The NFL's 2020 calendar year begins on Wednesday, March 18, with the free agent market opening at 4 p.m. ET. That's an important date for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who can't help but be players in free agency, if only due to their own expiring contracts and an interesting salary cap situation. The Buccaneers currently have 19 players who could become unrestricted free agents on that mid-March Wednesday, and they have more than $90 million of estimated cap space, pending any re-signings in the interim.
The Buccaneers have 10 weeks to figure out how to approach this year's market and their own roster, and potentially to reduce that number of pending UFAs. In those 10 weeks, we're going to take a position-by-position look at what the Bucs have, who they could lose and who they could look at from other teams on the open market. Our 2020 Free Agency Primers begins this week with the offensive line.
2019 Output: Whatever numbers one wants to associate specifically with the offensive line, one has to start with the overall output of the offense. Tampa Bay set a single-season franchise records in 2019 with 458 points, demolishing the previous mark of 396, and while six defensive touchdowns helped there's no arguing that the offense could move the chains and find the end zone. The Bucs averaged nearly 400 yards per game, ranking third in the NFL, and was excellent in the red zone, ranking fourth with a 64.8% touchdown rate. Tampa Bay led the NFL in passing yards and had the most plays of 20 or more yards in the league, which doesn't happen without solid pass protection.
On a more granular level, the final numbers were middling. Jameis Winston was sacked 47 times but he also led the NFL with 677 drop-backs. The Bucs' line (plus tight ends and running backs) allowed a sacks-per-pass-play rate of 7.46%, which was almost exactly in the middle of the NFL pack. Tampa Bay's rushing attack was not particularly productive for much of the season, ranking 24th in yards per game (95.1) and 28th in yards per carry (3.72). The Bucs did at least finish strong in that category, with a pair of 100-yard games to finish the season, both of which included yards-per-carry marks of 5.0 or better.
Stat pages for offensive linemen generally stop at games played and games started, and in those categories at least the Bucs had good fortune in 2019. The team's five opening-day linemen combined to make 75 of a possible 80 starts, with only right guard Alex Cappa missing more than one outing. Left tackle Donovan Smith did see his career-opening streak of 77 straight starts end due to knee and ankle injuries in Week 14.
View some of the top behind-the-scenes photos from the Buccaneers' 2019 NFL Season.
Under Contract for 2020: The Buccaneers don't have to do anything to bring back 80% of their starting offensive line, this year or the next. Smith, Cappa and center Ryan Jensen are all signed through 2021 and left guard Ali Marpet is signed through 2023. In fact, while Cappa – a third-round draft pick in 2018 – is obviously still on his team-friendly rookie contract – Smith, Marpet and Jensen are all among the Bucs' top five in terms of 2020 cap hit, for now.
Beyond the starters, the only offensive lineman the Buccaneers have under contract for 2020, from their 2019 active roster, is guard Aaron Stinnie, who was a waiver claim from Tennessee in November. The team did recently sign two offensive linemen to reserve/future contracts for 2020 in Anthony Fabiano and Brad Seaton, both of whom had long 2019 stints on the practice squad.
Buccaneers' Pending Free Agents: The key name on this list is Demar Dotson, who has been the Buccaneers' starting right tackle for most of the past decade, when healthy. Dotson started 15 of 16 games in 2019, a season in which he turned 34 in October. However, that was the final year of the deal he signed with the Buccaneers in 2016, after the team picked up one final option year for 2019. One of the best undrafted free agent finds in team history, Dotson has signed and renegotiated several new contracts with the Buccaneers along the way but has never really explored the open market.
Other than the aforementioned Stinnie, the Bucs' O-Line reserves all could hit that market, as well. The team signed veteran Josh Wells in September after he was let go by the Jaguars and he served as the swing tackle all season, making one start each at left and right tackle. The Bucs also a small trade (swapping late 2021 draft picks with Pittsburgh) to get tackle Jerald Hawkins right before the season, though he only played three offensive snaps all season. The Bucs' most active O-Line reserve was veteran Earl Watford, who signed a one-year deal last spring as an unrestricted free agent, reuniting with his former Arizona head coach, Bruce Arians. Wells, Hawkins and Watford are all due to be unrestricted free agents in March.
Potentially Available Free Agents: These lists will be more solid as we get closer to the start of free agency, and Anthony Castonzo is a good example of that. The Colts' veteran tackle – one of the few players who was in Indy when Arians was the head coach for most of 2012 – is due to be an unrestricted free agent but may never hit the market. He is reportedly mulling retirement and will likely choose between hanging it up or returning for another year with the Colts.
There are some other high-profile tackles who could be available in March, though. That includes a pair of 38-year-olds in the Eagles' Jason Peters and the Rams' Andrew Whitworth, both of whom were still starting this past offseason. Should they choose to continue it would not likely be on long-term deals. In contrast, Bryan Bulaga has been the Packers' right tackle for a decade but is still just 31 as he approaches potential free agency. Bulaga has had some injury issues along the way but has been quite good when healthy. Like Bulaga, Tennessee right tackle Jack Conklin is a former first-round pick (eighth overall in 2016) and he's also a potential unrestricted free agent because Tennessee chose not to exercise his fifth-year option. Conklin had his best year yet in 2019 as part of a Titans' front line that is currently dominating in the playoffs.
There are two potential free agent tackles who previously played under Arians in Arizona: the Cardinals' D.J. Humphries and the Packers' Jared Veldheer. Another former first-round pick, Humphries has had injury issues but was able to start all 16 games this past season and is only 26; his best seasons may be ahead. Veldheer has bounced around but he was most recently seen filling in for Bulaga in the Packers' win over Seattle on Sunday. Guard Mike Iupati made the Pro Bowl under Arians in 2015 and was the Seahawks' left guard this past season, though he missed that game in Green Bay due to a neck injury. The Buccaneers went down this path last year with Watford, who had been a solid and versatile lineman for Arians in the desert.
In the category of former reserves or part-time starters potentially looking for a more solid starting spot are Philadelphia's Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Seattle's George Fant. Vaitai did a good job replacing Peters for a good portion of the Eagles' 2017 Super Bowl season and has also filled in for Lane Johnson on the right side. Fant has started 24 games over eight seasons for the Seahawks.
The top potential free agents on the interior line are probably Washington's Brandon Scherff and New England's Joe Thuney. Scherff was the fifth-overall pick in 2015 and as such many expected him to move to tackle, but the Redskins have kept him at guard and that has paid off with three Pro Bowl invites in five seasons. Washington did exercise their fifth-year option on Scherff but that contract is now up. Thuney was a third-round pick but he has started every game for the Patriots since arriving in 2016. A lesser-known name to keep in mind on the interior line is Denver's Connor McGovern, a fifth-round pick in 2016 who started out at guard but moved to center this season to replace the departed Matt Paradis and acquitted himself nicely on the pivot.
Teams will mostly shop from the unrestricted aisle this spring but Pittsburgh tackle Matt Feiler, a potential restricted free agent, could draw some interest. A former undrafted free agent, Feiler spent most of two seasons on the Steelers' practice squad but has since replaced Marcus Gilbert at right tackle and had a strong 2019, starting all 16 games. By the way, Gilbert is also a pending free agent after being traded to the Cardinals and then spending all of 2019 on injured reserve.
Bucs' Interest Level: Low.
That assessment is based largely on the fact that the Buccaneers already have three big contracts on their offensive line and are likely to roll with the other starter, Cappa, after a promising first season at right guard. With so many of their own free agents to re-sign, potentially, and with more glaring needs (pending potential departures) on the defensive front and possibly quarterback, it would seem unlikely that the Buccaneers would invest another big contract on the offensive line. That's particularly true given that this year's draft class appears to be deep in blockers.
The top O-Line free agents like Scherff and Conklin are likely to get very big deals. Perhaps the Buccaneers would be bargain shoppers along the line, given that their own depth could be gutted by free agency. A signing in the shape of last year's addition of Watford could make sense, and perhaps Arians will seek another reunion with one of the former Cardinals noted above.