The first order of business for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their Super Bowl LV title defense was to keep free agency from stripping away some of the core players who helped the team go all the way in 2020. That effort began before the official start of NFL free agency on March 17 but has continued on for weeks afterward. Not only have the Buccaneers succeeded in bringing back all 22 players who started in the Super Bowl but they've even maintained most of the depth that could have been thinned by free agency departures.
Our 2021 Free Agency Tracker has followed this effort, move by move, beginning with the franchise tag placed on wide receiver Chris Godwin and continuing to several more signings in April as the NFL Draft approaches. Here's where the team stands about a month into the free agency period:
The Buccaneers can't possibly match the magnitude of their Brady signing from a year ago, but free agency does generally bring a new veteran or two into the fold. Last year, for instance, on the same day the Bucs landed Brady they also signed tackle Joe Haeg, who ended up in a key reserve role. Still, given the amount of work the team is doing to keep its own highly-valued players around, the Bucs may not be one of the more active teams on the market.
"For us I don't know how many outsiders we're even going to look at," said Head Coach Bruce Arians in February. "If we can keep our guys and then hit the draft again like we have the last few years, we're going to be in great shape."
Indeed, the Bucs were nearly a month into free agency before they signed a player from another team. Bernard, who was released by the Bengals on April 7 after eight seasons in Cincinnati, signed with the Bucs one week later. His 342 catches and 2,687 receiving yards both rank third among all NFL running backs since he entered the league in 2013.
For the second year in a row, the Buccaneers made the expected move with their franchise tag, using it to ensure the return of one of their most important offensive players. Last season, Tampa Bay pulled out the tag for the first time in nearly a decade to make sure the NFL's reigning sack king, Shaquil Barrett, didn't get away. Barrett ended up being one of the most productive defensive players for the Super Bowl champions.
Godwin signed the franchise tag on March 18, meaning he will, at the least, remain a Buccaneer in 2021. However, he and the Buccaneers still have until mid-July to work on a longer-term deal, if they so desire. By using the franchise tag on Godwin, the Buccaneers kept their incredible starting receiver duo intact, with Mike Evans currently playing on a contract that runs through 2023. However, each team can only use one tag per year, so the decision to place it on Godwin meant potentially letting such key players as Barrett, Lavonte David and Ndamukong Suh hit the open market. Fortunately, as noted in the section below, the Bucs were able to bring those players back, as well.
More good news followed not long after Godwin got the tag shortly before the deadline for the team to use it on March 10. Two days later, inside linebacker Lavonte David agreed on another multi-year contract to stay in Tampa, the third contract of his career with the only NFL team he has known. The Buccaneers were eager to retain one of the best players in franchise history and one half of one of the league's best inside linebacker tandems alongside third-year man Devin White.
The David signing (and a contract extension for Tom Brady that created valuable cap space) capped the final full week before free agency, and then the Bucs got busy again before the start of free agency. Barrett officially signed his new multi-year deal to stay in Tampa on Wednesday. He ranks second in the NFL with 27.5 sacks over the past two seasons, coinciding with his arrival in Tampa, and his value was never more evident than after his huge performances in games 19 and 20 of 2020. The Buccaneers also retained two key front-seven reserves by re-signing Minter and Nunez-Roches on March 20. Minter was a special teams captain in 2020 and the top fill-in at inside linebacker, while Nunez-Roches stepped up and started 15 games at nose tackle after an injury to Vita Vea. Though it wasn't officially done until April 5, the Buccaneers completed their quest to retain all 22 starters in the Super Bowl when Ndamukong Suh signed a new deal.
The Buccaneers also maintained some continuity on offense when they re-signed Gronkowski on March 22. The veteran tight end arrived last spring via a trade with New England after ending a one-year retirement from the NFL and ended up starting all 20 games in 2020. His 623 receiving yards on 45 catches ranked third on the team during the regular season, and he also tied for second with seven touchdown grabs. In the postseason, he added eight more catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns, with both scores coming in the team's Super Bowl LV victory. A little more than a week later, on March 31, Fournette also inked a new deal to stay with the champs. Fournette emerged as a force in the playoffs, setting franchise postseason records with 448 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns.
The Buccaneers re-signed Succop on March 25, keeping the kicker who made 37 of 40 field goal tries in his first season with the team, including the playoffs. Succop is likely to become the first player to start consecutive seasons as the Bucs' kicker since Connor Barth in 2011-12.
Stinnie was due to become a restricted free agent on Wednesday afternoon if the Buccaneers extended the necessary qualifying offer, but he instead signed a new deal just before that deadline. He started the last three games of the postseason at right guard after Alex Cappa suffered a fractured foot and acquitted himself nicely. The Bucs also retained some valuable offensive line depth when they re-signed Wells on March 30.
Hudson, Ledbetter and O'Connor were all due to become exclusive rights free agents upon getting a one-year tender offer from the Buccaneers but essentially just signed new one-year contracts instead about a week before free agency. O'Connor was the most active of the three in 2020, playing extensively on special teams and occasionally on defense and appearing in all 16 games.
Most recently, the Buccaneers re-signed veteran CB Ross Cockrell, who helped keep the secondary solid while several starters dealt with minor injuries. He played 271 snaps on defense, playoffs included, and worked both in the slot and on the outside. On the next day, the team also inked a deal with veteran defensive lineman Steve McLendon, who was originally acquired in a trade last October.
Players Released, Traded and/or Signed by Other Teams
Adams, who primarily played on special teams in 2020 but made 15 starts for the Bucs during the 2018-19 seasons, signed with the Eagles as an unrestricted free agent on March 18. Six days later, the Steelers announced the signing of several players, including Haeg, who spent one season with the Buccaneers and was used extensively down the stretch as an eligible sixth lineman in jumbo offensive sets. Near the end of March, Smith, one of the team's top special teams players in recent seasons, signed with the Chargers. The fourth free agent to depart for another team was Auclair, a fifth-year tight end known for his blocking who signed with the Houston Texans.
Remaining Unrestricted Free Agents
- RB Kenjon Barner
- WR Antonio Brown
- ILB Deone Bucannon
- ILB Jack Cichy*
- QB Blaine Gabbert
- RB T.J. Logan
- RB LeSean McCoy
- C A.Q. Shipley
(* As a potential restricted free agent who did not get a qualifying offer from the Buccaneers, Cichy is in essence an unrestricted free agent, able to sign with any team, including Tampa Bay.)
Players with expired contracts and at least four accrued seasons of free agency credit are unrestricted free agents (UFAs) and can sign with any team. When Super Bowl LV ended, the Buccaneers had 24 players who could have landed in that category on March 17, including seven who started in the title game. However, they have since made very good headway on that list, as noted above.
The Bucs could have taken heavy losses on the defensive front with Suh, Nunez-Roches and McLendon all hitting free agency, but Suh and Nunez-Roches have since re-signed. McLendon, who served as a valuable veteran rotation player after arriving in the aforementioned midseason trade, joined his two teammates in returning to the Bucs when he signed his new deal on April 14.
The Bucs' offensive UFAs originally included every player who scored a touchdown in Super Bowl LV: Gronkowski, Brown and Fournette. All of those players were added between late April and October in 2020 and proved to be very productive players on a loaded offense. Gronkowski was the first of the three to re-sign in Tampa and Fournette followed about a week later. The Bucs also saw both of their backups to Tom Brady hit free agency but Griffin re-signed on April 20.
Remaining Restricted Free Agents
Players with expired contracts and three years of free agency credit become restricted free agents if they are given a tender offer prior to the start of free agency. There have been fewer players in this category since the NFL made four-year deals standard for every draft pick. The players in this category either did not make it through that four-year deal or were undrafted players who got shorter original deals. The Buccaneers had two potential restricted free agents this year in Stinnie and inside linebacker Jack Cichy but re-signed Stinnie and did not extend a tender offer to Cichy.
Remaining Exclusive Rights Free Agents
Long-snapper Zach Triner was the fourth player on the roster to fall into this category, essentially, along with Hudson, Ledbetter and O'Connor. Exclusive rights free agents have an expired contract and two or fewer years of free agency credit. There is no difference between the latter three and Triner; Triner simply didn't have the opportunity to sign the tender or a new contract yet until early April. He handled all of the Bucs' long-snapping duties the last two seasons without incident.