The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a relatively tight salary cap situation and a new coaching staff, two factors that might seem like competing influences on a strategy for free agency. However, General Manager Jason Licht and new Head Coach Bruce Arians – the latter of whom has now completed a thorough tape study of last year's roster – appear to be on the same page regarding their priorities. The primary focus, both agree, is on the Buccaneers' own impending free agents.
That list includes such key figures as starting left tackle Donovan Smith, playmaking linebacker Kwon Alexander and rising-star slot receiver Adam Humphries, among others. Barring the use of a franchise or transition tag, all three could become unrestricted free agents on March 13, and it would be the first crack at the open market for all three. Arians has seen enough film to know he would like to keep them all in the Buccaneers' fold.
"I think all the guys want to try free agency to see; can't blame them for that but we would love to keep our guys," he said on Wednesday while addressing the media at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine. "Our first priority in free agency is to keep our guys."
As Licht noted, those three are all homegrown talents, as were such recently re-signed players as Mike Evans and Cam Brate. The Buccaneers have had a good amount of success at finding potential cornerstone players in the draft and developing them into players who are deserving of a second contract. Unrestricted free agency has brought some important pieces in, as well, but a good number of those signings have not provided any long-term value. It's unsurprising then, that the Buccaneers in 2019 would be looking at a relatively conservative approach to the outside market while hoping to lock in as many of their own strong assets as possible.
"You could say that," said Licht of the notion that the Buccaneers would take a relatively shallow dive into the free agency pool. "Things can change, though, but you could say that. I think the emphasis would be on keeping our own."
Just as they do for the draft, Licht and his scouting staff frequently run through potential scenarios in free agency. They have discussed ways in which they may be able to retain Smith, Alexander and Humphries and any other pending free agents who can help the Bucs win. It won't necessarily be easy, however.
"There are ways, we've gone through scenarios where we can keep them all," said Licht. "It's one of those [things like], 'You can have it all but you can't have it all at once.' You're going to have to make sacrifices everywhere. If you just say, 'Okay, we want to sign back everybody and we want to keep everybody,' at some point you've got to make some sacrifices. You've got to figure out what's best for the football team."
Licht acknowledged that making sacrifices could include, in part, clearing some salaries in order to have more room to maneuver under the cap. It could also mean prioritizing the list of pending free agents and risking not getting all of them back. Given that the Buccaneers of recent vintage have produced much better results on offense than defense – and, as noted, have recently given out some lucrative new deals on that side of the ball – one might assume the sacrifices would come from the offensive side of the ball. That's not necessarily the case.
"You just don't want to hurt your football team," said Licht. "We could do that or we could say, 'You know what? We've got a good offense. Let's make it even better.' Make the sacrifices somewhere else. You don't want to do that. You'd like to keep it as even as possible."
Arians and Licht were asked specifically about Humphries and Alexander on Wednesday and it's clear that both players are very highly valued in the organization. The loss of Alexander to a knee injury about a third of the way into the 2018 season was a tough bit of timing for the young player but also a real blow to the team's efforts on the field. The Bucs would prefer to have a defense with Alexander back in the middle of it in 2019.
"Man, I can't say enough good things about him as to what he's been to our team," said Licht of the former LSU standout. "You can ask most of our players, he's the heartbeat of our defense, and a super guy. And being a fourth-round pick, the organization has a lot of pride in the development that's taken place with him. We've had several talks throughout the course of this, dating back to last offseason, and I think now we'll just have to see what the market is and take it from there. We certainly value him, though. I'm not trying to say we don't value him. We do value him, we just have to come together and figure out what that is, and hopefully we can get something done."
Meanwhile, Arians can't help but thinking about how he could use a dynamic slot receiver like Humphries in his offense now that he has returned to the sideline. Humphries had career highs in every category in 2018, with 76 receptions for 816 yards and five touchdowns, and is simply one of the most productive players out of the slot in the NFL.
"I think all of our guys that are free agents right now are very important, him especially," said Arians. "He's done a great job of building a resume, a solid one as a slot. He does some really, really good things in there. I would love to have him back."
There are plenty of other decisions to be made regarding free agency and those players the Bucs might not want to let get away. For instance, both of last year's reserve quarterbacks, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ryan Griffin, are pending unrestricted free agents. Licht suggested the Buccaneers would be interested in bringing back one or the other, but probably not both. Also, the team has to decide at what level they will tender running back Peyton Barber to make him a restricted free agent. The answer will determine the salary level of the tender and what the Bucs would get back in compensation if he is allowed to sign elsewhere.
These are the smaller issues within the bigger free agency picture, for which the Buccaneers have clearly already made the first big decision. They will prioritize their own free agents over those that might hit the market from other teams. Overall, Arians doesn't believe the roster will need the same degree of turnover that was necessary when he took over in Arizona in 2013 and affected a very quick turnaround for the Cardinals.
"I would doubt it," said the coach. "I think Jason's done such a good job with this roster. There's always change, but to the point, I think we had 50-something in our first two years and we were always churning. I'll probably know more after voluntary mini-camp, just looking at some of these young guys that I'm not real familiar with other than their practice tape from last year. I don't have that much game tape on them."