The deadline is rapidly approaching for 32 teams across the NFL. Next Wednesday, March 17, the 2021 league year will begin, bringing with it the start of free agency at 4:00 p.m. ET. At that point, any player who has an expiring contract and has not been re-signed or given a franchise tag will have an opportunity to test the open market. There will be departures and new arrivals in every one of those 32 NFL locations.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have already done some work to reduce their potential free agency losses, most notably placing the franchise tag on wide receiver Chris Godwin. The team may also be close to another key re-signing before the end of the week. But there is much more still to be done, as evidenced by this series focusing on some of the players who will need new deals if they are going to be part of the Buccaneers' Super Bowl title defense.
The Buccaneers have a long list of players who could become unrestricted free agents next week. Some of them are sure to be higher priorities than others but the Bucs will in some way or another be looking to fill out an entire 53-man depth chart, including some reserves they will be confident calling upon for key roles if necessary. As free agency approaches, we're looking at 10 of those potential free agents, all of whom played a significant part in the team's 2020 success or filled role that might be difficult to duplicate:
February 16: ILB Lavonte David
February 19: WR Chris Godwin
February 23: RB Leonard Fournette
February 26: K Ryan Succop
March 2: DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches
March 5: QB Blaine Gabbert
March 9: WR Antonio Brown
March 12: TE Rob Gronkowski
March 15: OLB Shaquil Barrett
March 16: DL Ndamukong Suh
This list is subject to change based on potential roster moves in the coming weeks. Today our focus is on a player who only arrived in Tampa a few days before last year's draft but ended up starting all 20 games and making a huge impact, particularly in the final contest at Raymond James Stadium:
Player: Rob Gronkowski
Position: Tight End
Experience: Entering 11th NFL season
How Acquired: The Buccaneers traded a 2020 fourth-round pick to New England for Gronkowski and a 2020 seventh-round pick on April 21. Gronkowski came out of retirement and reunited with his long-time Patriots teammate, Tom Brady.
Previous Contract(s): A second-round pick in 2010, Gronkowski got an initial four-year deal from the Patriots. He then signed a six-year extension in New England to cover the 2014-19 seasons. Since he retired after the 2018 campaign, he still had one year left on that deal when he returned in 2020. The Buccaneers inherited the last year of that contract when they acquired him in the trade.
Rank in Pro Football Focus Top 200 NFL Free Agents for 2021: 58th. PFF Comment: " He's no longer the Hall of Fame-caliber tight end he once was, but Gronkowski is still a versatile blocker and a capable receiving threat. He has enough tools to threaten the defense up the seam or in the red zone, and he's a necessary complementary threat that pairs well with the Bucs' strong receiving corps."
2020 Performance: Because Gronkowski had sat out the 2019 season and hadn't had much offseason work to get back into playing shape, it was expected that his production would start slow and gain steam as the season went on, and that's exactly what happened. He had just two catches for 11 yards in the Bucs' first two games of the season but then hauled in six balls for 48 yards in a Week Three win at Denver. From Weeks 5-8 he started to be a more critical part of the passing attack, catching 17 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns.
All the while, Gronkowski was on the field for the vast majority of the team's offensive snaps, seeing roughly 75% of the playing time in one and two-tight end sets and helping with his strong run and pass-blocking. Then, in Week 12 when he was sharing the field with the tight end who had recently put up the type of numbers Gronkowski did during the peak of his career, Kansas City's Travis Kelce, he caught six passes for 108 yards in a narrow loss to the Chiefs. In the playoffs, Gronkowski had just two catches through the first three games as he spent much of his time blocking for a surging ground game, but in Super Bowl LV he caught six passes for 67 yards and scored the game's first two touchdowns.
Career Accomplishments: Gronkowski is one of the most productive tight ends in NFL history and a probable Hall of Famer after his playing career is done (for a second time). During his first nine NFL seasons, before his brief retirement, he led all NFL players with 79 touchdown receptions during the regular season. He also scored 12 more touchdowns during the postseason, also an NFL high and a total that bumped up to 14 this past season with the Buccaneers.
Overall, he has caught 566 passes for 8,484 yards and 86 touchdowns, and his average of 64.8 receiving yards per game is third all-time among tight ends in NFL history. In 20 postseason games he has amassed 89 catches for 1,273 yards and 14 touchdowns, all of which are NFL records. Between the regular season and the postseason combined he has caught exactly 100 touchdown passes.
Other Potential Free Agent Tight Ends: Hunter Henry (L.A. Chargers), Jonnu Smith (Tennessee), Gerald Everett (L.A. Rams), Jared Cook (New Orleans – released), Trey Burton (Indianapolis), Tyler Eifert (Jacksonville), Kyle Rudolph (Minnesota – released), Dan Arnold (Arizona), Jacob Hollister (Seattle), Josh Hill (New Orleans), Marcedes Lewis (Green Bay), James O'Shaughnessy (Jacksonville), Tyler Kroft (Buffalo), Richard Rodgers (Philadelphia)
Top Tight End Prospects in 2021 NFL Draft: Kyle Pitts (Florida), Brevin Jordan (Miami), Pat Freiermuth (Penn State), Hunter Long (Boston College), Tommy Tremble (Notre Dame)