Bucs' 2019 Free Agency Work Paid Off Handsomely

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There are only two weeks left in the 2019 NFL campaign, and after Super Bowl LIV is contested on February 2, the league's attention will immediately shift to 2020. And the official beginning of that league year is March 18, with unrestricted free agency kicking off at 4:00 p.m. ET.

Between the Super Bowl and the end of March, hundreds of players will find new homes or sign new contracts to stay put. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for instance, have 19 players who are currently due to become unrestricted free agents. Some are likely to re-sign before the start of free agency, some will get to test the market. The same process happens every year with every team in the league.

Take a look at the Buccaneers players officially slated to become unrestricted, restricted, or exclusive rights free agents when the NFL's free agency period begins in March.

Last year, the Buccaneers had a busy stretch of weeks before and after the start of free agency. In the end, the moves they made in (mostly) March had a great impact on the 2019 season. As we try to guess what will happen this year with the likes of Jameis Winston, Shaquil Barrett and Breshad Perriman, let's take a look back at the moves the Bucs made a year ago and how each one turned out.

This review will cover the players the Buccaneers signed from other teams in free agency as well as the potential free agents of their own that were re-signed before or after the league year began. They are presented in chronological order and essentially cover the activity in the month of March, with one more critical move in May listed as well.

- March 5: Re-signed tackle Donovan Smith

The Bucs made a new three-year commitment to their iron man left tackle more than a week before he could have become an unrestricted free agent. Smith thus continued to man one of the most important positions on the field for virtually every snap. Though he saw his career-opening string of games started snapped at 77 when he missed one December contest, Smith was otherwise a key cog in an offense that set a whole slew of new team records. This was one of the Bucs' most important and successful moves in and around free agency in 2019.

- March 5: Re-signed linebacker Devante Bond

Bond could have become a restricted free agent if the Bucs had extended the necessary qualifying offer prior to free agency, but the team skipped that step by simply re-signing Bond to a one-year deal. This was a depth move and it didn't end up having much impact as Bond played in only four games before being released in October.

- March 6: Exercised contract option for 2020 on tackle Demar Dotson

Two days, two starting tackles retained. This was the team's decision, as it held a fourth-year option on the contract that Dotson had signed in 2016. Dotson started 15 of 16 games at right tackle in his age-34 season and also deserves credit for helping the Bucs' put up a franchise-record-number of points and passing yards. Dotson is now headed towards unrestricted free agency but his re-signing gave the Bucs' line one more season of continuity in 2019.

View some of the top game pictures from the Buccaneers' 2019 NFL season.

- March 12: Re-signed quarterback Ryan Griffin

The Bucs brought Griffin back for a fifth – fifth! – season on a new two-year contract and while he only threw four passes on the season he was the top reserve behind Jameis Winston the entire time thanks to Blaine Gabbert's preseason shoulder injury. Those were the first four regular-season passes that Griffin had thrown in his NFL career. He remains under contract for 2020 though it remains to see how the Buccaneers will approach that entire position in 2020.

- March 13: Re-signed kicker Cairo Santos

It's reasonable to speculate that Buccaneers' brass was already considering the option of drafting a kicker later that spring, but at the time it made sense to bring back the veteran who had performed well after being signed a bit after midseason in 2018. The Bucs did eventually select Utah's Matt Gay in the fifth round, which set up a head-to-head competition for the job in August. Both Gay and Santos performed very well in training camp and preseason games but the job went to the rookie. Head Coach Bruce Arians recently mentioned that he likes having preseason competition for his kickers, so this was a good move even if Santos didn't end up with a job in Tampa.

- March 13: Re-signed running back Peyton Barber

Like Bond, Barber could have been a restricted free agent if given the tender but instead signed a new one-year deal before free agency. This was pretty much a foregone conclusion, given that Barber had been the Bucs' starter and leading rusher in the 2018 backfield and was able to be retained without a big cap hit. Barber eventually ceded the starting job in 2019 to Ronald Jones but ended up with close to a 50-50 split in carries. It was an obvious move to bring Barber back in 2019 but now he's headed towards unrestricted free agency and the Bucs could look to shake up their backfield after a down year for their rushing attack.

- March 13: Re-signed linebacker Kevin Minter

The Buccaneers had picked up Minter midway through the 2018 season after a rash of injuries to their linebacking corps. Between the end of that season and the start of the 2019 league year, the team hired a new head coach in Bruce Arians, who just happened to be Minter's coach in Arizona for four years. Minter ended up being a core special teamer and also filled in well as a starter in place of rookie Devin White for roughly a month. This proved to be a very good depth signing, and perhaps the Bucs will do it again as Minter once again heads towards unrestricted free agency in March.

March 14: Signed unrestricted free agent punter Bradley Pinion

In the end, the Buccaneers ended up with very similar punting production (gross and net averages) with Pinion in 2019 as they got from Bryan Anger, who was released in February, the year before. However, the team also coveted the former 49er for his kickoff prowess, and Pinion definitely delivered on that with an NFL single-season-record 88 touchdowns. Only seven of his 97 kickoffs were returned all season. This didn't prove to be a spectacular signing like a few of the others soon to be examined, but Pinion gave the team solid work in two capacities.

March 14: Signed unrestricted free agent wide receiver Breshad Perriman

For those who were patient, this proved to be a very good signing for Tampa Bay in 2019. A former first-round pick in Baltimore in 2015, Perriman struggled with injuries for three years with the Ravens, then ended up in Cleveland in 2018 and finished the season on a hot streak with a string of big plays. He seemed set to re-sign with the Browns last summer but the team's plans changed after a trade for Odell Beckham and Perriman was given a chance to sign elsewhere, landing in Tampa on a one-year deal. Perriman was the Bucs' third receiver right from the start of the season but he found few pass-catching opportunities with the ball so frequently going to Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. Perriman began to emerge in the second half of the season, though, and then became the team's primary target after hamstring injuries to Godwin and Evans. He finished the season with three straight 100-yard games and a final total of 645 yards and six touchdowns, both excellent totals for a third receiver.

- March 15: Re-signed cornerback De'Vante Harris

Harris was a potential restricted free agent who did not get a tender offer and was not re-signed prior to the new league year, which meant he essentially became an unrestricted free agent on March 14. His time on the market didn't last long as he elected to sign a new one-year deal with the Bucs the next day. This was another depth signing and it didn't end up having much impact on the season as Harris was released at the end of August and did not catch on with another team in 2019.

- March 15: Re-signed defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches

Nunez-Roches was another midseason depth pickup by the Bucs during the 2018 campaign and another one they decided to bring back for another full season in 2019. Nunez-Roches hit unrestricted free agency very briefly, too, but re-signed on a one-year deal. He was a rotational reserve behind a very good starting defensive line, finishing with nine tackles and a fumble recovery. This was not a high-impact signing but Nunez-Roches did play in every game.

- March 15: Signed linebacker/safety Deone Bucannon

Bucannon was another depth signing and a player with whom Arians was familiar from their time together with the Cardinals. Bucannon was seen as a possible reserve at several different spots after he played both safety and linebacker in Arizona, but he never carved out a role of any significance in the defense. When White went down, it was Minter who stepped in. Bucannon's role on special teams wasn't huge, either, so he was an unsurprising October cut before the deadline that determines compensatory picks. This did not prove to be a signing of much impact, and the Bucs quickly replaced Bucannon on the depth chart with a younger linebacker, Noah Dawkins.

- March 18: Signed unrestricted free agent outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett

The question isn't whether this was the Bucs' best signing in free agency in 2019 but whether it was the best signing by any team last spring. Signing a reserve from another team who becomes a productive starter on your team is the dream scenario on the open market, and when that guy also ends up leading the NFL in sacks it's more than just a home run of a move – it's a grand slam by a guy who's also pitching a perfect game. Barrett's team-record 19.5 sacks got him to the Pro Bowl; he's one of only two players who signed with new teams as unrestricted free agents last spring and then went on to qualify for the Pro Bowl for the first time. The only downside for the Buccaneers in their signing of Barrett: It was only for one year. Barrett took a prove-it deal and proved it to the hilt, which means a new and much bigger contract will be needed to keep him around in 2020 and beyond.

- March 18: Signed unrestricted free agent guard Earl Watford

Another Arians reunion, this one brought in a veteran and versatile offensive lineman, but not necessarily to start. The Buccaneers were definitely set at center and left guard with Ryan Jensen and Ali Marpet, though right guard was a little more open and Watford was a potential candidate to replace Caleb Benenoch there. But it was clear that Plan A was second-year man Alex Cappa, a 2018 third-round pick, and Cappa never relinquished the job after getting the first crack. Still, Watford did exactly as expected, filling in for the injured Cappa at one point and otherwise serving as the extra interior lineman who is active on game days. Watford was often used as the "eligible" blocker in jumbo packages, too. The Watford signing produced pretty much exactly the expected results.

- March 18: Signed safety Kentrell Brice

The Bucs' safety position was in flux as Arians and his coaching staff arrived, with Justin Evans still recovering from a foot injury, Chris Conte coming off injured reserve and heading towards free agency and Andrew Adams also having an expiring contract. The Bucs gave themselves a number of new options at the position during the offseason, including this former Packer. Brice was not technically an unrestricted free agent; he had hit the market when Green Bay elected not to give him the restricted free agent tender. The Bucs later used a third-round pick on safety Mike Edwards and found a potential gem of an undrafted player in safety D'Cota Dixon. Adams later returned in early September, too. Brice did not find a spot in all of those and was waived in the final roster cuts. This was another low-impact signing.

- March 27: Signed quarterback Blaine Gabbert

Gabbert, who had previously played under Arians in Arizona, became available when the Titans released him right at the start of free agency after trading for Ryan Tannehill. After a busy first week of free agency, the Bucs had been quite for another week before choosing to sign Gabbert towards the end of the month. That put Gabbert in competition with Griffin for the primary reserve spot (and perhaps just one roster spot in the regular season) behind Jameis Winston, though it was clear early on that Arians preferred the regular-season experience of Gabbert. It became a moot point when Gabbert suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason, which leaked into the regular season and eventually pushed him to injured reserve. Gabbert signed a one-year deal last March, so this too could be an addition of little on-field value if the Bucs don't seek to re-sign him once again this offseason.

- May 23: Signed unrestricted free agent defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh

NFL rosters are always under construction in the offseason, so there were a handful of signings in April and early May, but not the notable types of additions that happen early in free agency. The Bucs added the likes of safety Orion Stewart, wide receiver Bryan Mitchell and outside linebacker David Kenney during this time, but otherwise focused on the draft and undrafted free agents. However, there was one more big roster change coming before the summer: the Buccaneers chose to release long-time standout lineman Gerald McCoy and then just three days later filled that spot with Suh, who had most recently played for the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. McCoy quickly landed with Carolina, which was surely happy to have him, but the Buccaneers also ended up very pleased with their addition of Suh. The 10th-year veteran – coincidentally drafted one spot ahead of McCoy early in the first round in 2010 – was one of the main reasons Tampa Bay fielded the best run defense in the NFL, and in their own franchise history. Suh's 2.5 sacks were a career-low but didn't accurately reflect his impact on the defense. He was frequently double-teamed, which helped out the Bucs' edge rushers immensely on the way to a team total of 47 sacks, second-most in franchise history. Because this signing happened when it did, that late in the offseason, it does not count in the formula used to determine compensatory picks in 2020. That's yet another positive aspect of a very good signing by the Buccaneers, which was part of a quite successful 2019 foray in free agency overall.

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