The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have several dozen pending free agents from their championship 2020 roster, including seven who started in Super Bowl LV, and are loathe to lose any of them. There will inevitably be some departures, but the Buccaneers still have some cap flexibility and will try to keep the team's core together for another run at the title.
It isn't easy to rank the team's priorities when that list of possible free agents includes Shaq Barrett, Lavonte David, Ndamukong Suh and Chris Godwin, among others. On paper, those three defensive players may seem like more significant potential losses because there aren't obvious replacements for them on the roster. As one of the league's best pass-rushers for the past two seasons, Barrett represents an asset that every team is looking for and many will have difficulty finding. And David has been the heart and soul of the Bucs' defense for years.
In contrast, the Bucs have a deep stable of pass-catchers, particularly when the tight ends are included (and particularly if Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown return), which might make it seem like it would be easier to handle the loss of Godwin. The Buccaneers even drafted a player last year in Minnesota wideout Tyler Johnson who seems to share some of Godwin's traits, though of course it remains to be seen if he can develop in a similar manner as his Penn State predecessor. The Bucs also have another "number one" type of receiver already locked in for the next four years in Mike Evans.
The thing is, we shouldn't just count the number of available pass-catchers when evaluating how easy it would be to move on without Godwin. As Head Coach Bruce Arians explained Wednesday, Godwin's value goes beyond his listed position and his number of catches.
"He brings so much more than targets," said Arians. "When you look at what he does as an outside receiver and a slot receiver, he's so unique in that regard. And then you put his blocking in there, so he's a huge part of what we do offensively. It's more than stats. It's also what the guy brings to the huddle. I think with all these guys, each and everyone is so different because of what they bring into the huddle. But Chris is very, very unique."
There is, of course, nothing wrong with Godwin's numbers. He finished second in the NFL in receiving yards per game in 2019 on the way to his first Pro Bowl invite. He was limited in the first half of 2020 by a string of injuries but still finished second on the team in receptions, receiving yards and TD grabs before leading the team in the postseason with another 232 receiving yards.
But beyond that, the Buccaneers offense uses Godwin in so many ways. When the offense upped its usage of pre-snap motion and shifts over the last couple months, it was Godwin who most often was on the move. For instance, he went in motion on 18 of his 55 snaps in the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay, by far the most of any player on the offense. He also has a very robust route tree; according to NFL Next Gen Stats, he is the only player in the NFL over the past two seasons to have gained 150-plus receiving yards on nine different types of routes.
Arians noted Godwin's inside-outside flexiblity, and indeed he has been the team's most effective slot receiver for the past two seasons, lining up there on 52% of his snaps during the 2020 regular season. It's also worth noting, however, that he lined up "tight" to the line of scrimmage, like a tight end would be expected to do, on 16% of his snaps in 2020. That's a very high number for a wide receiver, and it's an indication of how useful Godwin is in the team's blocking schemes and how purposefully the Bucs use him in that regard.
It all adds up to a player the Buccaneers would very much like to keep around regardless of any specific positional depth, and it's no secret that they want to do so. Of course, they'd also like to bring Barrett, David, Suh and many others back, too. Godwin has been mentioned by outside sources as a likely candidate for the team's lone franchise tag, but the reality is that the team is still working to piece that whole puzzle together.
"The tag is an option for any one of our players right now," said General Manager Jason Licht. "We don't necessarily have plans to use it on one particular player versus another. Right now we're trying to keep as many of these players that we have and move forward next year, however, if that's a long-term deal or a short-term deal or use the tag. You're not going to get me to tell you who is going to get tagged because right now we couldn't even tell you ourselves."