A year ago, the newly-minted Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers were facing a situation that was equal parts certainty and uncertainty. The Buccaneers, with Tom Brady at the helm and a loaded roster, were certain they could make another run at the Lombardi Trophy. However, a good chunk of that roster was potentially facing free agency in 2021 and it was unclear how the Buccaneers could keep their core together and dance around a delicate salary cap situation.
Jason Licht and company had some nifty dance moves, as it turned out, and the Buccaneers managed to bring back every single Super Bowl starter and nearly every contributor on the depth chart. The Bucs were strong contenders for the title again, tying for the NFL's best regular-season record at 13-4, but eventually lost to the Los Angeles Rams in the Divisional Round.
As the 2022 offseason approaches, the Buccaneers again face a long list of potential free agents but no longer have Brady, who retired in late January. Brady was one of nine Pro Bowlers for Tampa Bay in 2021, and seven of the other eight are under contract for the 2022 campaign. The Buccaneers clearly still have a talented roster, but the need for a new answer at the game's most important position makes this go-around more of a double dose of uncertainty.
Depending upon what happens over the next five weeks, nearly two-dozen players from the Bucs' 2021 roster could become unrestricted free agents (UFAs) when the new league year begins on March 16. Some of those players are repeats from last year's list. Chris Godwin played the 2021 season on the franchise tag, meaning he's in need of a new deal. Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette and Ndamukong Suh all took one year deals, or contracts with automatically voiding years after 2021. Some of the players on the list are young and still improving standouts who are just reaching the end of their rookie deals, like Carlton Davis, Jordan Whitehead and Alex Cappa.
The Bucs won't get all of their 23 potential UFAs back, and some won't be nearly as high of a priority as others. But Head Coach Bruce Arians says the Bucs were going to focus on replicating last year's free agency success as much as they can. 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
March 14: S Jordan Whitehead
March 15: C Ryan Jensen
This list is subject to change based on potential roster moves in the coming weeks. However, today we will start with a player who first must make his own decision about following Tom Brady into retirement or not before deciding where he is going to play in 2022.
Player: Rob Gronkowski
Position: Tight End
Age at the Start of the 2022 Season: 33
Experience: Entering 12th NFL season (also spent one season, 2019, in retirement)
How Acquired: Acquired in a trade with New England after he returned from retirement
Previous Contract(s): After playing his first season in Tampa on the final year of his previous contract with the Patriots, Gronkowski signed a new one-year deal with the Buccaneers last offseason that included four years that automatically void in March. He previously played on a rookie deal and then a six-year contract extension in New England.
Rank in Pro Football Focus Top 100 NFL Free Agents for 2021**:** 35th. PFF comment: "Gronkowski has been the quintessential all-around tight end during his Hall of Fame career, and he still has many of those same characteristics, albeit a step below where he once was. He's one of the few tight ends who can play on the line against defensive ends in the run game but also line up outside and create mismatches as a receiver."
2021 Performance: Gronkowski was very good in 2021, even better than in his first season with the Buccaneers, which he capped with two touchdowns in Super Bowl LV. He finished fourth on the team with 55 catches and third with 802 receiving yards. He wasn't quite as fortunate on the health front as when he started all 20 games in 2020, missing four games and most of a fifth due to ribs and back injuries, but that only serves to make his production in 2021 more impressive. His average of 66.8 yards per game ranked third among all NFL tight ends, behind only Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews.
Gronkowski also continued to be one of the NFL's best blocking tight ends, which is why he was on the field for 80% of the Bucs' offensive snaps when he was active for the game, and that includes his six-snap outing in Week Eight at New Orleans before aggravating his injury. No other Buccaneer tight end played more than 40% of the offensive snaps. Gronkowski's blocking added to a star-studded offensive line (three Pro Bowl selections) to help the Bucs allow the fewest sacks in the NFL in 2021.
If Gronkowski does decide to retire, he'll ride back into the sunset on a hot streak, as he and Brady repeatedly exploited their long-established connection over the final month of the season. Gronkowski had 115 and 137-yard outings to finish the regular season, scored on one of his five catches in the Wild Card win over Philadelphia and then caught four passes for 85 yards against the Rams.
Career Accomplishments: Gronkowski is simply one of the most prolific tight ends in NFL history, and given how much he adds as a blocker, is in the conversation for the title of best ever at his position. Gronkowski's career mark of 9,286 receiving yards is fifth in NFL history for his position and his average of 64.9 yards per game is second only to Kelce's 70.9. Gronkowski's 92 touchdown catches in the regular season rank third all-time among tight ends.
His 1,327 yards in 2011, his second NFL season, were a single-season NFL record for tight ends at the time, though it has been topped four times since, twice by Kelce and once each by Andrews and George Kittle. Gronkowski's 17 touchdown catches that same year set a record that still stands. In all, he recorded four 1,000-yard seasons and five double-digit touchdown seasons.
When Gronkowski's postseason production is added in, he is nearly peerless at his position. His 1,389 receiving yards and 17 touchdown catches in the playoffs are both NFL records, though Kelce is close on both lists. Gronkowski's career average of 9.52 yards per target, postseason included, is the best in league history for a tight end.
Other Potential Free Agent Tight Ends: Zach Ertz (Arizona), C.J. Uzomah (Cincinnati), Gerald Everett (Seattle), David Njoku (Cleveland), Evan Engram (N.Y. Giants), Maxx Williams (Arizona), Mo Alie-Cox (Indianapolis), Robert Tonyan (Green Bay), Mike Gesicki (Miami), O.J. Howard (Tampa Bay), Hayden Hurst (Atlanta), Jared Cook (L.A. Chargers), Eric Ebron (Pittsburgh)
Top Tight End Prospects in 2022 NFL Draft: Trey McBride (Colorado State), Jalen Wydermeyer (Texas A&M), Cade Otton (Washington), Isaiah Likely (Coastal Carolina), Jahleel Billingsley (Alabama), Jake Ferguson (Wisconsin), Trae Berry (Boston College), Cole Turner (Nevada), Josh Whyle (Cincinnati), Greg Dulcich (UCLA), Jeremy Ruckert (Ohio State)