NFC Contenders Be Damned, Bucs Giving Tom Brady Perfect Shot at Another Ring

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMarch 11, 2021

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) shakes hands with wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the defending Super Bowl champions. Rulers of the National Football League. Kings of the proverbial mountain.

However, in 2021, the Bucs face a task that, in some respects, is even more difficult than getting to the top of that mountain: staying on top of it. There's a reason why we haven't seen a repeat Super Bowl champion in the better part of two decades. In this era of free agency, it can be hard to keep the band together. And with the salary cap for 2021 set at just $182.5 million (almost $16 million less than in 2020) doing so will be that much more difficult.

We haven't quite gotten to the kickoff of free agency next week, but the Buccaneers have already established themselves as one of the big winners of the 2021 offseason. The team to beat in the NFC this year.

And they did so by preventing impact players from even hitting the open market at all.

The Buccaneers faced a considerable challenge this offseason. Tampa was in relatively good shape against the salary cap as the tag deadline neared, especially among contending teams. But the Buccaneers also had several prominent players set to hit free agency, including wide receiver Chris Godwin, linebacker Lavonte David and edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett.

Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

Godwin led the Bucs in receiving yards per game (70.0) in 2020 and posted over 1,300 yards the year before. David has been the heart and soul of the Tampa defense for years and has logged eight 100-tackle seasons in nine years. Barrett led the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2019 and finished second on the team in that category in 2020.

To call them all key contributors to Tampa's Super Bowl run is an understatement—and two of those players have already been secured for 2021.

As Greg Auman of The Athletic wrote, Tampa general manager Jason Licht indicated recently that keeping David in the fold in 2021 was a priority—both because the 31-year-old remains a defensive force in his own right and because of his value as a leader and mentor to the team's younger defenders.

"It would be extremely important," Licht said. "I don't know if Devin (White) would be the kind of player he's evolving into without Lavonte. Lavonte, behind the scenes, is a phenomenal leader. He's actually grown as a leader the last couple of years to be one of the go-to guys for Bruce (Arians) on that defensive side of the ball. He's a very important player. He was a very important part of our Super Bowl win and we'd love to have him back."

David will indeed be back in Tampa for a 10th season with the team. Per Luke Easterling of Bucs Wire, David re-upped with the Buccaneers on Tuesday on a two-year, $25 million. But as Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times pointed out, by tacking three voidable years onto the back end of the deal, Licht created a pact that carries a cap hit of just $3.5 million this year.

Rick Stroud @NFLSTROUD

Bucs creatively added 3 extra void years which makes his salary cap number around $3.5 mil this year https://t.co/WNxU88ovPB

In this year of a reduced cap, that's nothing short of brilliant.

Re-signing David wasn't the only big move that Licht made on Tuesday. Or the first one. As Stroud reported, the Buccaneers applied the franchise tag to Godwin, a move that will cost the team just over $16 million in 2021. Combined with the cap hit for fellow wideout Mike Evans, that means the Buccaneers will have upwards of $33 million tied up in their top two wide receivers. But per Auman, head coach Bruce Arians has no qualms about paying two receivers of Godwin and Evans' caliber.

"It's not bad paying two No. 1 receivers, that's for sure, when they're as good as our two No. 1s," Arians said.

That leaves Barrett as the top remaining player on Tampa's "to do" list. According to Albert Breer of NFL.com, the Buccaneers have already begun negotiations on an extension for the franchise's most prolific pass-rusher since he joined the team in 2019.

Albert Breer @AlbertBreer

Having tagged WR Chris Godwin, I'm told the Bucs have begun discussions in earnest on a long-term deal with Shaq Barrett, one of the stars of Super Bowl LV and a crucial edge-rusher in Todd Bowles' defense. Barrett won't come cheap. But Tampa's working on keeping him.

Breer isn't kidding even a little when he says that Barrett won't come cheap. Spotrac estimated that Barrett's next contract could average a whopping $19.7 million a season. And while speaking with Adam Schein of the NFL Network (via Kevin Patra of NFL.com) the 28-year-old Barrett made it clear that he's looking for a fat payday on his next contract.

"I'm most definitely looking forward to getting a long-term deal done. … I feel like it's time for me to break the bank now, and I most definitely want to do that to be able to set my family up better and most definitely going to keep producing, so it's not like anything is going to fall off. I still think I got a lot left in the tank. I'm still getting better, actually. I'm still learning, like just still learning, like week in, week out. And there's like, as you can see as the season progressed like ... I ended the season playing the way that I wanted to play. And you can see that I did progress throughout the season, and I'm still progressing."

Steve Luciano/Associated Press

With Tampa currently upside down against the cap to the tune of $2.9 million after those moves, finding the cash to re-sign Barrett won't be easy. But it can be done. The Buccaneers are reportedly working on restructuring quarterback Tom Brady's contract—a move that would free up some wiggle room in the short-term.

Similar moves with high-priced players like Evans and Guard Ali Marpet could free up even more. So could signing Godwin to a multi-year deal instead of the franchise tag.

And if Barrett's asking price truly is outside Tampa's range, he was likely the most expendable player of the trio. There are other edge-rushers like Matthew Judon of the Baltimore Ravens, Leonard Floyd of the Los Angeles Rams or Markus Golden and Haason Reddick of the Arizona Cardinals could potentially add similar production at a reduced price.

Barrett isn't Tampa's only remaining free agent, of course. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Leonard Fournette are all about to hit free agency as well. But with the exception of Fournette, all those players are aging veterans who have already cashed in on at least one big contract who may take below-market deals for the trade-off of another Super Bowl run. And while Fournette played well in Tampa in 2020, he also plays arguably the most easily replaced position in the game (and Tampa still has Ronald Jones II under contract).

Losing those players isn't going to be a dealbreaker for the Buccaneers. And if Tampa has to look outside the organization to fill holes created by departures, the team has the advantage of being both the reigning champions and playing in a state with no income tax.

The sales pitch won't be hard.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

None of this is good news for a New Orleans Saints team in salary-cap hell, a Los Angeles Rams team that is even worse off or a Seattle Seahawks team with a (possibly) disgruntled quarterback. But given the moves the Buccaneers have made so far this offseason, there's no reason to think the defending NFC champions won't at least be as good as they were in 2020.

Last year, Licht and the Buccaneers rolled the dice that Brady still had something left in the tank—a gamble that paid off with the franchise's second Super Bowl win. This year, Licht is doing his best to keep the "Brady window" open by bringing back as many of the players who helped Brady win that championship as possible.

It won't be even a little bit surprising if those moves end with a similarly stellar return on investment.