Buccaneers face uncertain future following Tom Brady's retirement
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a big decision on their hands. After Tom Brady announced his retirement Wednesday morning, the team can go in one of two directions in 2023: Keep rolling with what the Bucs have or hit the reset button.
It’s not an easy choice, especially after the Buccaneers won the NFC South the past two seasons and are just two years removed from a Super Bowl victory. But cracks began to show in the foundation of that title team this past season as the Buccaneers limped into the playoffs with an 8-9 record only to be swiftly denied another shot at the Lombardi Trophy with a 31-14 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round.
The lack of direction at quarterback is the main concern, but the team is also estimated to be at least $50 million over the salary cap in 2023, per Over The Cap. There will likely be massive contract restructuring this offseason — starting with Brady’s — but that still won’t leave much room for financial flexibility.
The Buccaneers also still have a very good roster. Wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin finished with more than 1,000 receiving yards each for the second consecutive season and the defense allowed the 10th-fewest total yards and the seventh-fewest yards per play. There are a lot of expensive veterans across the team who need to be purged and holes that must be filled if Tampa wants to be competitive as early as next season.
First, the team needs to decide who will run the offense. The Buccaneers fired most of their offensive staff in January, including offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. Tampa Bay interviewed a bounty of candidates, including Denver Broncos passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak, Minnesota Vikings receivers coach Keenan McCardell, New York Giants quarterbacks coach Shea Tierney and Georgia OC Todd Monken.
Whomever the Buccaneers hire as their next offensive coordinator will set the tone for how the team looks in 2023. But it’s not the only question that needs to be answered. Figuring out the quarterback and the salary cap will be the two major issues general manager Jason Licht and head coach Todd Bowles will need to answer this offseason.
Bucs’ QB dilemma must be solved first
What Tampa Bay does at that position will likely signal the team’s plan for 2023 and beyond. Backup Kyle Trask is currently the only quarterback under contract on the roster with Blaine Gabbert scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. If the Buccaneers stick with either of those two or sign another cheap veteran, we’re looking at a full-scale rebuild.
The Buccaneers could also acquire a veteran quarterback in free agency or via trade if the team feels confident in its roster and its ability to compete in the NFC. Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo and Aaron Rodgers are all experienced passers who could switch teams in 2023. The Las Vegas Raiders will either trade or release Carr after the Super Bowl, Garoppolo is an impending free agent and it has been rumored the Green Bay Packers are shopping Rodgers to make way for 2020 first-rounder Jordan Love.
Breaking the bank at quarterback could be tough if the Buccaneers aren’t able to figure out their salary cap issue, which leaves the 2023 draft as the final potential solution. It would also be a nice middle ground between completely rebuilding and trying to compete immediately.
The Buccaneers pick 19th in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft, which could put them in striking distance for someone like Florida’s Anthony Richardson, who grew up two hours north of Tampa in Gainesville, if he falls down the board. Tampa Bay could also try to trade up if it covets one of the top three QB prospects in Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud or Kentucky’s Will Levis, although they’d be competing with a couple of other teams with much higher draft picks.
Tampa’s bloated veteran contracts
As mentioned earlier, the Buccaneers have a major salary cap problem.
Excluding Brady, the Buccaneers have seven players with a 2023 cap hit of more than $15 million: Godwin, Evans, defensive end Shaquil Barrett, cornerback Carlton Davis, defensive tackle Vita Vea and offensive linemen Donovan Smith and Ryan Jensen. Linebacker Devin White also has a fully guaranteed $11.7 million cap hit after the team picked up his fifth-year option.
Those players account for around 65 percent of the team’s salary cap space in 2023 and will likely be the first to be released or restructured before the season starts.
There are other players who could be salary cap casualties this offseason, including running back Leonard Fournette (if released after June 1). He had a disappointing and injury-plagued season while other running backs excelled in his stead. Offensive lineman Shaq Mason and tight end Cameron Brate are also easy money-savers as well.
If the Buccaneers go down the rebuild path, the team could move on from even more players by trading them away for cap relief and draft assets. Godwin and Evans are still young and talented, as are several players on defense, like Vea and White. They’d all fetch a solid return and give the Buccaneers a ton of salary cap space to operate and a plethora of draft picks to retool the roster.
Which path will Buccaneers take?
There is a world in which Licht doesn’t want to start over.
Just look at what the New Orleans Saints did after they lost Drew Brees: they leaned into an ultra-aggressive approach in free agency and the draft to keep their Super Bowl window alive a little longer without figuring out a long-term answer at quarterback. The Indianapolis Colts did something similar when Andrew Luck abruptly retired in 2019. They signed or traded for veteran quarterbacks in an attempt to remain competitive with the roster Luck left behind.
Licht and the Buccaneers might just be confident enough in their team to run it back again with as much of the same roster as possible and a new quarterback.
But the Saints and Colts offer a warning to Licht as neither plan worked. The Saints have a worse salary cap situation than the Buccaneers, finished 7-10 and only recently acquired a first-round draft pick after the team traded former head coach Sean Payton to the Broncos. The Colts, meanwhile, spiraled out of control in 2022 but at least have the No. 4 overall draft pick and $13 million cap space.
The Buccaneers certainly have the roster makeup to try and stay afloat, but the quarterback question and salary cap concerns make things a lot tougher for the two-time NFC South champions.
We’ll probably get more answers as the offseason progresses. Bu at least we know for certain that Brady won’t be back in Tampa. His decision is the first domino to fall in the next chapter of the Buccaneers.