A year ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' architects – led by General Manager Jason Licht and Head Coach Bruce Arians – felt they had what was close to a championship-caliber roster. Thus, they devised an aggressive plan to go for it that centered around luring quarterback Tom Brady to Tampa and bringing back a handful of key free agents on defense.
Obviously, they were right and, after pushing their chips to the center of the table they were able to pull back a Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 2020 season. One of the reasons they were able to navigate the potentially corrosive waters of free agency without any damage was the team's approach to contract structuring over the past decade.
For years, the Buccaneers have favored contracts that didn't have large signing or roster bonuses – which for cap services get spread out over the life of the contract and can potentially lead to "dead money" – and featured large yearly salaries up front. That allows the team to maintain a lot of salary cap flexibility from year to year and avoid seasons when cap problems limit what they can do. It also allows them to strike when the time is right and a championship may be in reach.
"The reason a lot of those contracts were set up that way for so long – which [started] before I was even here – is so when you get to a point where you have a very successful team and you want to try to keep as many of the core players that you can together," said Licht on Wednesday, three weeks before the start of 2021 free agency. "We don't want to do anything that's going to mortgage…completely disrupt the future, but we have flexibility now and the ability to try to keep this team together, as Bruce and I have both been saying."
Last year was the blueprint, as the Bucs went into the 2020 league year with a large amount of cap space but needed most of it to sign Tom Brady; retain front seven standouts Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh; and eventually make such important on-the-fly additions as Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown. The Bucs approach another large group of pending free agents – including Barrett and Suh again, plus Gronkowski, Fournette, Brown, Lavonte David, Chris Godwin and Ryan Succop – with perhaps not as much obvious cap space as a year ago but still with the flexibility to make it work again.
"We're in great shape," said Arians. "Jason and [Director of Football Administration] Mike Greenberg have done a great job of keeping us in a great spot that way. It comes down to dollars and cents, but it also comes down to fit. Guys know where they fit. I think these guys all know they fit here. We'll get the dollars right and hopefully keep this core together."
Arians said the Bucs have already cleared one hurdle in the race to a successful title defense by keeping nearly all of the coaching staff intact, with only Offensive Assistant Antwaan Randle El leaving to coach the receivers in Detroit.
"The next thing now is to keep the players intact, keep the team intact as much as we possibly can without risking future years," he said. "Jason and I will work together as hard as we can to keep the core guys. We started it last year, saying if we could keep the defense together, we would have a chance. And we kept the defense together, then all of a sudden we got Tom Brady and that was the icing on the cake. It led to a Super Bowl.
And added benefit to that flexibility, if the Bucs can once again use it to keep all or most of their targeted players, is that it would then lead to a different kind of flexibility on draft weekend. Last April, the Buccaneers had a pretty clear need at right tackle and even traded up a spot in the first round to make sure they could land Tristan Wirfs at number 13. The Bucs are way down at the 32nd pick now, for the best possible reason, but they may not be constrained by any positional need when they are on the clock.
"We felt like we had a very strong team last year," said Licht. "I think last year proved that a lot of depth at key positions helped us get to our goal, winning the Super Bowl. So right now, as BA said, we're trying to keep that core together. Then, if we can keep that core together, we can address other areas but we have to also address areas of future needs. And we haven't been in that position for a long time since I've been here. If we are able to keep our core together there is no immediate, immediate need that we're going to need. So the picks that Bruce and I and our staff will make could either affect future needs or just be luxury picks that could help us. It leaves us in a position to take really good football players and not just direct our attention to one or two particular positions."