NFL free agency has barely started, but Tom Brady and Buccaneers have already won it

The day after Super Bowl LV, head coach Bruce Arians said he was “very confident” that his Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be able to retain the core of their Super Bowl-winning team. A few days later, he sharpened that belief into some vintage Arians terminology, telling wideout Chris Godwin, and linebackers Shaq Barrett and Lavonte David that their pending free agency was essentially irrelevant.

“Your ass ain’t going nowhere!” Arians told several of his team’s star players.

As it turns out, Arians was right. The rear ends of the team’s most coveted trio of free agents won’t be testing the market. Instead, they’ll all be playing in Tampa Bay in 2021 alongside Tom Brady, for deals that took at least slightly less than what the players would have commanded on the open market. This is how you win a Super Bowl, then win free agency before free agency even starts:

By getting Brady to restructure his contract and shave $19 million off the 2021 salary cap, then franchise-tagging top five free agent wideout Godwin with a one-year deal worth $15.98 million. Then following that up with a pair of slightly discounted deals for top-10 free agents in linebackers Lavonte David (two years for $25 million) and Shaq Barrett (four years and $68 million, plus a potential $4 million in incentives).

Thanks in part to Tom Brady's discount and the franchise tag on Chris Godwin (middle), the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won free agency before it even started. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
Thanks in part to Tom Brady's discount and the franchise tag on Chris Godwin (middle), the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won free agency before it even started. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

Those four moves all happened in concert to keep the foundation of the 2020 Buccaneers' Super Bowl team in place — despite a salary cap rollback that has forced some teams to walk away from some of their key players.

That latter point can’t be ignored and might be the biggest feather in the cap of Arians, general manager Jason Licht and Brady, the reality that Tampa Bay engineered this talent retention in the middle of a salary cap contraction. That’s something the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t have to deal with last offseason, when that franchise won a Super Bowl in the 2019 season and still kept its biggest free agents in the fold. Not only did the Buccaneers accomplish it under greater duress, they also did it in a market that was still prepared to put Barrett, David and Godwin anywhere from $2 million to $4 million per season beyond where each ultimately settled.

This great retention isn’t over, either. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is reportedly returning on a one-year, $10 million deal, and while wideout Antonio Brown is expected to poke around free agency, the Buccaneers are believed to be frontrunners for him on a potential discount deal as well. Tampa Bay could retain its top five free agents heading into 2021, making the franchise the NFC’s Super Bowl favorite next season.

Will the Bucs pay a price for all of this? Certainly. Kicking Brady’s $19 million down the road will eventually impact a future cap, although the Buccaneers still have time to be creative about how that ultimately plays out. And Godwin’s situation is resolved for only a season. There’s also still a chance that Brown pulls a surprise and signs elsewhere in free agency, although Brady referenced his confidence about “keeping the band together” on Instagram — and it’s extremely hard to imagine Brown not being part of Brady’s band following 2020.

None of this is about anything beyond 2021, a season that will feature Brady playing at 44 years old, Arians coaching at 69 and one grand finale before a slew of difficult decisions will need to be made with multiple players in 2022. But one more “all-in” season is already lining up nicely for Tampa Bay, who will play inside an NFC South in serious flux and an overall conference picture that features a lot of quarterback drama or questions inside potential contenders like the Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers.

Weighing injuries and other factors at this early stage of the offseason, the continuity inside the Buccaneers arguably makes the franchise look like the most stable NFC bet heading into 2021. Consider Tampa Bay will have a more traditional offseason of work and that the goal was for the 2021 team to be the better of Brady’s two locked-in seasons with Arians. Then you factor in that Tampa’s non-divisional schedule includes a slate against the NFC East — which was nothing less than a train wreck last season — and this is looking like a strong second act. In some respects, all of this has shades of Kansas City’s situation one year ago, when the defending champion Chiefs essentially sailed through the offseason and became the odds-on favorite to win another Super Bowl.

And that might be the lesson here for Tampa Bay. Being a Super Bowl winner and having an offseason with a solidified core doesn’t necessarily guarantee the ultimate payoff. As the Chiefs learned, something as simple as a devastating spate of injuries along the offensive line can undermine even the most perfect, stable and talented group.

What that will teach Tampa Bay is that the upcoming draft — with three top-100 picks and eight choices overall — will have to provide some important depth and players capable of contributing as rookies. There’s also still room to restructure a few more veterans' contracts and gain some additional cap room if Tampa desires it, which might be the case if some solid middle-tier veterans get pinched by free agency and are willing to take a modest one-year deal to compete for a Super Bowl ring with Brady and the rest of the returning band.

Regardless of whether that happens, Tampa Bay has already pulled off a rare back-to-back win in the Super Bowl and ensuing free agency. It’s not often that a team can get the best player in the history of the NFL to push his payday further down the road, then parlay that gesture into retaining three coveted free agents for less money than they would have commanded on the market. All with their eyes affixed on the goal of consecutive Lombardi trophies, with some Bruce Arians verbiage in mind for the 2021 season.

The team's top free agents aren't going anywhere. The next Super Bowl title? If this is a sign of things to come, that might not be going anywhere else, either.

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