Bucs Have A Big Offseason Puzzle To Put Together

Bucs general manager Jason Licht and head coach Todd Bowles have quite a conundrum on their hands this offseason. Tampa Bay must find a new offensive coordinator – and perhaps 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 will be an open quarterback competition with unproven holdover Kyle Trask and a new veteran or rookie. And of course, Brady will want to know who he will be calling the plays before he even thinks about returning to Tampa Bay.

Wonder how Licht and Bowles are handling that juggling act.

Finding a new offensive coordinator and seeing if the Bucs can lure Brady back for one more year are the first two pieces of the offseason jigsaw puzzle that Licht and Bowles have to assemble. Bowles and Light have begun the process, and will interview Keenan McCardell, Klint Kubiak and Jim Bob Cooter later this week for their OC duties. There will likely be more names to audition in the coming days.

After that, this organization has a big decision to make.

Bucs Qb Tom Brady And HC Todd Bowles

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 put off paying their Super Bowl salary cap credit card for one more year. With Brady at the helm, the QB position is settled for another season, and the team could be penciled in for a third straight NFC South title and a home playoff game that comes with it.

Tampa Bay would be more aggressive in free agency than it normally would if Brady didn’t return.

But if Brady retires then it’s time for a rebuild – even if Licht and Bowles don’t want to hear that term and won’t 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 cap credit card bill right now and get it over with. That means absorbing Brady’s $35 million cap hit this year – or $10,776 million this year and $24,328 million next year if the Bucs use a post-June 1 designation.

As of right now, the Bucs are $54,643,921 over the 2023 salary cap, according to OverTheCap.com. Whether or not Brady returns, Licht and Bowles will have to make some big decisions that will affect the salary cap and the team’s 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 hire and finding out Brady’s status, the Bucs have a monumental decision to make about Donovan Smith. Tampa Bay’s left tackle since 2015, Smith had his worst year in the NFL with 12 penalties, which was one off his career high of 13 in 2016, and six sacks allowed.

Pro Football Focus gave Smith a 58.1 overall grade after he earned an 83.3 grade in 2021. Smith’s holding penalties 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 past season an aberration?

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

The Bucs will either create a massive hole on their offensive line by cutting or trading Smith, who just underwent offseason surgery, or they’ll gamble on Smith having his best season in a contract year with a potential big payday 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 he was drafted in the second round in 2012.

Bucs Ilb Lavonte David

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

David is coming off a year in which he was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded Bucs defender with an 85.1 grade – just above Antoine Winfield Jr. (78.7). While he isn’t the splashy point guard he was in his younger days, the 33-year old David is at least a steady Eddie on defense.

If the Bucs don’t re-sign David it creates a huge hole in Bowles’ defense. Reserve linebacker KJ Britt is highly thought of inside the walls of the AdventHealth Training Center, but the reality is that he’s a quality special teams player and not athletic enough to be a starter.

If the Bucs think Britt can step in for David they’re dreaming. The 2023 NFL Draft is extremely weak at linebacker this year, so finding David’s replacement this offseason would be incredibly challenging.

The Bucs would love to see David retire in red and pewter for sentimental reasons. But David made $12.5 million last year and will have to take a pay cut in order 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 to that in contract negotiations and maybe hope David will settle for even less.

Dean Is The Fifth Piece Of The Puzzle

Don’t be surprised to see the Bucs let David test free agency to see what his actual worth is. Tampa Bay will do the same thing with starting cornerback Jamel Dean, the fifth main piece 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 may fetch more in free agency than Carlton Davis III did last year when he cashed in on a three-year, $44.5 million deal worth an average of $14,833 million. Can the Bucs afford two cornerbacks that total over $30 million per season in average earnings? Probably not.

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

The Bucs have a total of 23 unrestricted free agents this year, so there are 20 more free agents to decide on, 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 Tampa Bay’s 2023 roster puzzle is completed. But like all puzzles, it’s best to work on the key corner pieces first.

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

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