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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Free Agency Season | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Buccaneers fans have questions about contract restructuring, cornerback options, Baker Mayfield's new deal and more


After a dizzying two weeks of signings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers sat down at a table with Baker Mayfield in front of a packed auditorium on Wednesday, just a few hours before free agency was officially about to begin and sounded a note of satisfaction. That was unsurprising given that the Buccaneers had managed to stave off the potential departure of Mayfield, Mike Evans, Lavonte David, Antoine Winfield Jr. and Chase McLaughlin. Licht called it one of the Bucs' greatest free agency hauls ever, even though it was all the team's own players.

There was one outside addition, but even that one was a homegrown talent, as safety Jordan Whitehead is returning to his original team after two years with the New York Jets. Whitehead's homecoming should solidify the other safety spot next to Winfield, which had been pieced together with multiple players in 2023.

Which got me thinking.

Players returning to a team for which they've previously toiled is not unheard of. Cincinnati just happily scooped up safety Von Bell, a Bengal from 2020-22, after he was released by the Panthers. Last year, Pro Bowl linebacker Bobby Wagner went back to Seattle after one season with the Rams. Still, it's not a particularly common outcome, either, and that's certainly the case for the Buccaneers. Off the top of my head, I could only think of a couple examples from Tampa Bay's first 48 seasons – Warrick Dunn, Steve DeBerg, Chidi Ahanotu.

So I decided to see how many such occurrences I could find. I won't swear that this is an absolutely exhaustive list; I might have missed one or two. But I think this is most of them:

- QB Steve DeBerg. DeBerg's first five NFL seasons were in San Francisco and Denver, where he was famously replaced by both Joe Montana and John Elway. The Broncos traded him to the Bucs in 1984 and he spent four seasons in Tampa before the team turned to 1987 first-overall pick Vinny Testaverde. In that time, DeBerg spent two seasons alternating starts with yet another future Hall-of-Famer in Steve Young. He went to Kansas City next, and after leading the Chiefs to the playoffs in 1991 got signed by the Buccaneers again shortly after the team hired Sam Wyche to be the head coach. DeBerg's second stint in Tampa lasted less than two seasons. Overall, he had an 8-29 record as a starter on some pretty talent-poor Bucs teams.

- RB Warrick Dunn. Dunn was the 12th-overall pick in the 1997 draft and he went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. He quickly formed the "Thunder & Lightning" duo with Mike Alstott and he topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage in each of his first five seasons. Dunn hit free agency in 2002 and new Head Coach Jon Gruden wanted to re-sign him but he got a better deal in Atlanta. After six more strong years with the Falcons he came back to Tampa to play his final season in 2008. He is one of only two players in NFL history to top 7,500 yards from scrimmage for two different franchises.

- DE Chidi Ahanotu. A sixth-round pick in 1993, Ahanotu started out with the Bucs as an interior linemen but quickly found his home at left end. He had a strong eight-year run in Tampa and even received the franchise tag in 1999 to keep him off the free agent market. Ahanotu, who had 31.5 sacks over those eight seasons, was released after the 2000 season and signed first with the Rams, for whom he started every game in 2021. He spent 2002 as a starter in Buffalo and 2003 as a rotational player for the 49ers before beginning his final NFL season in Miami in 2004. Unhappy with his playing time with the Dolphins, Ahanotu was released in October and the Buccaneers, who were dealing with a rash of injuries, brought him back for the remainder of the season. In eight more games in Tampa he added 3.5 sacks to his total in a Bucs uniform, giving him 34.5, the seventh most in franchise history.

- TE Dave Moore. Like Dunn, Moore had the unfortunate timing of seeing his first stint in Tampa end right before the 2002 Super Bowl season. Moore was originally a seventh-round draft pick by the Dolphins in 1992 but he ended up in Tampa later that season after being released. Thanks in part by adding long-snapping duties to his resume, Moore became one of the longest-tenured players in franchise history, with a total of 13 seasons in a Bucs uniform. After playing the 2002-03 seasons in Buffalo, he re-signed with the Buccaneers, primarily to serve as the long-snapper, and he made the Pro Bowl at that position in 2006, his final NFL campaign. Moore's 190 games played for the Buccaneers are the third most in franchise history.

- OL George Yarno. A versatile offensive lineman who played guard, center and tackle at different times, Yarno had his eight seasons as a Buccaneer broken up by a two-year stint in the USFL. An undrafted free agent in 1979, he was mostly a reserve for his first four seasons but he started 11 games in 1983 at guard and logged 36 more starts between guard and tackle after returning from the USFL in 1985. Yarno is perhaps most famous for successfully kicking an extra point in the last game of 1983 after kicker Dave Warnke, appearing in the only NFL game of his career, missed an extra point and a short field goal.

- Ks Connor Barth and Patrick Murray. It's no wonder that the Buccaneers just re-signed McLaughlin to a three-year deal after his outstanding first year in Tampa – this franchise spent roughly a decade trying to find a reliable solution at kicker. That wandering began in 2013 when Barth, who had stabilized the position for the previous four years, suffered an Achilles tendon injury in a charity basketball game right before training camp. After one year with veteran Rian Lindell as the kicker, the Bucs gave the job to young Patrick Murray in 2014, who beat out Barth for the job. He made 20 of 24 field goals that year but Barth returned to supplant him in 2015. The Bucs drafted Roberto Aguayo in the second round in 2016 but he held the job for just one year before the team turned to veteran Nick Folk in 2017. When Folk landed on IR after four games, the Bucs brought Murray back for the remainder of that season.

- LB Jeff Gooch. A fan favorite thanks largely to how pleasurable it was to drag out the yelling of his last name, Gooch was an undrafted free agent in 1996 who started out on special teams but eventually got a chance to start for the whole 1998 season. Like Dunn and Moore, he left after the 2001 season, missed the Super Bowl run while playing in Detroit for two seasons. Gooch came back in 2004 for one more season in Tampa, playing in all 16 games with one start.

- QB Brian Griese. The Bucs originally signed Griese, the former Bronco, as a free agent in 2004 and he would start 16 games over the next two seasons. He was 5-1 as a starter in 2005 before his season ended due to an ACL tear. Griese left to sign with the Bears in 2006 but Chicago traded him back to Tampa Bay in 2008 and he started five more games in what would prove to be his final NFL season. Griese had a 12-9 record as a starter and an 85.5 passer rating over his two stints in Tampa.

- S Dexter Jackson. Jackson's first four seasons in Tampa culminated in Super Bowl XXXVII, where he earned MVP honors for his two momentum-swinging interceptions in the first half. Jackson's star turn on the biggest stage allowed him to land a big contract with the Cardinals in 2003. However, after starting the 2004 season on injured reserve he was released by Arizona in October and returned to Tampa in November. Over the next season-and-a-half he played in 17 games with 11 starts before finishing his career with three seasons in Cincinnati. Overall, Jackson played in 73 games with 42 starts for the Bucs, securing 17 interceptions.

- WR/KR Micheal Spurlock. Spurlock made franchise history in 2007 when he returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown against Atlanta. That was the 1,865th kickoff return by a Buccaneer but the first that reached the opposite end zone. That was his first season in Tampa after he had originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Cardinals in 2006. After spending 2008 on the Bucs' practice squad, Spurlock signed with the 49ers in 2009 but was cut later that season and came back to Tampa. He would add one more touchdown each on a punt and kickoff return for the Bucs over the next two-and-a-half seasons, and his kickoff return score in 2010 remains the last time a Tampa Bay player has taken one to the house.

Others: CB Billy Cesare, 1978-79 and 1981; FB Jameel Cook, 2001-05, 2008; T Cornell Green, 2002-03, 2006; DT Jovan Haye, 2006-08, 2011; DE George Johnson, 2010-12, 2015-16; G Ted Larsen, 2010-13, 2020; G Sean Mahan 2003-06; 2008-09; WR Frank Murphy, 2000-01, 2004; OLB Carl Nassib, 2018-19, 2022; WR Breshad Perriman, 2019, 2021-22; P Mark Royals, 1990-91, 1999-2001; CB Ryan Smith, 2016-19, 2022; P Larry Swider, 1977, 1981-82;

Now on to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me any time you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to

I never quite understood the point of restructuring, it seems so overpowered, why doesn't every team do it?

- garrettgoodwin (via Instagram)

Every team does do it. All the time. It's an extremely common way to create space under the salary cap. Frequently, these moves aren't even highly publicized. The Bucs have done it with Mike Evans multiple times throughout his career.

I'm not sure what you mean by "overpowered," but it's definitely a very useful tool in the business of salary cap management. Typically, a restructuring takes the form of a portion of a player's base salary being converted into some type of bonus. By doing this, a team can reduce the cap hit of a player's contract in the current year because bonuses are spread out over however many years are left on that deal. Here's a very simplified example: A player has a contract that is supposed to play him $10 million a year in base salary over the next five years. If the team takes $5 million of that salary in the current year and converts it into a roster bonus, that $5 million hit is now spread out over five years. Thus, the player's cap hit in the current year would be reduced from $10 million to $6 million.

There's never a reason for a player to say no when approached about a potential restructuring of this type. He still gets paid the same amount but gets a bigger chunk of it right away. The cap hit might be prorated over five seasons but the actual bonus is paid right away. The downside for the team, of course, is that the player's cap hit in subsequent years increases. But if a team needs some cap relief right now, it can create some with a restructuring and then figure out how to deal with it down the road.

With the CD24 trade what options are there at CB?

- chelschoicelife (via Instagram)

The obvious first choice to replace Carlton Davis in the starting lineup after he was traded to the Lions on Wednesday is third-year cornerback Zyon McCollum. Due to various injuries sustained by Davis and Jamel Dean last year, McCollum actually started nine games at cornerback in 2023, and the Bucs' coaches liked what they saw. When the Bucs got Davis and Dean back on the field at the same time later in the season, the Bucs were so eager to keep McCollum on the field in some manner that they used him at safety. However, despite his good showing at that spot, Head Coach Todd Bowles said that he "likes" McCollum at safety but "loves" him at cornerback.

Josh Hayes, a sixth-round pick in 2023 who made an instant impact on special teams as a rookie, could be in the mix, too. He didn't see a lot of playing time on defense last year, though, so you'd have to say he remains an unproven commodity at cornerback to this point. Other young cornerbacks on the roster include Keenan Isaac and Quandre Mosely, though the former hasn't played a defensive snap yet and the latter has played just one, for the Patriots in 2022. Presumably Christian Izien will continue to play in the slot and thus wouldn't be considered an option at outside corner.

Even if those young corners pan out in some way, the Bucs definitely need depth at the position, particularly after the Davis trade. The first two days of the draft could bring some of that. It would be no surprise to see the Bucs use their first-round pick on the position, something they haven't done since 2016. Some of the corner prospects who commonly show up in the back half of this year's mock drafts are Clemson's Nate Wiggins, Iowa's Cooper DeJean and Alabama's Kool-Aid McKinstry.

The Bucs under GM Jason Licht have also shown an ability to find very good corners on the second day of the draft. Davis was a second-rounder and Dean was a third-rounder. Heck, McCollum was a fifth-rounder. Sean Murphy-Bunting was a second-round pick, as well. If the Bucs wait until Round Two they may be able to land someone like Notre Dame's Cam Hart, Louisville's Jarvis Brownlee or Iowa State's T.J. Tampa (which would be pretty cool).

The Bucs could also sign Dee Delaney back. He's versatile and has experience in Bowles's defense. While I don't expect the Buccaneers to be big shoppers in free agency after re-signing all their own key players, there might be some depth available at a reasonable price later in the process.

Are you surprised Baker did not test free agency?

- alextcaceres (via Instagram)

Not really. Also, I think sometimes a pending free agent can "test" free agency without officially testing it. That is, it's possible that Baker Mayfield and his agent were able to get a general feel for what type of deals might be out there for him. I don't mean that in the "tampering" sense in anyway, just in the sense that it's possible to form a guesstimate of what opportunities are out there. When asked at his press conference if he felt like he "left any money on the table" to stay with the Buccaneers, and if he did so in order to help the team keep its other key free agents, Mayfield said this:

"For me, I said it immediately after our Detroit game, following the loss: to build a winning team and to have a lot of the key pieces that we needed back to continue this run and improve it, some sacrifices have to be made. Now, listen, this is life-changing money and I'm not going to act otherwise. It's something that I've worked extremely hard for over the years and many years of football. I'm grateful for it. There's nothing to be ashamed about. There's nothing to say, 'Oh, well he got more.' It's not that mentality. Knowing that we have a chance to bring back some key pieces and make a further run in the playoffs, that's important to me. I'm a winner at heart, I hate losing, so knowing that we get a lot of guys back and we can continue to build this for years to come is a special thing."

What seems to have happened here is that the Buccaneers and Mayfield were able to strike the right balance to give the quarterback a fair enough deal that allowed him to be where he wanted to be while still getting what he had earned. Listen, he told us straight up multiple times throughout the season – he wanted to stay in Tampa if they could work it out. He has made some very good friendships in his short time here, he likes how the organization is run, he likes the recent history of success, he thinks he has a talented roster around him and he proved he could win with the Buccaneers.

And, at the same time, Buccaneer representatives like Todd Bowles said they wanted Mayfield back, too. As much as Mayfield bet on himself with his one year deal with the Buccaneers, the Bucs bet on him that he could keep the team in playoff contention after the retirement of Tom Brady. The Bucs were clearly motivated to re-sign Mayfield and so they were ready to do what it takes to get that done before he got a chance to test the free agent market.

Funny how media is saying we have a strong roster after the re-signings, but before training camp last year said we'd win 2 games

- iamlilleto (via Instagram)

Yeah, it's fun to revel in the aftermath of your team wildly defying expectations, and the Bucs and their fans should certainly enjoy this. That said, it's fair to note that much has changed since last summer.

The way I remember it is this: Tom Brady retired, the Bucs had won the division with just an 8-9 record in 2022 and there wasn't much confidence in the assembled media that the team could stay afloat. Most of the time, the analysis went like this: "Yes, the Bucs still have a lot of talent on offense and a defense that should remain pretty good, but they don't have a quarterback so they won't win games." This was after the Bucs had signed Mayfield, mind you. What that meant was there specifically wasn't much confidence (outside Buc headquarters) in Mayfield being a quarterback who could be at the helm of a winning team.

My argument at the time was, well, that means if you're wrong about Mayfield then the Bucs absolutely should be a contending team. And we had actually seen that before, when Mayfield had a very good season for the Cleveland Browns in 2020, leading them to the postseason and a victory in the opening round. And that's exactly what happened in Tampa when Mayfield proved the doubters wrong.

Now, I would hazard a guess that there are some former Mayfield doubters in the media who feel more bullish about what he can do in 2024 (not all of them, of course, but some). So those same analysts who felt like the Bucs had a talented roster outside of the quarterback position in 2023 are going to say good things about the 2024 roster after the team was able retain all its key potential free agents. That only make sense.

However, I wouldn't get too into the hype. The Falcons are already being pumped up as the favorites to win a "weak" NFC South after signing Kirk Cousins. I think you're still going to see lots of doubters of the 2024 Buccaneers when the summer rolls around, and that's just fine. It would be a lot of fun if the Bucs can prove those doubters wrong again and give us something to gloat about next offseason.

Given what we've done in free agency so far, what direction do you think we're going in the draft, specifically with our first pick?

- Frank CJr (via Instagram)

Just to be totally clear here, these are my own thoughts on the matter and are not meant in any way to suggest that I am privy to the draft strategies of Jason Licht and his crew.

The three positions that stick out for me as probable targets in the first round of the draft, particularly after this first wave of free agency, are edge rusher, cornerback and interior offensive line. Personally, I kind of like the idea of getting a receiver in the first round – Brian Thomas, anyone? – but that might be more of a luxury after Mike Evans re-signed with the team.

Obviously, there's a new hole on the depth chart at outside linebacker after the release of Shaq Barrett. Even before that move, however, adding talent on the edge is always a good idea and seems like a good move for the 2024 Buccaneers. Yaya Diaby, a 2023 third-rounder who quickly became a starter, seems like a real keeper and is a good place for that unit to start. The Bucs might also still be counting on getting more out of 2021 first-round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, but the team's overall sack production from its edge rushers wasn't overwhelming in 2023. Diaby led the way with 7.5 sacks but nobody else in that group had more than five.

As noted above, cornerback seems like more of a priority after the trade of Davis to the Lions. McCollum looks like Plan A to replace him in the starting lineup but it's always good to have multiple plans at that position. Given the versatility of such players as McCollum, Izien and Winfield, the Bucs would probably be able to find a way to get a first-round cornerback into the defensive mix pretty quickly. Of course, given how well Licht has drafted that position in the second and third rounds, the Bucs may feel like they can wait until Day Two to address this need.

As for the interior line, both of the players who made starts at left guard last year, Aaron Stinnie and Matt Feiler, are currently free agents. It would make sense to invest in that group again, even after using a second-round pick on guard Cody Mauch last year. Robert Hainsey is versatile enough to play multiple positions, so the Buccaneers could decide to seek an upgrade at either guard or center.

In the second or third round I could see the Bucs taking a swing at off-ball linebacker. Devin White is a free agent and may not return. K.J. Britt played well in White's spot late last season but the Bucs could still invest in the future at that position, especially with Lavonte David now going year to year on his contracts. This year's draft is not considered strong at the linebacker position, and it's quite possible none come off the board in the first round. However, there are some intriguing options that could go on Day Two.

View photos from Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield's signing day and media press conference at AdventHealth Training Center on Wednesday, March 13, 2024

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