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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bruce Arians: Retaining Free Agents Again Offseason Priority

The Bucs are once again facing a long list of pending unrestricted free agents but will work hard to keep as much of their playoff-caliber core intact

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After winning Super Bowl LV last February, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a nearly unprecedented offseason, becoming the first team in the free agency era to return every single starter on a championship roster for the following season. Jason Licht, Bruce Arians and the Buccaneers were staring down a list of 24 potential unrestricted free agents, including some core players on both offense and defense, but they got creative and aggressive – in some cases uncharacteristically pushing cap hits down the road – and somehow 'kept the band together.'

It wasn't easy, and it might be even harder in the 2022 offseason, but keeping the band together will still be a guiding principle for the team's architects. Despite another long list of potential free agents, Arians rejected the idea of a full 'rebuild.'

"It's a reload like it is every year," said Arians on Monday, less than 24 hours after his team saw it's Super Bowl repeat bid end in a wild Divisional Round loss to the Rams. "Our [priority] in free agency will be our guys – see how many that we can get back and then build a team from there. I always look forward to that part of it, and then the draft. Each year is so different and so new. Last year, to get everybody back was amazing. I doubt we can do it all again this year, but we're sure going to give it our best."

The Buccaneers currently have 25 veteran players whose contracts will expire in March and who have the accrued seasons to become unrestricted free agents. A good chunk of the team's offensive production is represented on the list by the likes of Chris Godwin, Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones and Rob Gronkowski, as are O-Line starters Ryan Jensen and Alex Cappa. The defense could lose Carlton Davis, Jordan Whitehead, Will Gholston, Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul.

Arians planned to have exit interviews with each player on Monday afternoon, including those whose tenure as Buccaneers could conceivably coming to an end. And given the lengthy careers that some of the players noted above have already had, not every decision about 2022 will necessarily be between Tampa Bay and another team. Some could be deciding whether or not to continue playing. In either case, Arians thinks the Bucs' success over the past two years could make them eager to stick around.

"I haven't talked to them yet. I'll talk to all of them this afternoon," said Arians. "But the way they played, I doubt anyone wants to give it up."

The only pending free agent about which Arians was specifically asked was Fournette, who finished up his season with 107 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in Sunday's narrow loss, picking right back up where he left off after an explosive performance in the 2020 playoffs. The Buccaneers originally signed the former first-round pick just before the start of the 2020 campaign after he was released by the Jaguars, and he spent much of that season behind Ronald Jones in the backfield pecking order. After his star turn in the playoffs, however, the Buccaneer re-signed Fournette to a one-year deal in the 2021 offseason and he quickly took over as the team's lead back in the regular season. Despite missing the last three regular-season games with a hamstring injury, he produced a team-high 1,266 yards from scrimmage and scored 10 touchdowns.

The Buccaneers only have one running back, Ke'Shawn Vaughn, under contract for 2022 and it seems obvious that they would like to find a way to keep Fournette around, given how he has emerged as a three-down back with underrated pass-catching and pass-blocking skills

"Yeah, I mean he's one of the top guys of that big-ass group that we've got of free agents," said Arians. "We'll sit down this week and start prioritizing and see whose paychecks are what. It's going to be a while before we see what other offers are out there and everything else."

Indeed, while it was natural to start thinking about the next season and how the roster will shape after the Bucs' 2021 campaign came to an end, free agency is still a little over seven weeks away. And, as Gronkowski noted on Monday, with emotions still running high from the heartbreaking loss on Sunday, this is not the right time for players to be making career-altering decisions.

"I believe you really can't make a decision in that mindset," he said. "The process, I would say, is take some off, recover, let the body heal, see where your thoughts are, see where your feelings are. Give it a couple weeks and then go from there. I would say about a three, four, five-week period right now is just clearing your mind and letting everything heal, and then see where you're at at that point."

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