The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have done an impressive job of "keeping the band together" despite the threat of free agency decimating their Super Bowl roster. Chris Godwin, Lavonte David, Shaquil Barrett, Rob Gronkowski, Ryan Succop, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Kevin Minter and Aaron Stinnie have all had their services secured for a 2021 title defense, and there are reports of several more signings to come.
Meanwhile, as the Buccaneers have focused on re-signing their own core contributors, there has been plenty of player movement around the NFL since free agency began on March 17. Joe Thuney is now a Chief and Corey Linsley has joined him in the AFC West by signing with the Chargers. Kyle Fuller got dropped by the Bears for cap reasons and immediately signed on with the Broncos. The Patriots did a decade's worth of free agency in a week. And so on.
Tampa Bay's chances of successfully defending its title and becoming the first back-to-back champs since Tom Brady's Patriots in 2003-04 improved with their internal work in and around free agency. However, 31 other teams are making moves to try to keep that from happening, and some of those moves will have a direct effect on Tampa Bay this fall. Here are five ways the first rush of free agency (plus a couple trades) have altered the landscape for the Buccaneers in 2021:
1. An Old Friend and an Old Foe
Ryan Fitzpatrick, perpetrator of the Buccaneers' best non-Super Bowl press conference in the last decade, will play for his ninth NFL team after signing a one-year deal with Washington on the first day of free agency. His seventh team was Tampa Bay, during the 2017-18 season. Fitzpatrick kicked the starting job back and forth with Jameis Winston during those two seasons and produced some very prolific outings. The Bucs didn't re-sign him after the 2018 season but he left behind plenty of friends and admirers when he headed downstate to Miami.
The NFC South will match up with the NFC North in 2021, which means the Buccaneers will have another away date at Washington after beating the Football Team at FedExField in the Wild Card Game in January. While he may end up as a short-term veteran bridge to a younger passer in Washington, Fitzpatrick is the favorite to start this season. If so, and if he's under center when the Buccaneers visit it will be, remarkably, the first time he's ever faced Tampa Bay in the regular season. In fact, the Bays Green and Tampa are the only two teams he has never played against.
Having seen him throw for over 400 yards in a game four times in their uniform in 2018 alone, the Buccaneers are well aware that Fitzpatrick is a gunslinger who can get red hot and put up huge numbers against any defense. That's a challenge they might not have had to face had Fitzpatrick stayed with the Dolphins and backed up Tua Tagovailoa or signed with some AFC team out west.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers will also have a road contest against a quarterback with whom they are very familiar for the opposite reason. The New England Patriots made a mildly surprising move by re-signing former Carolina Panther quarterback Cam Newton after a relatively lackluster first year together, and he is currently the favorite to start. Depending upon how the draft shakes out or if there's another QB move on the horizon in New England (Jimmy Garoppolo?), the Bucs' defense should expect to get acquainted with Newton.
During his nine years in Charlotte, Newton faced the Buccaneers 14 times and led his team to victory nine times. Not only has he thrown for 3,262 yards and 20 touchdowns in those games but he also ran for 510 yards and nine scores, his most against any opponent. The NFC South also plays the AFC East's four teams this year, so Tom Brady's much-ballyhooed return to Foxborough will also be intriguing in terms of the other starting quarterback, potentially.
2. More Challenges for the Secondary
The top five-catchers who actually changed teams in free agency – at least, if one agrees with this list – all joined teams that are on Tampa Bay's 2021 schedule. And they all left teams that are not on the Bucs' 2021 schedule.
Those five are former Lions wideout Kenny Golladay (now with the Giants), former Chargers tight end Hunter Henry (now a Patriot), former Texans receiver Will Fuller (now a Dolphin), former Titans receiver Corey Davis (now a Jet) and former Titans tight end Jonnu Smith (also now a Patriot). In addition, former Panthers receiver Curtis Samuel signed with Washington and former Saints receiver Emmanuel Sanders signed with Buffalo, but in both cases that actually reduces the Bucs' potential games against them from two to one in 2021.
The Henry-Smith pairing in New England is particularly noteworthy because it should transform how the Patriots run their offense, at least compared to a rough 2020 season. Bill Belichick's Patriots have long made good use of tight ends and probably hoped to return to that last year after drafting two of them, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, in the third round last year. Those two didn't pan out, however, so the Patriots took to free agency to nab both of the two most coveted players at that position. Buccaneer defenders should expect to see a lot of "12" personnel when they square off against the Patriots this fall.
The Bucs actually missed Golladay last year as their Week 16 trip to Detroit was one of the 11 games he was out due to injury, and they very much held him in check in two previous meetings. However, the former third-round pick had a monstrous 2019 season before his injury-plagued 2020, as his 18.3 yards per catch and 11 touchdowns showed he could be one of the NFL's top deep threats. It will also be interesting to see what Davis and Fuller can do to help young quarterbacks unlock their talents with the Jets and Dolphins.
3. A Rebuilt Line in Carolina
The Buccaneers beat the Panthers twice in 2020, and in those two contests they recorded eight sacks and 15 quarterback hits. (One of those sacks came on a failed fake punt by the Panthers and was recorded by wide receiver Justin Watson, but it still counts.) Carolina dealt with a number of injuries on their offensive line, plus the lack of development so far by 2019 second-round pick Greg Little, and ranked 24th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play.
After the 2020 season was over, the Panthers were looking at the possibility of four of their five O-Line starters hitting free agency. They subsequently used their franchise tag to lock down the best of the bunch, right tackle Taylor Moton. Left tackle Russell Okung (who actually only started seven games due to injury) and left guard Chris Reed have not been re-signed. Right guard John Miller was given a new one-year deal but the team subsequently signed Pat Elflein, who could push Miller to backup status.
In addition to Elflein, the Panthers also signed former Cowboy Cameron Erving who may battle with Little for the left tackle spot. Guard Dennis Daley, a 2019 sixth-round pick who started nine games as a rookie but was limited to just five contests and three starts last year, could also return to a starting spot at right guard. However it all shakes out, the Panthers' line is going to look quite different than it did a year ago, and if it can have better injury fortune it might be a tougher challenge for Buccaneer pass-rushers in 2021.
4. More QB Shuffling on Bucs' Docket
In addition to the Fitzpatrick move to Washington and Newton's new deal to stay in New England, there have been a number of other developments on the 2021 QB carousel that will potentially impact the Buccaneers.
The biggest one was the enormous new contract the Dallas Cowboys finally gave Dak Prescott. The Buccaneers have a home date with the Cowboys this fall, and with Prescott presumably back from his horrible ankle injury in 2020 the Dallas offense is likely to be a much bigger challenge for Tampa Bay's defense. Had the Cowboys let Prescott hit free agency and potentially move on, they might have tried to re-sign Andy Dalton; instead, Dalton took a one-year deal to be the new starter (as he was told) in Chicago. The Buccaneers have a home date with the Bears in 2021.
Dalton will only have to battle Nick Foles for that starting job after Mitchell Trubisky hit free agency and signed in Buffalo. The Bucs also play the Bills this year but presumably won't see Trubisky in action unless Josh Allen is injured. Still, the Buccaneers surely remember being the team that allowed Trubisky to put together his single greatest NFL game in 2017.
The Bucs only NFC North opponent this year is the Bears, so they would have avoided another meeting with Matthew Stafford had the Lions' new brain trust not swapped him to the Rams. Los Angeles is on Tampa Bay's schedule this year, so the Bucs likely will get another crack at the long-time Lion. The Bucs knocked him out of last year's Week 16 game early but Stafford has played Tampa Bay four other times in his career and won three of them, with a combined passer rating of 98.2.
In New Orleans, the anticipated retirement of Drew Brees finally happened on March 14 and the next day the Saints agreed to a new one-year contract with former Buccaneer Jameis Winston. Winston and Taysom Hill will battle to be Brees's replacement, at least in the short term. Winston threw one 12-yard pass in the Saints' Week Nine blowout win in Tampa and one more for a touchdown on a trick play in the Bucs' Wild Card win in New Orleans. If he beats out Hill, or if the Saints find a creative way to use both quarterbacks, Winston could have several opportunities to sting the team that drafted him first overall in 2015.
Finally, the Eagles moved on from their former first-rounder, Carson Wentz, trading him to the Colts and potentially clearing the way for 2020 second-rounder Jalen Hurts to take over. Some pundits expected Philadelphia to jump into the QB fray in the upcoming draft with the sixth-overall pick, but now that the Eagles have traded down to number 12 that seems less likely. That should give the Bucs' defense an opportunity to figure into Philadelphia's evaluation of Hurts, with the Eagles on Tampa Bay's schedule this fall.
Also, the Wentz trade could have double impact on the Bucs' 2021 list of quarterback foes if the NFL does, as expected, add a 17th game to the season. The Bucs' extra game is expected to be a trip to Indianapolis.
5. Imbalance on the Edge
The Buccaneers have seen more notable edge rushers move on to their 2021 schedule than off of it so far in free agency.
The biggest free agency defection that is a plus for Tampa Bay's offensive line was that of Trey Hendrickson, who used his breakout 2020 season in New Orleans to attract a big deal from the Bengals. However, the Bengals might not have been in the market for an edge rusher if their own top guy, Carl Lawson hadn't departed for the Jets. So the Bucs won't have to face Hendrickson but they do have the Jets and Lawson on their schedule.
In addition, Baltimore's Matt Judon was another one of the long list of signings in New England while Arizona's Haason Reddick followed his own mini-breakout in 2020 to a new deal in Carolina. Neither the Ravens nor the Cardinals are on Tampa Bay's schedule this year but the Bucs will get to see both Judon and Reddick (twice).
In addition, Kyle Van Noy returned to New England after a one-year exile in Miami and the Rams' Leonard Floyd was the one guy with the career year in 2020 who chose to stay put, re-signing with Los Angeles. The Bucs would have come up against Van Noy even if he had stayed with the Dolphins but Floyd could have conceivably gone off Tampa Bay's 2021 schedule if he hadn't made the wise choice to consider working alongside Aaron Donald.