less, and considering Vea’s injury history, they’ll need someone with high durability there. The Bucs would love to have the 34-year-old Suh back if they can get him at the right price, but it’s also not far-fetched to think that they could go younger in this spot too in order to allocate resources toward some of their skill positions.

Not likely to return

Leonard Fournette, running back

Fournette has said on numerous occasions that playing as a backup was a huge challenge for him last season. He eventually came to embrace that role before Ronald Jones, who led the team with 192 carries to 97 for Fournette, suffered a finger injury and was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Fournette took over, leading the NFL with 448 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns in the postseason. But the only way Fournette stays is with a change in hierarchy of running backs, and that doesn’t seem likely. He played on a one-year deal worth $2 million.