Last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made their first move aimed at paring down a long list of potential free agents and trying to keep the core a playoff-caliber roster intact. Eager to retain the services of sixth-year wide receiver Chris Godwin and running up against the deadline to make use of their franchise tag, the Buccaneers went that route with Godwin for the second year in a row, though negotiations on a longer-term contract may still be ongoing.
That move came eight days before start of free agency and just six days before a 52-hour window in which teams can contact the agents for pending unrestricted free agents (UFAs), potentially working out deals that can be made official on March 16. So while the movement on Godwin was positive the Buccaneers – like many NFL teams – have a lot left to do in a short period of time if they want to retain their own key free agents. Even with Godwin off the list, the Bucs have 22 potential UFAs, including 10 who started at least 10 games in 2021, playoffs included.
One of those 2021 starters is safety Jordan Whitehead, who is part of a young secondary that was mostly built through the 2018-20 drafts, as the Buccaneers repeatedly invested second, third and fourth-round picks on corners and safeties over those three years. While the results were mostly good – particularly when that young secondary jelled in the postseason during the 2020 run to the Super Bowl LV title – but now those draft picks are starting to age towards their second contracts. The first two to come duo are Whitehead and cornerback Carlton Davis, both 2018 selections.
The Bucs won't be able to keep all 22 of those potential free agents, but they'll try to keep as much of their playoff-caliber core intact as possible. And so, in the weeks leading up to the start of the new league year, we are going to look at 10 key players who are currently poised to become unrestricted free agents in mid-March. This is the full schedule of our 2022 Free Agent Focus rundown:
February 15: TE Rob Gronkowski
February 17: G Alex Cappa
February 22: CB Carlton Davis
February 24: QB Blaine Gabbert
March 1: DL Ndamukong Suh
March 3: RB Leonard Fournette
March 8: DL Will Gholston
March 10: WR Chris Godwin – UPDATE: The Bucs placed their franchise tag on Godwin.
March 14: S Jordan Whitehead
March 15: C Ryan Jensen
The placement of the franchise tag on Godwin last week took him off this list and forced us to skip our eighth installment. However, we return today to focus on a player who has spent most of his four seasons so far as starter and who has emerged as one of the Buccaneers' hardest-hitting defenders.
Player: Jordan Whitehead
Age at the Start of the 2022 Season: 25
Experience: Entering fifth NFL season
How Acquired: Selected in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft
Previous Contract(s): Whitehead has finished the standard four-year contract he got as a draft pick selected after the first round.
Rank in Pro Football Focus Top 200 NFL Free Agents for 2021*:* 64th. PFF comment: "Whitehead is an enforcer type in an NFL that's trending toward more coverage bodies at the safety position. When he's at linebacker depth and moving toward the line of scrimmage, there are few safeties in the NFL better at making an impact."
2021 Performance: Whitehead missed the 2021 opener due to a preseason hamstring injury and lost two more contests in December to a calf strain but was otherwise one of the Buccaneers' steadiest defenders last season. He started 16 total games, including the playoffs, and was on the field for 89% of the defensive snaps in those games, sometimes switching out with ball-hawking safety Mike Edwards in obvious passing situations.
Whitehead finished fourth on the Bucs' defense with 74 tackles, five of which were for loss. He also secured two interceptions and broke up eight passes, adding one forced fumble and one quarterback hit. He often did his best work while closer to the line of scrimmage; his NFL Next Gen pre-snap heat map shows him lined up in the box more frequently than deep in the secondary, and the vast majority of his tackles came within 10 yards of the line.
Whitehead emerged as a tone-setter on the Bucs' defense with his hard-hitting style. In the playoffs, he added another 13 tackles, including two behind the line of scrimmage.
Career Accomplishments: Whitehead's playing time and production has been remarkably consistent over his first four NFL seasons. He has played in between 14 and 16 games each season, has notched between 11 and 16 starts, has ranged from 69 to 76 total tackles per year and has averaged about six passes defensed and tackles for loss per campaign.
In each of the past two years, Whitehead has recorded two interceptions and one forced fumble. He also forced two fumbles during the Buccaneers' 2020 postseason run to the title, including a critical one by Green Bay running back Aaron Jones that quickly led to a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game.
Other Potential Free Agent Safeties: Marcus Williams (New Orleans), Tyrann Mathieu (Kansas City), Quandre Diggs (Seattle), Marcus Maye (N.Y. Jets), Jayron Kearse (Dallas), Devin McCourty (New England), Kareem Jackson (Denver), Justin Reid (Houston), Xavier Woods (Minnesota), Terrell Edmunds (Pittsburgh), DeShon Elliott (Baltimore), Jabrill Peppers (N.Y. Giants), Ronnie Harrison (Cleveland), Anthony Harris (Philadelphia), Jaquiski Tartt (San Francisco)
Top Safety Prospects in 2022 NFL Draft: Kyle Hamilton (Notre Dame), Lewis Cine (Georgia), Daxton Hill (Michigan), Jaquan Brisker (Penn State), Bryan Cook (Cincinnati), Kerby Joseph (Illinois), Yusuf Corker (Kentucky), Nick Cross (Maryland)