A year ago, as the NFL's 2017 league year approached, and with it free agency, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were facing a fairly lengthy to-do list. Or, perhaps more accurately, they had a to-do-or-not-to-do list to sort out, and about a month in which to get it done. The situation looks a little less complicated for the Buccaneers as the 2018 league year draws near.
Tampa Bay's list of potential unrestricted free agents last February was 17 players long and included a pair of starting safeties, two defensive linemen who figured heavily in the rotation, a running back who had made a surprisingly big contribution and the team's two best special teams players. Those 17 players combined to make 93 starts in 2016, and six of them opened at least half of the Bucs' 16 contests.
The list of potential UFAs from Tampa Bay's 2017 roster is just a bit shorter, at 15 players, but it includes fewer top contributors than last year's group. Those 15 combined to make 53 starts, with only three players on the list opening at least half of the 16 contests. Cornerback Brent Grimes and left guard Kevin Pamphile are the two full-season starters on the list; cornerback Robert McClain spent time at both nickel back and on the outside and made nine starts while playing 75% of the defensive snaps.
One thing the 2016 and 2017 lists of the Buccaneers' potential unrestricted free agents have in common: They both include (or included) Jameis Winston's primary backup. As expected, Mike Glennon departed in free agency last year to seek a starting job, which he got for a short while in Chicago. Ryan Fitzpatrick, in contrast, was a very experienced veteran starter who signed on in 2017 to compete for the spot behind Winston. How both he and the Buccaneers feel about the possibility of him reprising that role in 2018 will be one of the more interesting storylines in this year's group of potential UFAs.
The players on the list below all have expiring contracts and at least four years of accrued free agency credit, meaning they would hit the open market on March 14 if there is no development in the interim. Since those players remain under contract until that time, they cannot speak to other teams until the two-day negotiating window that starts on March 12. However, they can work with the Buccaneers on new deals, and pre-free agency agreements are not uncommon. Last year, for example, the Buccaneers and starting defensive end Will Gholston worked out a new five-year contract three days before the start of free agency. In 2016, they did the same thing with safety Keith Tandy a day before the market opened.
As of Monday, there were 30 days left in the 2017 league year, the amount of time remaining for the Buccaneers to have exclusive negotiating rights with the 15 players below. That doesn't mean March 14 is an absolute deadline, however; players such as Chris Conte, Josh Robinson and Joe Hawley have re-signed with the Buccaneers shortly after the start of free agency in recent years.
Here are the current Buccaneers who could become unrestricted free agents in March:
|Will Clarke||DE||Rotational end played 31% of snaps, had 2.5 sacks, 5 QBH|
|Ryan Fitzpatrick||QB||Started 3 games, threw for 1,100 yards, 7 TD, 3 INT|
|Nick Folk||K||Replaced by Pat Murray, remained on IR while recovering from injury|
|Adam Gettis||G||Joined team late for depth but did not appear in a game|
|Brent Grimes||CB||Tied for team lead with 3 INT, added 11 passes defensed|
|Robert McClain||CB||Tied for team lead with 3 INT, added 46 tackles|
|Clinton McDonald||DT||Late-season surge led to 5.0 sacks, second on team to Gerald McCoy|
|Kevin Pamphile||G||Started all but one game at left guard, can also play tackle|
|Garrison Sanborn||LS||Handled all long-snapping duties in 2017|
|Sealver Siliga||DT||Inactive for much of the season, contributed 8 tackles|
|Charles Sims||RB||Ran 21 times for 95 yards, caught 35 passes for 249 yards, 1 TD|
|Evan Smith||G||Versatile lineman started at 3 different spots in 2017|
|Keith Tandy||S||Saw less time on defense in 2017 but stood out on special teams|
|Justin Trattou||DE||Signed just before training camp, landed on IR in late August|
|T.J. Ward||S||In season-long safety rotation, started 4 games, had 41 tackles|
That list is functionally even shorter when one notes that three of the 15 players were essentially non-contributors in 2017. Adam Gettis arrived in Week 16 to provide depth after the team suffered a rash of injuries on the O-Line but he was inactive for each of the last two games. Justin Trattou only played in the preseason before hitting injured reserve. And Nick Folk, the season-opening kicker only played the first four games, making six of 11 field goal attempts. The team's decision to bring in Patrick Murray coincided with an injury that kept Folk on the Buccaneers' injured reserve list for the rest of the season.
That doesn't mean that these players have no chance of returning; it just makes the above list look a little less impactful.
The top priority on that list would seem to be Brent Grimes, who has been the team's best cornerback the past two seasons. That one is mostly in Grimes' hands, though; he revealed immediately after the season that Head Coach Dirk Koetter had told him the Bucs wanted him back in 2018. Koetter confirmed that discussion later the same day.
Besides Grimes, the other full-time 2017 starter on that list is Kevin Pamphile, who has played most of the last two seasons at left guard but is also valuable because of his versatility. The Buccaneers have played the former fifth-round pick at right tackle, as well, and clearly feel comfortable with him as an option on the outside when injuries hit the line. The larger question is whether the team will be seeking to make significant changes to its offensive front in 2018, but it's worth noting that Koetter praised that group at the end of the 2017 season.
"I know our O-line is heavily criticized," he said. "I think our O-line is in the upper-half of the league."
As noted above, Fitzpatrick was the Bucs' backup to Winston in 2017 and he performed pretty well in his three mid-season starts. The Buccaneers obviously value his experience, but they have Ryan Griffin under contract, as well, and have spent several years grooming him to possibly serve as the reserve quarterback. Fitzpatrick and Griffin were battling for that job in the summer before Griffin suffered a shoulder injury in the second preseason game.
The Buccaneers do have the option of placing a franchise or transition tag on any of those pending free agents, but it doesn't seem likely given the list. Barring that, those 15 players will have the option of signing with any interested team. In contrast, there are another eight players from the Bucs' 2017 squad who could get a more limited taste of free agency.
First, there are three restricted free agents. These are players whose contracts have expired but who have only three years of free agency credit. The Buccaneers can retain a right-of-first refusal on any contracts these players sign by extending qualifying offers to them before the start of free agency. At that point, the player can return to the team simply by signing that one-year deal, which would set them up for a shot at unrestricted free agency in 2019. That is the most common path taken by restricted free agents, though that group is becoming smaller each year, as all draft picks must now get four-year deals. That means if they finish their first NFL contracts they skip right past restricted free agency. Thus, most restricted free agents at this point are former undrafted rookies who signed shorter deals or draft picks who didn't finish their original deals with their drafting teams.
Here are the current Buccaneers who could become restricted free agents in March:
|Jude Adjei-Barimah||CB||Former nickel back spent the season on injured reserve|
|Cameron Brate||TE||102 catches, 6 touchdowns over past two seasons|
|Adarius Glanton||LB||Filled in well for injured LBs; 26 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FF|
|Adam Humphries||WR||Slot receiver, 2nd on team with 61 for 631 yards|
|Ryan Russell||DE||Made 7 starts, 2.5 sacks, 5 QB pressures|
Brate and Humphries both came to the Buccaneers as little-known rookie free agents and both have developed into key components in the team's passing attack. Humphries has emerged as one of the NFL's more productive slot receivers and is adept at turning short screens into good gains. Brate has 14 touchdown catches over the past two seasons, third among all NFL tight ends in that span and only two behind the leader, Jimmy Graham.
It seems certain that the Buccaneers will be motivated to keep Brate and Humphries around, at least for their final season before unrestricted free agency and hopefully beyond. Adjei-Barimah hasn't played for about a season and a half, so his situation is less clear, but trusted cornerback depth is difficult to find. Glanton and Russell have made some solid contributions, on both defense and special teams.
The third class of free agents fall into the "exclusive rights" category. These players have fewer than three seasons of accrued free agency credit but an expiring contract. These are also commonly players who entered the league as undrafted free agents, but ones who were able to carve out roles of some significance in their first two seasons. That was the case a year ago for Brate and Humphries as they went through that first stage of free agency. This year's list includes one player each on offense, defense and special teams.
Here are the current Buccaneers who could become exclusive rights free agents in March:
|Peyton Barber||RB||Led the team with 423 rushing yards|
|Javien Elliott||CB||Worked mostly on special teams in 2017 but has played in the slot|
|Patrick Murray||K||Solidified Bucs kicking game, going 19-23 on field goals|
Barber finished the season as the team's primary tailback and led the team in rushing with 423 yards, averaging 3.9 yards per tote. His late-season insertion into the starting lineup, replacing an ineffective Doug Martin, looked like an audition for a larger role in 2018. Whether or not the Buccaneers expect Barber to be their top running back this coming fall, they will surely be interested in keeping him around and continuing his development.
Elliott played more on defense as a rookie in 2016 than he did last year but he's been around for two seasons, learning Mike Smith's defense, and there is that aforementioned and constant need for cornerback depth. Murray gave the Bucs a reliable kicker after Nick Folk's early-season struggles, though he wasn't really a long-range threat. Murray made 19 of 23 field goal tries and 21 of 22 extra points, and three of his four FG misses came from 50 yards and beyond.
The NFL Scouting Combine, which extends from late February into early March, is the next big signpost on the 2018 offseason calendar. However, free agency will start up shortly after all the teams return from Indianapolis. The Bucs may end up dipping into the pool of newly-available players from other teams, but first they must decide what they want to do with their own list of pending free agents.