On Thursday afternoon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians addressed a group of about 40 men and women at the NFL-NCAA Coaches Academy. Afterward he spoke to a small group of local media about looming free agency decisions for the first time since his season-ending press conference on December 30.
That press conference was more than six weeks ago and the Buccaneers have been preparing for free agency ever since. However, it will probably take most of the next five weeks to add any real clarity to the team's efforts to deal with their own list of 19 potential unrestricted free agents.
The most complicated question presented by that list is what to do about the quarterback position, with Jameis Winston coming off a 5,100-yard, 30-touchdown, 30-interception season as his original rookie deal expires. The Buccaneers could choose to continue forward with Winston, either with a new long-term contract or a franchise tag, or they could look for a new answer in free agency or the draft. But determining which way to go involves some external factors that are no more clear now than they were on December 30.
"Really, nothing's changed since then," said Arians. "What's [behind] Door Number Two? How do we make the one we have better? All those things, you go through that now."
Arians' 'Door Number Two' reference is the same one he made in December regarding what other quarterbacks might be available to the team, and the importance of measuring them against Winston. There are quite a few high-profile names that could be free agents in March – Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Tannehill, just to start – but that list may look quite different a month from now. Color Arians skeptical about seeing a sudden windfall of talented passers in March.
"I don't think there's that many guys involved," he said. "Until the tags come out and everything else…I'll be shocked if it's two."
A two-week period in which teams can apply franchise tags to pending free agents begins on February 25 and ends on March 10, and there is also plenty of time for new deals to get done before the March 18 kickoff to the new league year. The NFL Scouting Combine at the end of this month is a perfect opportunity for coaches, general managers and agents across the league to have meaningful discussions. But it won't be until March 16 – the start of a three-day window for potential deals to be discussed – that teams will be able to officially inquire into a pending free agent.
So, the pool of available options can't be more than educated speculation until then.
"No, because we don't know who's available," said Arians. "People are sitting and waiting to see, is there someone available or not? Is he a better option? That's the problem – you get about three days to decide, the 'legal tampering' period. Is someone else going to be let go? What's the trade values? It's really monotonous right now because we don't have any answers."
There is far more clarity as to what the Buccaneers would like to happen with their long list of potential free agents from a defensive front seven that was very effective in 2019: They want them back. That group includes NFL sack leader Shaquil Barrett as well as Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh and Carl Nassib. And, ultimately, that effort is as important as deciding who's under center in 2020.
"Oh, yeah, to me it's the whole defense," said Arians. "We can't get them all but we've got to get [some]. This team right now, in the last eight games our defensive statistics were [good]. Those young guys grew. We can't let that go. I don't care who's playing quarterback, we're going to have a defense. [Otherwise,] we're back to Square One."
Take a look at the Buccaneers players officially slated to become unrestricted, restricted, or exclusive rights free agents when the NFL's free agency period begins in March.