NFL News & Analysis

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Detroit, Michigan, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) celebrates with wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) after making a touchdown reception against the Detroit Lions during the first quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are next on the list following a victory in Super Bowl 55 over the Kansas City Chiefs. Tom Brady picked up the sixth Super Bowl ring of his illustrious NFL career, bringing a second Lombardi trophy home to Tampa Bay in his first year with the franchise.

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The Buccaneers' roster should be well-positioned to compete for a championship again in 2021, but few teams have more high-level free agents to worry about retaining in the coming weeks than Tampa Bay. The team has five of the top-60 players in PFF’s free agent rankings — a group that doesn’t include key defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh, Steve McLendon and Rakeem Nunez-Roches. Finding a way to keep the band together will be the team’s top priority this offseason.

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $11,983,733 (17th in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 32, 64, 95, 137, 177, 186, 217, 257

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Tom Brady 2 / 32 $28.4 million
RB Ronald Jones 25 / 70 $2.3 million
WR Mike Evans 40 / 127 $16.6 million
WR ?
WR ?
TE ?
LT Donovan Smith 22 / 38 $14.3 million
LG Ali Marpet 4 / 39 $12.0 million
C Ryan Jensen 19 / 37 $10.0 million
RG Alex Cappa 14 / 40 $2.4 million
RT Tristan Wirfs 1 / 38 $3.7 million

If we’re going off last year’s results, Brady’s decline isn’t imminent. We have every reason to believe that he will once again be a top quarterback in the league next season. Tampa Bay should also be able to rely on its starting five across the offensive line. Smith at left tackle and Jensen at center have been discussed as potential avenues to shed some salary, but both players provided solid play in 2020. 

The biggest question surrounding the Buccaneers’ offense is how the team will round out the supporting cast at running back, wide receiver and tight end. Key contributors Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski and Leonard Fournette will all be free agents. Can Tampa Bay bring back most of that group, or does the team give larger roles to the younger Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson and Ke’Shawn Vaughn in 2021?

How Godwin stack up against the NFL’s top young receivers?

In 2020, Godwin wasn’t quite able to live up to the expectations he set in 2019, but he still had a very productive year in a Tampa Bay offense loaded with receiving talent. His 75.5 overall grade in 2020 marked the first time he dropped under 80.0 in his NFL career. Still, that grade ranked 35th among qualifying receivers across the league, and his 90.4 grade since 2017 is a top-10 mark at the position. 

There’s a real argument to be made that his early-career success, his age (25) and his track record of production at multiple alignments make him one of the most valuable receiving assets in the league. He currently sits second overall in PFF’s free agent rankings, behind only Dak Prescott. And just last offseason, he was the first non-quarterback to come off the board in a draft of all NFL players by a group of PFF analysts and other football media members. 

Ideally, Tampa Bay will work out a long-term extension for Godwin this offseason instead of resorting to the franchise tag. He’s worth top-tier wide receiver money.

Should the Buccaneers keep Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard or both?

The Buccaneers entered last season with three starting-caliber tight ends in Brate, Howard and Gronkowski. It didn’t take long for that trio to turn into a duo after another season-ending injury for Howard, but head coach Bruce Arians and company seemed content with a crowded tight end room heading into the 2020 season. 

Per the Buccaneers’ Carmen Vitali, Arians said of the situation prior to last year, “We’ve always been a 12 personnel team. Ever since Pittsburgh. That’s our base offense.” Arians went on to add, “I love 13 [personnel], I love three tight ends out there. We have a package if you don’t know how to stop it, it can hurt you.”

That all goes to say Tampa Bay could buck the common line of thinking that there is next to no chance those three tight ends return in 2021. Gronkowski seems likely to return for another year with Brady, but Howard and Brate could both clear over $6 million in cap space if traded or released this offseason. That's much-needed money to bring back key free agents at other positions.

Howard is an interesting evaluation; he has twice gotten off to strong starts to a season from a PFF grade standpoint — in 2018 and 2020 — but both stretches were short-lived before injuries cut his campaign short. He is set to play on the fifth-year option of his rookie deal in 2021. 

Meanwhile, Brate turned into the team’s biggest receiving threat at the position down the stretch last season and has shown throughout his career that he can contribute as a complementary option in the passing game. 

From a team-building standpoint, it may make sense to side with Howard given his age in the hopes that he can continue to build on some of the receiving ability he has flashed at times throughout his career.  

Where does Wirfs’ rookie season stack up among all rookie tackles over the past decade?

Rookie offensive linemen aren’t supposed to dominate immediately as Wirfs did this past season for the Buccaneers. Generally, it’s a position that takes some time for players to adjust once they hit the NFL, but there are always exceptions to the norm. Quenton Nelson was one of those outliers, flashing for the Indianapolis Colts back in 2018, and Wirfs has proven to be one for Tampa Bay. 

Wirfs' 84.5 PFF grade on over 1,300 offensive snaps was higher than any other right tackle in the league. Not only did it lead the position in 2020, but it also led all rookies lined up at tackle since 2010. The next highest marks belong to Taylor Decker in 2016 (81.9), Ryan Ramczyk in 2017 (81.7), Jack Conklin in 2016 (80.6) and Tyron Smith in 2011 (80.5). 

All signs point to Wirfs being a cornerstone of that offense and one of the best tackles in the league for years to come. 

Potential targets at open spots

Wide receiver: Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown

Tampa Bay doesn’t have to get all that creative in free agency or in the 2021 NFL Draft. Their receiver room last season was arguably the most talented and deepest receiving corps in the league, from Evans, Godwin and Brown to intriguing, younger depth options Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson. The Buccaneers' best course of action is to run it back next season. 

Tight end: Rob Gronkowski, Tony Poljan

This is a similar idea to the wide receiver group above. Gronkowski doesn’t seem all that likely to play anywhere but Tampa Bay in 2021. The Buccaneers would once again be one of the stronger teams at the tight end position with his return alongside either Brate or Howard.

With only Brate under contract in 2022 right now, Poljan could be a draft target to add some depth at the position. Specifically, he would be targeted to bolster the run game as an inline blocker. Listed at 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Poljan projects as one of the better blockers in this class with the requisite catch radius to bring in off-target passes. He’s just not going to bring much to the table as a dynamic receiving threat.

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI William Gholston 70 / 125 $5.5 million
DI Vita Vea 4 / 125 $4.7 million
DI ?
EDGE Jason Pierre-Paul 50 / 110 $12.8 million
LB Devin White 62 / 83 $8.2 million
LB ?
CB Carlton Davis 46 / 121 $2.8 million
CB Sean Murphy-Bunting 68 / 121 $2.0 million
CB Jamel Dean 12 / 121 $1.1 million
S Antoine Winfield Jr. 35 / 94 $1.7 million
S Jordan Whitehead 26 / 94 $2.6 million

Tampa Bay’s young secondary is set to return intact in 2021, but there are big holes to fill in a front seven that consistently generated pressure against opposing quarterbacks last season. Three starters from that group — Ndamukong Suh, Shaquil Barrett and Lavonte David — are all unrestricted free agents. Rotational defensive linemen Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Steve McLendon are also not under contract for next season.

Head coach Bruce Arians made it clear at the Super Bowl parade that his preference would be to bring back all the big-name free agents from the Buccaneers’ 2020 roster, but salary cap constraints may make that a difficult task. Suh is one of the more likely every-down players to move on this offseason, but David could join him when weighing potential top-of-the-market contracts for players like Godwin and Barrett.

Is Barrett or David the Buccaneers’ most important defensive free agent? 

Using PFF WAR to look at the value each player has provided the Buccaneers since Barrett joined the team in 2019, David profiles as the more valuable piece to Tampa Bay’s defense. His 0.89 wins above a replacement-level player rank third among all linebackers over that two-year span, behind only Demario Davis and Bobby Wagner. Alternatively, Barrett’s 0.49 wins above a replacement-level edge defender rank 11th at the position.

Factor in that David will cost less than Barrett on the open market, and it looks like the best decision in the short term is to bring David back and let Barrett walk if it’s a one-or-the-other scenario. It’s not that simple, though.

Tampa Bay also has to factor in its current roster at both outside linebacker and inside linebacker. Pierre-Paul will be 32 years old next season and in the last year of his current deal. Behind him, the Buccaneers have little beyond 2019 fourth-round pick Anthony Nelson, who played a career-high 387 snaps in 2020. Tampa Bay has an ascending talent at linebacker in White, who is already making over $8 million on his rookie deal in 2021.

David may be the more impactful player right now, but Barrett should be the priority this offseason given the state of the Buccaneers' roster. Regardless, both would be nice to have back.

What should we expect from Devin White in 2021?

White's perception across the league and among NFL fans differs a fair bit from his PFF grading profile. He ended the 2020 season — his second year in the NFL — as a second-team All-Pro. However, his 48.1 PFF grade ranked just 62nd out of 83 qualifiers at the position. 

It’s not hard to see why many are high on White’s game. His speed in the middle of Tampa Bay’s defense is of clear value. That showed as a blitzer last season, in particular. White recorded 33 quarterback pressures on just over 100 pass-rushing snaps across the 2020 regular season and postseason.

However, there are still clear areas where he can look to improve heading into his third season at just 23 years old. Many of White's downgrades from this past season came down to him simply being out of position both in the run game and in coverage. Coming out of LSU, it was expected that most of White’s value would come on passing downs, but his 38.3 run-defense in 2020 is on the low end even given those expectations. 

On a positive note, White was playing some of the best football of his career to close the season. His 74.6 PFF grade from Week 15 through the postseason ranked sixth among 72 linebackers to play at least 100 snaps over that stretch. Tampa Bay will hope that's a sign of things to come in Year 3 for White, because the tools are there for him to develop into one of the NFL's most dominant off-ball linebackers.

How did Tampa Bay’s secondary turn from a distinct weakness into a strength?

The simple answer is that the Buccaneers invested in the secondary. Then, they invested some more in the secondary, even when they whiffed on several prospects. Each of the five projected starters in the table above has been drafted in the top four rounds of one of the past three drafts. 

That list doesn’t even include draft misses over the past five seasons, such as Vernon Hargreaves (first round in 2016), Justin Evans (second round in 2017) and M.J. Stewart (second round in 2018). 2019 third-round pick Mike Edwards even provided some solid play in reserve action for the Buccaneers in 2020. 

The moral of the story is that teams shouldn’t be afraid to continue to go to the well at valuable positions like cornerback and safety, even if they whiff on several prospects early in those improvement efforts. The secondary is a weak-link system. Offenses will pick mercilessly on any target they feel gives them an advantage. The best counter to that defensively is to continue to add depth until there are few weaknesses to target. Tampa Bay has done that better than most teams in recent years.  

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defender: Ndamukong Suh, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Lawrence Guy

Suh and Nunez-Roches are both candidates to return on reasonable contracts to maintain some continuity along Tampa Bay's defensive line. 

If they look elsewhere in free agency, Guy makes some sense in a five-technique/three-technique role on Tampa Bay’s defensive front. He has played a similar role in New England’s defense over the past four seasons. Guy is reliable against the run, with PFF run-defense grades of at least 65.0 in each of the past six seasons.   

Edge defender: Shaquil Barrett, Jaelan Phillips 

Barrett hasn't missed a beat since taking on a full-time starting role with the Buccaneers two offseasons ago. His 157 quarterback pressures since 2019 are more than any other edge defender in the NFL, and he has given Tampa Bay strong play against both the run and the pass. You have to imagine the Buccaneers will prioritize his return this offseason.

Even if the Buccaneers do bring back Barrett, they could look to add some pass-rushing talent to the position at the top of the 2021 NFL Draft. Phillips is an option should he be on the board at the back end of the first round. 

The former No. 1 overall high school recruit has legitimate medical red flags after already retiring because of concussions, but he may be the most talented edge defender in this class. He has the power to blow through offensive linemen and the speed to get around them. Phillips earned an 86.5 pass-rushing grade at Miami in 2020. 

Linebacker: Lavonte David, K.J. Wright

David is yet another free agent who Tampa Bay will surely want back for at least another year. If he is one of the players who falls victim to a tight cap situation, Wright is a veteran linebacker to pair with White who may come a bit cheaper. PFF projects Wright for a two-year, $12 million deal, and he is coming off an impressive 2020 campaign in which he was the sixth-most valuable linebacker in the NFL, per PFF WAR.  

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