The Tampa Bay Buccaneers knew they couldn't let Chris Godwin walk after they won Super Bowl LV, which is why they deployed the franchise tag on the fifth-year wideout. In their efforts to 'run it back' with the same core in pursuit of a second straight title, the Buccaneers locked in Godwin first and then set about checking off the rest of their long free agency list.
The franchise tag carried a hefty one-year price tag but Godwin proved to be worth every penny. Despite landing on injured reserve with a demoralizing knee injury in Week 15 and missing essentially the last month of the season, he still led the team with 98 catches for 1,103 yards while scoring six total touchdowns. Godwin's versatility in the offense only grew, as did his importance to everything the Bucs were trying to accomplish, both through the air and on the ground. It's fair to wonder if Godwin's season-ending injury was the single biggest blow to the Bucs' eventually unfulfilled repeat hopes.
Some of the circumstances are different a year later. Rather than celebrating a championship, Godwin is in the early stages of his rehab from an ACL tear. The Buccaneers face another long list of potential unrestricted free agents but almost surely won't be able to bring them all back again this year. And the man who threw those 98 passes to Godwin in 2021, Tom Brady, has retired.
And some things haven't changed. The Buccaneers are just as motivated to keep Godwin in pewter and red as they were a year ago.
"From what I understand, he's doing well," said General Manager Jason Licht, when asked at the NFL Scouting Combine on Tuesday about the progression of Godwin's rehab. "It's a little early to give a full diagnosis, or an estimation of when he'll be ready, but I wouldn't bet against Chris any time. Chris has meant the world to this organization. Quite frankly, it would be hard for me to imagine moving forward without Chris."
The Bucs actually could go the same route as last year and use the franchise tag on Godwin. Consecutive tags are rare, however, due to the salary escalators; most tagged players either end up with a long-term deal, like Shaq Barrett did last year, or move on once they finally get that crack at the open market. Would the Bucs actually consider that option?
"I wouldn't say it's out of the question," said Licht. "Hopefully not, so that we can do something else. I'd love to get him under contract."
It's not hard to see why the Bucs want to continue investing in Godwin, even though fellow star pass-catcher Mike Evans already commands a tall salary. Godwin simply does it all and the Bucs would be hard-pressed to replace his contributions with one or even two players. For one thing, the hard-nosed wideout plays a critical role in the team's run-blocking schemes; according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Bucs averaged 4.5 yards per carry over the past two seasons (playoffs included) when Godwin was on the field and 3.7 when he wasn't. In addition, he's the man who makes the offense's more complicated looks work, as he has been far and away the Bucs' most common player to put in motion or shift before the snap.
In addition, Godwin is easily one of the NFL's most productive slot receivers – and bigger and more physical in that role than most of his contemporaries – but he can still dominate outside. He's the Bucs' best producer of YAC (yards after the catch) and he runs absolutely every route on the tree with precision.
Players who can do all of this don't come along, even during a coaching career like that of Bruce Arians, which has spanned decades.
"Yeah, I've only had two before – Hines Ward and Larry Fitzgerald – so I don't really want to lose Chris," said Arians. "They're hard, hard to find. Reggie Wayne too, he's the other one.
"Chris is so valuable to what we do. Obviously, we really, really want him back."
In terms of the Buccaneers' repeat hopes this past season, Godwin's injury could hardly have been more ill-timed. And for a player who can see the lucrative light of free agency just ahead, a December ACL tear is a brutal bit of bad luck. It remains to be seen if that will be a factor in how he is pursued by other teams, should he hit the market, but the Buccaneers aren't worried about it.
"Knowing Chris and the way he works – he had a good surgery and those guys are coming back faster and faster now," said Arians. "I don't think that's going to be a problem at all."
Added Licht: "Sometimes you have to bet on the guy."
The Buccaneers face a number of tough free agency situations and they will be coming to a head soon. In addition to Godwin, the Bucs have to figure out what to do with the likes of such core players as Carlton Davis, Jordan Whitehead, Leonard Fournette, Rob Gronkowski, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa, Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and Will Gholston. At the Combine interview podium on Tuesday, Licht specifically didn't want to name the team's priority free agents because he didn't want to leave anybody out. Still, it's pretty obvious that Godwin is somewhere high on the list.
"It's hard to imagine a Buccaneers' offense without Chris Godwin, and we would love to have him back," said Licht. "We'll continue to try and work towards that."