The Tampa Bay Buccaneers really are keeping the band together, or doing their level best to run back as much of their Super Bowl-winning roster as possible in 2021.
That 2021 league year officially began on Wednesday at 4:00 p.m. ET, kicking off the free agency period. However, free agency machinations actually began on Monday with the beginning of a two-day 'negotiating period' that was really the de facto start of the open market. Before that, the Buccaneers efforts to keep their 2020 core started last week with a franchise tag for Chris Godwin and a new deal for Lavonte David.
Deadline day brought the official re-signing of outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, which had been reported for days, and a new contract for guard Aaron Stinnie, who could have been a restricted free agent. There have been reports of other deals in the works, but nothing official from the team as Wednesday drew to a close.
Thus, there is still some work to do but it is not without question that, with some more free agency and salary cap magic, the Buccaneers could bring back all of their starters from the Super Bowl team. That would entail re-signing tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Leonard Fournette and defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Rakeem Nunez-Roches. Given that Fournette and Nunez-Roches were not the starters to open the 2020 season, and that Ronald Jones and Vita Vea are under contract for this season, the team is even closer to theoretically going all-22 from 2020 to 2021. At the very least, no one is gone yet.
This is the second time the Buccaneers will have a shot at defending a Super Bowl title, which made me curious – did the 2003 Buccaneers have this much continuity after winning Super Bowl XXVII? I decided to take a quick look.
The short answer is no, though that team did unsurprisingly try to run it back as much as possible in 2003. That team actually had far fewer free agency issues to worry about but did lose a few to lucrative free agency deals elsewhere. Compared to the starting 22 in Super Bowl XXXVII, there were seven different players in the opening lineup in Week One of the 2003 season. Practically speaking, though, there were four new starters, two on each side.
The most notable free agency defections for the Bucs after the 2002 season were free safety and Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson and strongside linebacker Alshermond Singleton. Center Jeff Christy also retired and the Bucs only two notable free agency additions were two new starters on the offensive line, John Wade and Jason Whittle. Wade replaced Christie and right guard Cosey Coleman moved to left guard with Whittle taking over at right guard, with Super Bowl starter Kerry Jenkins the odd man out. However, the Bucs went back to their Super Bowl lineup after five games with Whittle starting.
On defense, Dwight Smith moved to free safety to replace Dexter Jackson, but Smith had started the Super Bowl as the nickel back (and recorded two pick-sixes). So the new "starter" was at that nickel spot, and that was primarily Corey Ivy though there were some other combinations used. Singleton didn't start the Super Bowl with the Bucs in that sub package but his 2003 replacement at SAM linebacker was Ryan Nece.
Injuries in both seasons affected two other spots. Anthony McFarland was the nose tackle for much of the 2002 season but was on injured reserve before the playoffs, with his spot filled by Chartric Darby. McFarland was back in the lineup to open the 2003 campaign. On the flip side, Super Bowl middle linebacker Shelton Quarles didn't play the first five games of the 2003 season due to practice field arm fracture just before the opener. Nate Webster filled in until his return.
Thus it looks like, barring notable injuries, the 2021 team will have more of its Super Bowl lineup intact than did the 2003 squad, but it is taking a lot more work to get there, some of it already done and possibly some still to go.
Now, on to your questions.
A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime 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 email@example.com.
Who wins: 2020 offense & 2002 defense vs. 2002 offense & 2020 defense?
- @abredijick (via Instagram)
Oh come on, that's easy. The first of those two monster Buc hybrid teams essentially pairs the best offense in team history with the best defense in team history. That's the team I'm taking.
My case is helped by the fact that you didn't specify that we're only talking about the performances of those groups in the two actual Super Bowls. That would probably make it a lot closer because the 2020 defense was absolutely dominant in Super Bowl LV and the 2002 offense was pretty good in Super Bowl XXXVII (though 21 of the team's 48 points were scored by the defense).
But if we're talking full-season evaluations, it becomes a lot easier to pick a winner. I've done this before so I'll just quickly summarize it here, but the 2002 Bucs' defense was radically better than league average that season while the 2020 offense was far superior to the 2002 version, at least in terms of points scored. Here are the numbers:
· The 2002 offense scored 21.6 points per game and the league average was 21.7 per game, which made the Bucs 0.5% worse than league average.
· The 2020 offense scored 30.8 points per game and the league average was 24.8 per game, which made the Bucs 24.2% better than league average.
· The 2002 defense allowed 12.3 points per game and the league average was 21.7 per game, which made the Bucs 43.3% better than league average.
· The 2020 defense allowed 22.2 points per game and the league average was 24.8 per game, which made the Bucs 10.5% better than league average.
Before the playoffs began at the end of the 2020 season, I would have stumped for the 2002 defense over the 2020 defense and insisted it wasn't even close. However, after seeing this year's group blitz through the postseason, hold Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes in check and not even allow a touchdown in the Super Bowl, I'm not quite as sure. Given it's entire body of work and the fact it contained three Hall of Famers and perhaps one day a fourth, I'd still have to side with the 2002 defense, but the current one still has time to close the gap.
As for the offenses, I'm a huge fan of Brad Johnson but the 2020 offense was led by Tom Brady so, come on. I would also take Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski over Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell and Ken Dilger, and I think this year's offensive line is better across the board than the '02 line. Brad Johnson and his crew really came alive in the playoffs – the O-Line, in particular, raised its level of play significantly – but that offense was not considered one of the league's best for most of that season.
First thanks for the great job over the year oh facts and answering questions. Bit of a forward looking question, so let me set the scene. It's 2063 and tampa has won the last 4 bowls straight and Brady's just hit 40 rings (fingers and toes) he finally announced he is going to retire in a couple of years, what do Tampa do. More realistically should Tampa be looking as drafting a mid round qb now, assume Blaine will resign and step up, or wait till next year or beyond to look for the future QB.
Lee (via email to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Guys? It's just me here, Lee. And last time I counted, albeit from a distance, Tom Brady has 20 fingers and toes, but I guess you have him doubling up on each digit. Tough to do with how gigantic those rings are. Personally, I think Brady would be satisfied and call it quits at 25 rings, but who can say for sure?
Anyway, on to the actual question. I honestly don't think drafting and developing a young quarterback to eventually replace Brady is a priority in 2021, particularly with Brady now signed on to play through at least 2022. The picture may look different a year from now, though. As you can see from the last couple weeks of roster moves I referenced above, the Buccaneers remain in the same "all-in" mode they were in last year. That's particularly evident in the type of deals the Bucs have struck with a number of players, with the structure designed to push a good amount of the contracts' cap hits a year or two down the road. That's something the Bucs haven't done in a long time.
I think that atmosphere lends itself to an experienced quarterback backing up Brady, and re-signing Gabbert certainly makes sense. Head Coach Bruce Arians clearly has confidence in him and values the fact that he has played regular-season games in his system. As is the case with most teams led by a superstar quarterback, your chances of going all the way are going to diminish greatly if that quarterback is lost to injury, so your main strategy is doing everything you can to provide him great protection and then crossing your fingers against something fluky happening.
That said, the same rush of re-signings that has the Bucs in this all-in mode also could increase the chances of the team drafting a quarterback at some point this spring. As General Manager Jason Licht noted before all those players were re-signed, if the Super Bowl lineup was intact for 2021 the Bucs wouldn't have any glaring roster holes to address on draft weekend and might be able to make a "luxury pick" or two. I highly doubt that would be a quarterback in the first couple rounds – to me, a "luxury pick" in that part of the draft would be more like a running back who could help right away – but maybe somewhere in the middle rounds. That would likely be a matter of opportunity; the Bucs wouldn't go into the draft insistent upon getting a mid or late-round quarterback but might pull the trigger if player and pick line up just right.
Why wouldn't the NFL & NFLPA want to adopt FA rules that would be more friendly to the teams that drafted the FA? My idea would for a FA's new contract to not count as much against the salary cap for the team that drafted that FA. Maybe only 65-70%? Wouldn't that make draft picks even more valuable, not to mention more comraderie among the players and fans, and less of a business feel?
Will Cordelo (via email to email@example.com)
It's an interesting idea, Will. It sounds like you're trying to make it more of an NBA-style of free agency, with rules designed to help teams keep their stars and have those stars be motivated to stay since they can get bigger deals at home. That said, I'm not going to pretend I have the slightest understanding of how NBA free agency works – they seem to have about 10 times as many categories and rules as the NFL – so I could be off base there.
The problem I see with this setup is that it has the potential to greatly increase actual spending on salaries and that gets at the very heart of the CBA, in which a specific percentage of the league's revenue is bargained to go to player salaries.
Under your proposal (let's go with 70%), you could pay a quarterback you drafted $20 million a year but it would only count as $14 million a year. So if you had exactly $14 million in cap space, you could make this work but you'd actually be spending $6 million more than that. This is different than the current tricks (such as voidable years) to spread out cap space over a number of years because all of that guaranteed money is still going to have to fit under the cap in one year or another.
Do this with enough players and pretty soon your spending actual cash well over the cap. And if every team does that, then the league as a whole is going to end up going far over that negotiated percentage of the revenue for player salaries. From that standpoint, I anticipate the players would love it but the teams wouldn't be as thrilled.
Also, this really puts the onus on teams to draft well. It's a widely-held belief in the NFL that drafting well is the best way to build a winner and wild spending in free agency almost never works. I'll grant that at the beginning. Still, there are certainly occasions in which draft picks don't work out and teams turn to free agency for a solution, and it works. Here's an example: Tampa Bay used a high second-round pick on Noah Spence in 2016 hoping he would be their long-sought after solution for more pressure off the edge. It didn't really work out and in 2019 the Bucs signed Shaquil Barrett to compete with him. Barrett won the job, Spence was released and Barrett was a huge part of the team's run to another title in 2020.
(The example isn't perfect because Barrett wasn't drafted by Denver so thus wouldn't have been protected under this proposed rule, but you get the point.)
Under this system, teams are going to have a much better shot at retaining most of their draft picks that work out well. And yes, I see that's exactly what you are trying to make happen, Will. But it's also going to significantly dilute the free agency pool and that's going to make it tougher for a team to recover when it has a bad draft or two. It's possible you are totally fine with that, I will concede.
The bigger problem remains that negotiated percentage of revenue for player salaries. I am not arguing on either side about whether players deserve a bigger share. I'm just saying that is something that would take a lot of negotiation and the main concern among the negotiators would surely not be devising a system that helps teams retain the good players they draft.
Will the Bucs need to restructure any more contracts this offseason?
- @matthewpgates (via Instagram)
Will we be able to sustain this success with all these back loaded contracts? Can you explain how they work a bit?
- @jimjames925 (via Instagram)
Let's lump these two together. First, Matthew, I would say yes there will probably be some more contracts restructured in order to produce a little more cap space, particularly if the efforts to bring back the team's own free agents continue to be successful. Over the Cap had the Buccaneers with a little under $10 million in cap space on Wednesday, and even if that isn't 100% accurate for that very moment it's probably pretty close. Keep in mind that even with no other veteran signings the Bucs will still have to allocate a decent amount of space to its upcoming draft class.
As for the "backloaded" contracts, that is how the Buccaneers are trying to sustain their Super Bowl success, at least for the 2021 season. The Bucs wanted to bring back a lot of their free agents and they had to somehow squeeze them under a tight cap while still giving the players the salaries they deserved, ones good enough to keep them from taking a much bigger deal elsewhere.
How do you do that? You essentially pay the players now but borrow cap space from future seasons to make it all fit. The main strategy the Buccaneers are using this year, which is a departure from their contract approach of the past decade or so, is to use bonuses to spread out the cap hit. To add to that strategy, some of those contracts have "voidable years" that are merely tacked on the end to further spread out the hit. A $20 million bonus no a two-year contract would hit the cap with $10 million each season, but the same bonus on a four-year contract hits the cap with $5 million each season. That helps in Year One, but when the voidable years eventually do void, that accelerates all the remaining cap hit, so it will be an issue to deal with later.
Let's say you had a free agent whose realistic per-season value on the open market was $15 million, but you only had $10 million worth of cap space at the moment. (This is a very simplistic example.) You intend to pay him his market value, but you can't give him a $15 million salary in 2021 because it would put you over the cap. So you give him a four-year deal that includes a $1.075 million salary (the veteran league minimum) for 2021, a $32 million signing bonus and larger salaries over the next three years to make up the difference. His cap hit in 2021 would be $9.075 million. There you go.
Yes, that kicks the can down the road and makes it much harder to be flexible from season to season. And that's exactly why the Buccaneers have been relying on "pay as you go" contracts for so long. But as Jason Licht said in February, the whole point of doing that to maintain your flexibility is so that if you build a roster that has a shot at winning multiple championships you can go for it and use these other types of deals to keep the gang together.
This is in no way a new or unusual strategy. The Saints have been doing it to the extreme for years, though they are having to release or restructure the contracts of a lot of players this year to make it work. Part of the reason teams can do this and make it work is that salary cap tends to rise every year. It uncharacteristically dropped in 2021 for just the second time in 27 years of the current system due to the pandemic, but that actually makes the "backloading" strategy even more attractive this year. When teams were planning ahead early in 2020 they were doing so with the expectation that the 2021 cap would be higher, maybe by $10 or $20 million. Now they have to adjust, but it is very likely that the cap will go up again in the years to come, and probably by a whole lot when the new broadcast contracts are in place.
If you continue to push large amounts of your cap hit to future seasons then, yes, at some point it will have to be reckoned with, as is the case this year with the Saints. The Bucs are betting on two things: One, that the cap will go up enough in the years to come to make it easier to fit those cap hits in; and, two, that it will be worth it because it pays off in multiple deep playoff runs.