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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs Embraced Challenge of Cap-Strapped Offseason in 2023

The Buccaneers headed into the 2023 offseason with cap restrictions they had never seen before and an open question mark at quarterback but produced another winner by having fun with the challenges to their professional pride

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"A rebuild is coming in Tampa whether the Buccaneers like it or not. But before it does, the team is going to have to hit bottom. That may well come this season." (28)

"Not only does a Baker Mayfield-Kyle Trask quarterback room turn out as poorly as it should in 2023, but the locker room splinters as it tends to do when two sides of the ball are of such varying quality." (28)

"Even if Tom Brady hadn't re-retired, they'd be facing an uphill climb." (27)

"It's not a complete youth movement, but it's headed that way." (28)

"Baker Mayfield or Kyle Trask is not the question Bucs fans should be asking. Caleb Williams or Drake Maye? That's the ticket." (32)

"I am not sure what step this is in Tampa Bay's covert [#CrashForCaleb] campaign, but it is indeed a critical one." (31)

Each one of the above digital clippings is an excerpt from an NFL Power Poll article shortly before the start of the 2023 season regarding the expected fate of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The number in parentheses is the Bucs' ranking in each respective poll. These were only a few of an endless number of potential excerpts.

None of these clippings are cited specifically because this is not an effort to collect receipts. The thing is, those really were not unreasonable expectations. Some of them were perhaps a bit harsh, but the logic behind them was sound, at least from an outsider's perspective. The Buccaneers, who had won the NFC South in 2022 with an 8-9 record, had a G.O.A.T-sized hole at quarterback, a discarded veteran in his place and a mountain of dead cap implications that would make maneuvering free agency difficult. The Bucs, in fact, had a league-high $81.5 in dead cap space as 2023 began, the result of staying all-in for Tom Brady's final two years in Tampa after a victory in Super Bowl LV.

As John Romano of the Tampa Bay Times recently noted, no team since the 2014 Dallas Cowboys had led the league in dead cap hit and still made the playoffs. But that's exactly what the Buccaneers did, capturing their third straight NFC South title with a 9-8 record – winning four of their last five to climb back into the postseason field – then walloping the Philadelphia Eagles in the opening round of the playoffs. The dream season came to an end in the Divisional Round in Detroit, but not before the Buccaneers took a 17-17 tie into the fourth quarter.

How did the Buccaneers do it, shrugging off the idea of a rebuild and significantly outperforming expectations? For General Manager Jason Licht, Head Coach Todd Bowles and the Bucs' player personnel staff, it was a matter of embracing the restrictions facing them as challenges to their professional abilities.

Around the middle of February last year, in that deceptively quiet NFL period between the Super Bowl and the Scouting Combine, Licht convened a meeting of everyone on his staff who was working in team headquarters (some area scouts were out on assignments). He showed them copies of the team roster from every season from 2017 to 2020, to show how much turnover there was every year. He emphasized how the Bucs restocked the roster from 2019 to 2020, ending up with a Super Bowl-caliber team. He told them that it was possible to do so again in 2023, even with the cap difficulties.

"I kind of challenged them," said Licht. "I said, 'This will be fun.' The big free agent signings are the easy ones. Anyone can tell you that whoever the top available pass rusher is will be a good addition, but let's find some bargains. That excited a lot of the people here, my staff, because those are the fun ones. Those are the ones where you show that you're really evaluating, and you're trying to out-evaluate the league. It's fun. Most of my staff – I think all of them, actually – get excited about that kind of thing.

"I said, 'We can add all of these players that we're going to need to add through the draft and some free agent signings, some bargains.' I told them we can add to the team but still keep our great players, and we can do this in a way…I don't want to say a 'cheap' way, but the way that we had to do it because we didn't have any cap space, and still be successful."

When Tom Brady retired near the end of January, the Bucs initially were looking at two options to absorb the $35 million dead cap that move generated. The NFL's cap structure allows for a dead cap hit to be spread out over two seasons in certain circumstances. Even if that option had been available to the Bucs, they were planning to take the full hit in 2023, even if that made their roster building at the time more difficult.

"Obviously, it was an unprecedented amount to take on," said Licht. "We had never done that before; nobody had. Our take was, 'Okay, we're not going to be able to spend a lot of money in free agency,' which I'm not a big fan of anyway, unless the right deal is there. The Ryan Jensen deal was a good one; he panned out. But a lot of those big-money deals don't work out. I want to draft and develop here."

The Bucs had drafted and developed a number of players very successfully over the previous four or five years, which inevitably means they come due for second contracts. The year before, for instance, the team had kept 2018 second-round pick Carlton Davis on a new multi-year deal. Now his cornerback running mate, 2019 third-rounder Jamel Dean, was due to hit free agency and was considered one of the top players available at his position. The Bucs somehow got that deal done, too, with a four-year contract that carried a low cap hit in 2023.

"We knew that we weren't going to have a lot of money to spend," said Licht. "Now we managed to make it work to where we could do Jamel, and that was a big win for us at the time, to be able to keep one of our own."

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The Bucs had to make some tough decisions to make it all work, releasing such long-time contributors as Donovan Smith, Leonard Fournette, Cam Brate and Ryan Succop. They hit in a big way on a low-level contract for kicker Chase McLaughlin, who had bounced around to six teams over four seasons but who would go on to have the best season by a kicker in Buccaneers history. Other attempts at bargain signings included the additions of defensive lineman Greg Gaines, running back Chase Edmonds and guard Matt Feiler. The Bucs also retained the likes of outside linebacker Anthony Nelson, guard Aaron Stinnie and cornerback Dee Delaney to keep the depth chart fleshed out. The cherry on top was a new one-year deal for linebacker Lavonte David, who promptly turned in the type of season you would have expected from him at age 28 as opposed to 33.

It was players like David who convinced Licht and his people that the Bucs could still be a playoff team in 2023. A good amount of the core from the Super Bowl LV-winning squad was still on hand, including receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, safety Antoine Winfield Jr., tackle Tristan Wirfs and nose tackle Vita Vea.

"Because we had Lavonte," said Licht as to why his perception of the Bucs' chances to win in 2023 differed drastically from the majority of opinions outside the AdventHealth Training Center. "Because we had Antoine. Because we had Vita. Because we have Tristan. We have Mike and Chris, obviously. We have a lot of blue-chip players, still, and you can look at other rosters and you might not find a collection of talent that stands up to that group. I'm not patting ourselves on the back, I'm just saying we still had a lot of players left over from the Super Bowl and a lot of them are very young still. I just thought, 'This team has potential still to win.' I told the owners. I said, 'I think we're going to win at least 10 games,' and when we won our 10th game Joel Glazer texted me and said, 'You got your 10.'"

There were actually plenty of outside evaluators who felt the Buccaneers were in for a fall despite agreeing that the roster still bore a lot of talent. The reason, of course, was the quarterback situation. The Bucs were moving out of the Brady era and there wasn't a lot of optimism that they could adequately fill that position in 2023 to the point they remained competitive.

And, indeed, the escape from salary cap jail to the penthouse of a division title could not reasonably been successful if the Bucs hadn't hit on quarterback. Their choice was Baker Mayfield, the former first-overall pick in the 2018 draft by Cleveland who had split an unsatisfying 2022 between the Panthers and the Rams. The Bucs identified Mayfield as their best choice early in the process.

"That had to be the center of the whole thing," said Licht. "When we looked at all the quarterbacks, Todd loved Baker from the get-go. He developed a relationship with him when he was with the Jets and they had the third pick, when they took Sam Darnold. Baker went one, but he really liked Baker. I remember in 2022 when we were playing Carolina, and Baker was with the Panthers at the time, they were talking and you could tell they had a relationship. He liked him the whole time, I liked Baker, B.A. [former Bucs Head Coach Bruce Arians] was in my ear about Baker. He loved Baker.

"When we evaluated all the quarterbacks, Baker had won a playoff game, and almost went to the AFC Championship. They beat Pittsburgh and almost beat Kansas City. It was a very close game, came down to the fourth quarter, I think. He was a former number-one overall pick. We had him as the best quarterback in that draft, the 2018 draft. We know what the ceiling is, and it's pretty high. With the other quarterbacks we looked at, the ceiling wasn't as high. We also knew what the floor was, and it was the same floor as those guys. So we thought we had a chance to hit, and we really thought we had a chance to hit if he felt like this was his place, where he wanted to be."

Mayfield won a competition with third-year incumbent Kyle Trask for the starting job and proceeded to have perhaps the best season of his career. He set career highs with 4,044 passing yards and 28 touchdown passes and was intercepted only 10 times. He threw for six more touchdowns and nearly 700 yards in two playoff games. He also captured the hearts and minds of all of his teammates from very early on with his 'whatever-it-takes' style of play. Mayfield accomplished exactly what he thought he could do by coming to Tampa, and it was that motivation on his part that helped the Bucs bring him to town with an incentive-laden one-year deal that they could fit into their tight cap.

"Most importantly, Baker saw us and he circled us from the very beginning – 'That is where I want to go,'" said Licht. "And he basically told his agent, 'I don't care what the deal looks like. I want to go there. That's where I'm going to revive my career.' So he saw the talent. It's much the same as Tom Brady saw us in 2020 and wanted to come here. He saw us, and if you want to go somewhere with at least a decent offensive line, and we have a pretty good offensive line still, and two really good receivers and a back that we like. So it was a good place for him."

As Licht had told his people back in February, the plan to stay competitive meant hitting on a handful of draft picks that could become starters quickly. They ended up with starters in each of the first three rounds in defensive lineman Calijah Kancey, guard Cody Mauch and outside linebacker Yaya Diaby. The Bucs also got a third receiver in sixth-rounder Trey Palmer and a special teams ace in sixth-rounder Josh Hayes.

"Every year we want to kick butt in the draft," said Licht. "I'm not saying we were any more motivated than any other draft year, but it was really important this year that these picks help us."

Then the Bucs went to work in what they call the "eighth round" of the draft, convincing some targeted undrafted players that there was opportunity to make the roster and play right away in Tampa. The Buccaneers found their eventual slot corner in this manner in Rutgers' Christian Izien and broke camp with six undrafted rookies on their Week One 53-man roster.

"We knew we could find more talent after the draft, and we did," said Licht. "It just made it a little bit more satisfying. When you challenge people to showcase their skills, everybody gets a little excited about that. Now, they're always motivated, I'm not saying they normally aren't, but this was a special experience. When you find a diamond in the rough, there's more of a feeling of pride, then if you had the fifth overall pick and the choice was obvious."

And now the Bucs are embarking on another offseason in which they will try to construct a team that they believe can win a fourth straight NFC South title, and hopefully more. Every offseason has different challenges – there was the "keep the band together" push in 2021, which was wildly different than the 2023 experience – and this one is no exception. First and foremost, the Buccaneers will try to keep Mayfield, as well as retain such key veterans as Evans, Winfield, David and McLaughlin. They had those challenges in mind when they chose to take that entire Brady dead cap hit in one season.

"We felt like we could still compete and win the division, get to the playoffs – I did, at least – if we took the whole hit, and then be in much better shape this year," said Licht. "It is giving us a better chance to do all of the things we need to do now, which is re-sign some of our really good players, and then also be in a lot better shape moving forward. If we would have taken half of it, then half this year, we would be that much further behind. So it was a calculated risk."

There will be more calculated risks in the weeks and months ahead, more difficult decisions and more critical evaluations of draft prospects and potential free agent bargains. Licht and his crew have shown they can be nimble enough to navigate many different types of roster-construction challenges. Taking a team that had salary cap challenges unprecedented in franchise history and an open question mark at the most important position on the field and building it into another division winner might have been the most impressive one yet.

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