NFL

Bucs has a big off-season puzzle to put together

Bucs general manager Jason Licht and head coach Todd Bowles have quite a conundrum this offseason. Tampa Bay needs to find a new offensive coordinator — and maybe a new starting quarterback if Tom Brady decides to retire — or play his 24th season in the NFL elsewhere.

But any new offensive coordinator will want to know if he’s coaching Brady or if there’s going to be an open quarterback league with unproven holdover Kyle Trask and a new veteran or rookie. And, of course, Brady will want to know who will be doing the plays before he even thinks about returning to Tampa Bay.

Wonder how Licht and Bowles handle that juggling act.

Finding a new offensive coordinator and seeing if the Bucs can lure Brady back for another year are the first two pieces of the offseason jigsaw puzzle that Licht and Bowles must piece together. Bowles and Licht started the process, and will be interviewing Keenan McCardell, Klint Kubiak, and Jim Bob Cooter for the AAC duties later this week. More names will likely be auditioning in the coming days.

After that, this organization faces a big decision.

Bucs QB Tom Brady and HC Todd Bowles – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

If Brady returns, it’s a reload for Tampa Bay.

The Bucs can delay paying their Super Bowl salary cap credit card for another year. With Brady at the helm, the QB position is settled for another season and the team can be registered for a third straight NFC South title and home game to go with it.

Tampa Bay would be more aggressive on free duty than it normally would be if Brady did not return.

But when Brady retires, it’s time for a rebuild – even if Licht and Bowles don’t want to hear that term and utter that word.

Without Brady, it would be wise for Licht and vice president of football administration, Mike Greenberg, to just pay the Super Bowl limit credit card bill now and get it over with. That means absorbing Brady’s cap of $35 million this year — or $10.776 million this year and $24.328 million next year if the Bucs use a post-June 1 title.

As of now, the Bucs are $54,643,921 about the salary cap of 2023, according to AboutTheCap.com. Whether or not Brady returns, Licht and Bowles will have some big decisions to make that will affect the team’s salary cap and roster trajectory this season.

Can the Bucs trust Smith in 2023?

Bucs Qb Tom Brady and Browns De Myles Garrett

Bucs QB Tom Brady and Browns DE Myles Garrett – Photo by: USA Today

After the offensive coordinator is hired and Brady’s status is discovered, the Bucs must make a monumental decision on Donovan Smith. Smith was Tampa Bay’s left tackle since 2015 and had his worst year in the NFL with 12 penalties, one of his career highs of 13 in 2016, and six sacks allowed.

Pro Football Focus gave Smith an overall grade of 58.1 after achieving an 83.3 grade in 2021. Smith’s penalty kicks wiped out several touchdowns during the season. Now in a contract year when Smith turns 30, can the Bucs trust him to return to his 2021 form or was this last season an anomaly?

Smith is scheduled to earn $15.25 million in base salary and have a cap of $17.9 million in 2023. If the Bucs don’t think Smith, who has been dealing with some serious off-field issues this season, will years to recover and play better and have lost confidence in their veteran left tackle, they can cut him off and save $9.95 million in cap room (with $7.95 million in dead cap money).

The Bucs will either put a huge hole in their offensive line by cutting or trading Smith, who just had off-season surgery, or they’re betting that Smith will have his best season in a contract year with a potential big payoff in Tampa Bay or elsewhere in 2024. It’s a big risk their way.

Will David retire as a Buccaneer?

After deciding Smith’s future with the Bucs, Licht and Bowles must turn their attention to veteran linebacker Lavonte David. The future Bucs Ring of Honor inductee has been a cornerstone player for the franchise since being drafted in the second round in 2012.

Bucs Ilb Lavonte David

Bucs ILB Lavonte David – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

David comes from a year in which he was Pro Football Focus’s top-rated Bucs defenseman with a grade of 85.1 – just above Antoine Winfield Jr. (78.7). While not the smashing playmaker he was in his younger years, 33-year-old David is at least a steady Eddie on defense.

If the Bucs don’t re-sign David, it will leave a huge gap in Bowles’ defense. Reserve linebacker KJ Britt is highly regarded within the walls of the AdventHealth Training Center, but the reality is that he is a quality special team player and not athletic enough to be a starter.

When the Bucs think Britt can replace David, they’re dreaming. The 2023 NFL Draft is extremely weak at linebacker this year, so finding David’s off-season replacement would be an incredible challenge.

The Bucs would like to see David retire in red and tin for sentimental reasons. But David made $12.5 million last year and will have to take a pay cut to stay. Fellow veteran linebacker Bobby Wagner left the Seahawks and took a pay cut to sign with the Rams for an average of $10 million per season. Tampa Bay will point that out in contract negotiations and perhaps hope David settles for even less.

Dean is the fifth piece of the puzzle

Don’t be surprised to see the Bucs let David test a free agency to see what his true worth is. Tampa Bay will do the same with starting cornerback Jamel Dean, the fifth chapter of the puzzle.

Bucs Cb Jamel Dean and Wr Olamide Zaccheaus

Bucs CB Jamel Dean and WR Olamide Zaccheaus – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Dean can fetch more with free agency than Carlton Davis III did last year when he cashed in on a three-year, $44.5 million deal, averaging $14.833 million. Can the Bucs afford two cornerbacks who total more than $30 million per season in average earnings? Probably not.

The Bucs will probably have to allow Dean to test agency for free and maybe his market isn’t as robust as everyone thinks. If they can’t afford Dean, the Bucs will have to find another starter, probably early in the draft. That’s another big grid hole to fill.

The Bucs have a total of 23 unrestricted free agents this year, so there are still 20 free agents to decide, including three safeties (Mike Edwards, Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal) and five defensive linemen (Akiem Hicks, Will Gholston, Rakeem Nunez -Roches, Pat O’Connor and Deadrin Senat), before the Tampa Bay grid puzzle for 2023 is completed. But as with all puzzles, it’s best to work on the most important corner pieces first.

Those key pieces for the Bucs this season are Brady, the offensive coordinator, Smith, David and Dean. After that, everything will eventually fall into place for Licht and Bowles this offseason.

#Bucs #big #offseason #puzzle #put

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