In March of 2015, I posted a story attempting to list the 20 greatest unrestricted free agent signings in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history. I had done the same exercise about seven years earlier but wanted to updated it, primarily because of the success wide receiver Vincent Jackson had found in the first three years of the five-year contract he signed with the team in 2012. My contention at the time was that Jackson had joined Simeon Rice, Hardy Nickerson and Brad Johnson as the four UFA additions that clearly ranked above the rest in franchise annals.
Well, I updated that list again for a story in 2020, mostly to decide where outside linebacker Shaq Barrett would fit after just one season, given that this one season happened to include an NFL-leading and team-record 19.5 sacks. I slotted Barrett in at fifth, which is pretty bold after just one season, but he certainly has not made me regret that choice over the subsequent two seasons.
That list was posted in early January of 2020. The last paragraph ended as such:
"So here's the updated list: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers Top 20 Free Agent Signings. So far." (Emphasis added.)
So far. Well, just two months later the Buccaneers made one of the most noteworthy free agency signings in NFL history. After 20 seasons, 10 Super Bowl appearances and six titles, quarterback Tom Brady stunningly left the New England Patriots and sought a new challenge and a new chapter to his career in Tampa. You all know what happened next.
Since it's only been two years since the last one, I didn't want to write a whole new "20 Best UFAs in Team History" article. But Brady has now retired so I wanted to answer the question of where he would fit into the list. Plus, I think there's one more player who has clearly proved himself worthy of addition since the last time I tackled this. Also, does Barrett stay at five or move up or down? Let's see.
A couple notes: As was the case with the previous articles, we are only considering players who were officially unrestricted free agent signings from other teams. One notable recent signing, defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, was not technically a UFA or he would probably go on the list. Other players you won't find are ones who were cut from their teams before signing with the Bucs (not technically UFAs), such as Keenan McCardell, or players already with the Bucs who briefly became UFAs before re-signing with the team, such as Leonard Fournette last year. And remember, Rob Gronkowski was actually acquired via trade.
So here was my list from 2020, which was originally presented with 20 at the top counting down to number one. I'm listing them the other way here and just giving you the top 10 because, frankly, the list tails off pretty fast.
1. DE Simeon Rice, 2001
2. LB Hardy Nickerson, 1993
3. QB Brad Johnson, 2001
4. WR Vincent Jackson, 2012
5. OLB Shaq Barrett, 2019
6. RB Michael Pittman, 2002
7. DE Greg Spires, 2002
8. CB Martin Mayhew, 1993
9. P Josh Bidwell, 2004
10. WR Joe Jurevicius, 2002
Brady clearly belongs on the list, and I believe Ryan Jensen is now in the top 10, too. There's no reason to rethink my order at the bottom half of this top 10, so that necessarily bumps Bidwell and Jurevicius out of the top 10. So how does my list look now? I think this is it:
1. Tom Brady, 2020
2. DE Simeon Rice, 2001
3. LB Hardy Nickerson, 1993
4. QB Brad Johnson, 2001
5. OLB Shaq Barrett, 2019
6. WR Vincent Jackson, 2012
7. C Ryan Jensen, 2018
8. RB Michael Pittman, 2002
9. DE Greg Spires, 2002
10. CB Martin Mayhew, 1993
So, yeah, I put Brady right at the top of the list. The Bucs went all-in on the G.O.A.T in 2020 even though he was going to be 43 years old by the start of the season. And that all-in bet paid off with the biggest jackpot of all. I don't know how I can put him anywhere but at the top of the list, but that doesn't diminish what the other players up there accomplished.
The Buccaneers won 74.4% of the games in which they had Brady at the helm and played six postseason contests after playing 15 playoff games in their first 44 seasons. The signing of Brady instantly led the franchise to the best two-year stretch in its history. You simply can't have more positive impact than that.
As for Barrett, I did choose to bump him above Jackson because he followed his record-breaking season with eight and 10-sack seasons. He was also a dominant force in the Bucs' 2020 Super Bowl run, particularly in the big game itself. His 37.5 sacks since arriving in Tampa rank fourth in the NFL across that span, as do his 11 forced fumbles. Also, he has now been to two Pro Bowls as a Buccaneer, as compared to one for the late Jackson, who notably finished his five-year contract, which is a relative rarity in today's free agency landscape.
As for Jensen, I almost look at him and Jackson as tied for sixth. Jensen also finished his whole contract, in this case a four-year deal, and essentially got better each season until he was in the Pro Bowl earlier this month. Both players were also clear leaders on the team; I'd probably more specifically call Jensen a tone-setter. Obviously, Jensen won one more Super Bowl ring than Jackson, but it's hard to fault Jackson for that.
Anyway, just as it was in 2020, that list is my opinion and only my opinion. Others here in the building may disagree, as may you.
And now on to your questions.
A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to email@example.com.
Should the Bucs still be considered playoff contenders even after Brady's retirement?
-stossmeissl (via Instagram)
I think so, but I understand why the question will be asked – a lot – in the weeks and months to come.
Look at the eight teams that were left in the Divisional Round and who their quarterbacks were. You had the Bucs and Brady going up against the Rams and Matthew Stafford. The Chiefs and Bills was an epic clash of Patrick Mahomes vs. Josh Allen. The Bengals have everybody's favorite new superstar quarterback in Joe Burrow and the Packers had Aaron Rodgers, the league MVP. Your opinions may vary on the other two – the 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo and the Titans' Ryan Tannehill – but it's probably fair to say that most teams that can get into the second round of the playoffs have a very good quarterback.
Ah, but the question is whether the Bucs will be playoff contenders. In other words, will they be in the battle to be one of the NFC's seven best teams. The Eagles won the seventh spot this past season with a 9-8 record, and that was in a very top-heavy conference in 2021. The last time the NFC had seven teams finish with double-digit wins was 2011, so it's decent bet that it will only take nine wins to get in in 2022. (Yes, I know that a 17th game makes 10 wins a bit more likely for each team, but I still think seven teams with 10-plus wins will remain the exception rather than the rule.)
And anyway, stossmeissl didn't even ask if the Bucs would make the playoffs but rather if they would be playoff contenders. In other words, will Tampa Bay at least be hovering around .500 when December rolls around. That's obviously not the team's goal, not even close, but in this case it satisfies the question.
But I'm probably being a little too cute here. The person who submitted this question was probably thinking more along the lines of if the Buccaneers would remain top playoff contenders, a team that is considered a real threat to win the Super Bowl, as they were the last two years with Brady at the helm. There's absolutely no doubt that Brady's retirement makes the Bucs worse right now. And you can now refer to me as Captain Obvious if you wish. The question is can the Bucs make up for what they lost, either by somehow finding another superstar quarterback or by finding a good solution at quarterback and then incrementally getting better in other ways.
Look at the Cowboys. They went from 6-10 in 2020 to 12-5 in 2021 and there's no doubt that having Dak Prescott for 16 games instead of five was a major reason for that improvement. However, I would argue that the big leap Dallas made on defense in 2021 was at least as responsible for their big turnaround. Yes, the Cowboys led the league in scoring and upped their per-game average from the previous season by about a touchdown per game. But the defense allowed 8.5 fewer points per game in 2021 than it had in 2020, when it was considered a massive Achilles heel for the team. I recall there was not a lot of consensus among prognosticators before this past season about how well Dallas would do because nobody was sure if the defense would be any better. Than Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs happened, and wow. Consider that Dak Prescott also put up superstar numbers in 2019 and that Dallas team went 4-12.
It's a little earlier to guess how successful the Buccaneers will be in their efforts to find a good answer at quarterback, but we can look at the other side of the equation. This is a talented roster up and down. The Bucs just had eight non-Tom Brady players at the Pro Bowl and seven of them are under contract for 2022. Lavonte David is still around, too, and the Bucs have cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting under contract for one more year, at least. David and Pro Bowler Devin White should continue to form one of the best off-ball linebacking duos in the NFL. Young safety Antoine Winfield was one of those eight Pro Bowlers and the Bucs also have ball hawking Mike Edwards under contract for 2022. Pro Bowler Shaq Barrett is still in his prime, 2021 first-round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka could easily double his rookie sack total and fourth-year man Anthony Nelson was coming on strong at the end of the season.
Left tackle Donovan Smith, who had a very strong 2021 season, will still be around, as will Pro Bowl guard Ali Marpet and Pro Bowl right tackle Tristan Wirfs. Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans is a great place for a passing game to start no matter who is under center.
My argument will get stronger if the Bucs can retain some of their own potential free agents, as they have successfully done the past two offseasons and have already made it clear they will try to do so again. If they can keep a good number from among a group that includes Chris Godwin, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa, Leonard Fournette, Aaron Stinnie and Rob Gronkowski (assuming no retirement), the offense should be primed to be one of the league's most productive again provided the quarterback situation is satisfactorily resolved. The defense will hope to retain some combination of players from potential free agents Carlton Davis, Jordan Whitehead, Will Gholston, Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul.
So, to summarize, my first and easy answer to the original question is, yes, it seems very likely to me that the Buccaneers will still be playoff contenders in 2022 without Tom Brady. The overall roster talent is just too good. The more complicated answer is whether they will be prime contenders like they were in 2020 and 2021. I'd say the opportunity is there but it's going to take a good answer at quarterback, some deft work in free agency and some improvements in other areas, particularly on defense.
Could the Bucs be one of the teams chosen to play in Germany next season?
-richter.nikolas (via Instagram)
That is a definite possibility. We already know that the "home teams" for all of this year's International Series games will come from the NFC. With the new 17-game season and the unbalanced home and away slates it creates, the league is alternating which conference gets the ninth home game from season to season. The 17th game will always be an AFC-NFC matchup, and last year all of those games were played on AFC homefields. In 2022, all NFC teams get a ninth home game, which makes it more palatable to move one of those games out of the country, as that would still leave eight games in those team's home stadiums. So already the Buccaneers are one of 16 teams with a chance to host the game in Munich in 2022, not one of 32.
In addition, we now know that every team in the NFL will be the host for at least one International Series game over the next eight years. So it's not a matter of if the Bucs will be the home team for another game out of country, but when.
And of course, where. This year, there will be three International Series games played in London and one each in Mexico City and Munich. If the Buccaneers are chosen to host one of those games, Munich probably makes the most sense. Tampa Bay has already played in London three times and has been featured in both of the stadiums now being used for those contests. And it's worth nothing that, so far, every game played in Mexico City has been hosted by a California team and that three of the four "visiting" teams have come from cities west of the Mississippi River.
Meanwhile, there is another factor working in favor of the Bucs playing their next overseas game in Germany, whether it's this year or in 2024 (when NFC teams are hosting again). In December, the Buccaneers were one of 26 NFL teams to be granted access to a specific International Home Marketing Area (IHMA). The Buccaneers and three other teams were granted Germany as their IHMA, which means they can begin marketing their team in that country in the same way they are allowed to in a 75-mile radius around Tampa.
The IHMAs and the International Series are two separate things, so getting Germany as an IHMA doesn't guarantee the Buccaneers will also play there. However, in announcing these IHMAs, the league made a point of saying that every effort would be made to put teams into International Series games in their own IHMA. That won't be possible for teams that got, say, Brazil or China (at least not yet), but it's certainly possible and seems to make sense for the four teams with Germany.
Those teams are the Bucs, the Carolina Panthers, the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. Given that this is an NFC hosting year, the only two teams that have Germany as an IHMA and are in the NFC are the Bucs and Panthers. That doesn't fully guarantee that the league will tag the Bucs or Panthers, but it certainly gives one reason to believe it could happen. And, technically, the Bucs could be chosen for the game even if they aren't the host team. For instance, the league could move what would have been Bucs-vs.-Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte to Munich.
We won't have to wait too long to find out if the Buccaneers are an International Series host team in 2022. In its release on February 9 announcing Munich and Frankfort as the two German cities in which the games would be played over the next four years, the NFL noted that the host teams would be announced "in the coming weeks." The actual dates and matchups for the game will come out in conjunction with the entire 2022 schedule release later in the spring.
What are the Bucs' biggest draft needs as of now?
-bucs_uk (via Instagram)
I'll take a stab at this now, but we probably should revisit the topic in about five or six weeks. This is posting on February 17 and free agency begins on March 16. The Buccaneers have 23 potential unrestricted free agents; perhaps some of that will be resolved between those two dates, but it's likely that some of those players will at least check out the open market, even if they have some motivation to remain in Tampa. Bruce Arians said after the season-ending loss to the Rams that the Buccaneers would try to bring everybody back like they so famously did last offseason, but that it wouldn't be easy.
So what happens with that long list of free agents is definitely going to have some impact on what the Buccaneers prioritize in the draft. For instance, if Chris Godwin departs in free agency, wide receiver would definitely be near the top of the list. And even if Godwin is back (fingers crossed!), a dynamic third receiver to bunch with him and Mike Evans would be good for an offense that is going to be in some transition.
Similarly, if Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones sign elsewhere, the Buccaneers would be down to Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Kenjon Barner as the only running backs under contract for 2022. Even if the Buccaneers intend to give Vaughn a crack at the lead role they still need more backs to flesh out the room.
Center Ryan Jensen, guard Alex Cappa, cornerback Carlton Davis, safety Jordan Whitehead, defensive linemen Will Gholston and Ndamukong Suh, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and O.J. Howard, outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul – all are potential unrestricted free agents and none are guaranteed to be back in 2022. Who stays and who goes will create deeper and shallower spots on the depth chart, and that will help us narrow down the Bucs' biggest needs.
In the absence of all that information, I'll go with cornerback. Not only does Davis have a shot at free agency this year – barring the franchise tag – but the rookie deals on Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting will be up after next year. Count me among those hoping all three stick around long-term, but even if that does happen it would still be fine to pick up another potential standout cornerback. As I've written many times before and as we saw in rather stark relief this past season, a team can never have enough quality cornerbacks.