Last year, by the time free agency was a week old the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had signed unrestricted free agents Tom Brady and Joe Haeg. Brady, who joined the Buccaneers after 20 seasons with the New England Patriots, proved to be the centerpiece of a series of moves that build a championship roster. In 2019, the first week of free agency brought in six new players from other teams, most notably outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who was also a key part of the team's Super Bowl run in 2020. The early days of free agency in 2018 were most notable for the arrival of Ryan Jensen, the Buccaneers' starting center for the past three years.
Veteran additions through free agency certainly can help a team achieve its ultimate goal, either immediately or in subsequent seasons, and the Buccaneers probably wouldn't have won Super Bowl LV without Brady, Barrett and Jensen. But that is clearly not what free agency is about for Tampa Bay in 2021.
General Manager Jason Licht and Head Coach Bruce Arians essentially laid out the Buccaneers' 2021 free agency strategy in late February during a joint Zoom press conference. During the course of just under 20 minutes of Q&A, Licht and Arians combined to say the word 'core' seven times, the word 'together' 14 times and the words keep(ing) 19 times. The Bucs planned to shop in their own aisle on the free agent market, even a little bit before it opened.
"For us I don't know how many outsiders we're even going to look at," said Arians. "If we can keep our guys and then hit the draft again like we have the last few years, we're going to be in great shape."
After hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, the Buccaneers were immediately faced with a list of 24 players from that team who could become unrestricted free agents on March 17. That was one week ago, and while the list is still long it was whittled down significantly before that free agency date and has since shrunk even more.
It started on March 9, when the team chose to place the franchise tag on wide receiver Chris Godwin on the final day such decisions could be made. Here has what has happened with the players on that list of unrestricted free agents, chronologically, in the two weeks since:
- Placed franchise tag on WR Chris Godwin, March 9
- Re-signed ILB Lavonte David, March 12
- Signed QB Tom Brady to a contract extension, March 12
- Re-signed OLB Shaq Barrett, March 17
- Chris Godwin signed his franchise tag, March 18
- Re-signed ILB Kevin Minter, March 20
- Re-signed DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches, March 20
- Re-signed TE Rob Gronkowski, March 22
Also, though he was due to become a restricted free agent, the Buccaneers also re-signed guard Aaron Stinnie, who started in the Super Bowl. In addition, potential exclusive rights free agents tight end Tanner Hudson and defensive linemen Jeremiah Ledbetter and Patrick O'Connor were also re-signed. Long-snapper Zach Triner became an exclusive rights free agent upon getting a tender offer from the team and will eventually sign it.
There is still work to be done, potentially, if the Buccaneers want to continue bringing back important players from the 2020 championship team. Defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh remains a free agent, as do running back Leonard Fournette and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Both of the team's backup quarterbacks from last year, Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin, remain unsigned as well. Still, the Buccaneers' free agency plan is undeniably off to a good start.
Also undeniable is that the lure of winning more championships has been strong for those who found a way to get what they deserved in free agency but still stay in Tampa despite a tricky salary cap situation. In some cases, it took some fancy contract structuring.
"Usually teams win then let people go and walk, because some people will usually demand a higher salary than teams are willing to be, but we made it work," said Barrett, who got the long-term deal he was seeking after playing on two straight one-year contracts. "We moved some stuff around, made some amazing deals with other guys who were free. There's no reason why we shouldn't be able to get it done."
That theme has been echoed throughout this string of re-signings. Potential free agents wanted to stay in Tampa, and they wanted their teammates to find a way to do so, as well.
"Everyone has their own families, their own direction of where they want to go, but I'm just hoping for the best for everyone on the Super Bowl team," said Gronkowski. "It will just be awesome to see everyone back, but I don't control the personnel or anything. Whatever happens happens, but it would be really cool to see everyone back and just do it again."
Added David, in a similar vein: "I'm all about team. I'm doing what I can, doing what it takes to hopefully get everybody back and go do this thing again. Like I've said before – I've said it a lot of times – the bond that we had, the bond that we shared this year was like no other, with the coaching staff included. Everybody is a real tight-knit group and that's something I haven't been around in a while and something that I definitely want to be a part of."
Barrett was speaking from experience when he noted the other way this situation could have gone, with newly-minted champion players seeking big paydays elsewhere and the team making hard decisions based on cap issues. He was on the Denver Broncos team that won Super Bowl 50 five years earlier in what would prove to be Peyton Manning's final game before retirement. Among the starters who subsequently departed via free agency were left tackle Ryan Harris, left guard Evan Mathis, defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan. Denver finished 9-7 the next year and missed the playoffs.
The Bucs are trying to avoid such an exodus, and doing a very good job of it so far. That has Barrett eager to get back to work on a title defense.
"We also let a lot of people walk in free agency that year; we didn't bring people back," said Barrett of the 2016 Broncos. "I think we cut some people. I don't see this team doing the same thing because we're bringing a lot of the people back. I don't know about cuts; cuts are always going to happen. But we're going to have the majority of the same core guys back and we're going to be able to just keep working and grinding."