Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Roundtable: Free Agent Re-Signing Priorities

Buccaneers.com contributors Andrew Norton, Joe Kania and Scott Smith debate which players on the team's list of pending free agents are most critical to retain.

Photos of the 2017 Buccaneers Free Agents.

Seventeen members of the 2016 Tampa Bay Buccaneers – a team that improved by three wins over the previous year and found itself on the cusp of the playoffs – are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents (UFAs) on March 9. That would be the largest group of UFAs the Buccaneers have had to deal with in many years.

It's possible, of course, that the list of 17 will be trimmed down a bit before the new league year begins on March 9. Pending free agents can't talk to other teams until the pre-market negotiating window opens on March 7, but they are free to discuss the future with their current teams. If the Buccaneers are interested in bringing some of those 17 players back – and it's almost definite that they are – they could avoid the uncertainty of free agency with some useful contract work over the next two weeks.

Where should the Bucs start? That's what we're here to debate today. Andrew Norton, Joe Kania and I are bringing back our Roundtable format to tackle this important issue: Which potential Buccaneer free agents should be the team's re-signing priorities?

Let's note, as always, that these are our opinions and not necessarily meant to reflect the thoughts or strategies of General Manager Jason Licht, Head Coach Dirk Koetter or any of the professionals on their staffs. With that out of the way, let's get started. Andrew, why don't you go first and I'll pull up the rear.

Roundtable: Which Potential Unrestricted Free Agents Should the Bucs Prioritize Re-Signing?

Andrew Norton: DT Will Gholston

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Since being drafted in the fourth round in 2013, Will Gholston has made a name for himself in Tampa, improving every season and is coming off of his best year yet. He started 14 games for the Buccaneers, racking up 49 tackles (the most of any Bucs D-lineman), a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three sacks. While the sacks may not jump off the page for a 4-3 defensive end, he has made his presence felt in a big way as a run defender. His 37 solo tackles were eighth in the NFL for defensive ends and he had nine tackles for a loss, third most on the team.

After playing for four years, he has seen his tackles, sacks and playing time increase each year and is entering what some would consider to be the prime of his career. If you factor in his potential as a pass-rusher and assume a sack increase as he continues to develop in the NFL, you have a very well-rounded defensive end who can go after the quarterback and can showcase his already-proven discipline (and tenacity) in the run game. He would be a valuable piece in an improving Buccaneers defensive line that already features Gerald McCoy, Robert Ayers, Clinton McDonald and second-year DE Noah Spence. Keep in mind that this five-man group already has a season together and will be returning with their defensive coordinator, Mike Smith. This unit could be one to watch if they can all stay healthy in 2017.

Joe Kania: S Bradley McDougald

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No Buccaneer free agent saw more playing time in 2016 than McDougald, who started all 16 games at safety and was on the field for 95.3 percent of the teams' defensive snaps, according to Football Outsiders. Just three other Buccaneers – Vernon Hargreaves, Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander – were called upon more often than McDougald was. He also took 82 snaps on special teams, nearly one-fifth of the team's workload. McDougald has been one of the most reliable Buccaneers over the course of the past two seasons, starting all but one game. And his 2016 season was his best, as he finished with 91 tackles, two interceptions and 10 passes defensed.

While the Bucs will likely seek help in the secondary through free agency and the draft, they could potentially lose two starting safeties, with McDougald and Chris Conte set to hit the open market. Keith Tandy came on strong at the end of the season, but the Bucs would be in good hands if they could retain either McDougald or Conte, whether they intend on starting either player or keeping them on the roster to provide depth. If I had to pick one, I'd hope to see the team keep McDougald.

Scott Smith: WR Russell Shepard

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I think you two probably made the right opening picks. I mean, we are talking about two starters on a defense that really started to come together in the second half of 2016. Just as we were thrilled to see Mike Smith remain as defensive coordinator, it would be nice to see as much continuity as possible on the field so that last year's improvement can continue.

My pick isn't necessarily as easy to defend, since Shepard's role on offense, while in the end more than was originally expected, wasn't as significant as Gholston or McDougald's on defense. Shepard has steadily improved as an NFL wide receiver over his four years with the team, but I'm anticipating that the Buccaneers will be adding to that position during this offseason, which could reduce the veteran's playing time again.

And that might actually be a good thing. After Shepard was pressed into a much larger portion of offensive playing time by injuries to Vincent Jackson and Cecil Shorts, he was necessarily asked to do less on special teams, where he was one of the Buccaneers' captains. If you bring Shepard back and pair him again with Josh Robinson (another special teams ace and pending free agent), you would have one of the best gunner pairs in the NFL. Don't take that lightly. In reality, it's a little hard to separate Shepard and Robinson here in terms of re-signing priority. They're almost options 1A and 1B, and ideally they will both be back. I went with Shepard merely because he has been doing it as a Buccaneer for four seasons to Robinson's one.

Andrew Norton: RB Jacquizz Rodgers

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No problems with your pick, Scott. Hard to argue against keeping a captain around. In addition to Shepard's contributions on special teams and his ability to fill in at receiver when called upon, you have to account for the attitude and leadership that a captain brings to the locker room. Since he's off the board, I'm going with depth for my second choice in Jacquizz Rodgers, who was just signed in September of 2016.

He may not be the flashiest back in the world, but Rodgers put in very good work when he was needed. With Doug Martin and Charles Sims both injured, Rodgers came in as the Buccaneers main back and excelled in a Dirk Koetter-led offense, which he had experience in from his time in Atlanta. He ended up leading the Buccaneers in rushing with a career-high 560 yards on 129 carries, an average of 4.3 yards per tote. Even if it would be in a backup role in his return to the Bucs this summer, it goes back to this: having a proven veteran back who is familiar with the offense is never a bad thing.

Joe Kania: OT Gosder Cherilus

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There's something to be said for having depth on the offensive line, and Cherilus provides just that. The Buccaneers signed him in 2015 to help fill the void after Demar Dotson went down in the preseason with a knee injury, and Cherilus went on to start 13 games. This season, he was in the starting lineup three times. While he is strictly a tackle and won't be asked to play guard or center, he's a reliable veteran who the Bucs can count on if either Dotson or left tackle Donovan Smith are unable to play.

Whether or not he's in the starting lineup, Cherilus finds himself on the field often as a sixth offensive lineman in the Bucs' Jumbo Package. He took 222 offensive snaps in 2016, or roughly 20 percent of the team's total workload, according to Football Outsiders.

While his contributions on the field are significant, he's also a valuable asset in the locker room for a Buccaneer team with a fairly young offensive line. Two of the team's starters – Smith and Ali Marpet – just completed their second year in the NFL. And Cherilus' apparent successor as the Bucs' swing tackle, Leonard Wester, just wrapped up his rookie season. I was tempted to list Joe Hawley, the Bucs' starting center, but Tampa Bay has a proven starter currently on the roster in Evan Smith and I believe the team will look to add their center of the future through the draft or free agency.

Scott Smith: CB Josh Robinson

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Alright, what the heck: I'm just going to double down on my first pick. Let's bring BOTH Shepard and Robinson back and let Bryan Anger blast away, knowing his downfield coverage couldn't get much better. Even before Shepard turned most of his attention to offense last season, Robinson was emerging as an equally impactful special teams player, and during the second half of the season he seemed to make at least one big play a game.

There's not much more to add after my thoughts on Shepard, but I guess there is one more potential benefit to a return by Robinson. That is, he's a cornerback by trade and it's my strongly-held belief that you can never stop trying to add NFL-caliber talent at that position. It's very hard to build useful depth at cornerback. Now, Robinson only saw two snaps on defense last year, so it's fair to consider this speculative, but he did have several stretches with the Minnesota Vikings in which he played extensively and well at cornerback. If your special teams ace also happens to be a potential Band-Aid at a key position, that can't be a bad thing.

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