The Buccaneers are doing something that no team in the NFL has done since the start of the salary cap era. They are bringing back all 22 of their starters from their Super Bowl-winning team.
Six of Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl starters were set to hit the free-agent market during the 2021 offseason, and it didn’t look like the team would be able to retain them all. Chris Godwin, Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David and Ndamukong Suh were available among other key depth players, and the Bucs would have to get creative with the salary cap to make deals happen.
That’s exactly what Jason Licht did. The Bucs general manager found a way to keep not only the team’s starters but also most of its key reserves. They lost just one player in free agency who played more than 10 percent of the team’s non-special teams snaps last year. That was backup offensive tackle Joe Haeg.
How did Licht manage to make this happen and give the Buccaneers unprecedented continuity? Here’s a look at the moves that helped Tampa Bay keep their entire starting lineup intact for 2021.
Buccaneers’ free agent strategy
Jason Licht knew that he wanted to bring back as many of the key players on the team as he could. What was his plan? Just to dive in and sign as many back as he could.
“There was really no priority,” Licht said of re-signing players. “Whichever ones we could get done first and second and third and so on.”
Licht’s team found that negotiations with these key veterans ended up being painless. The players simply wanted to be here to challenge for another Super Bowl title.
“And we kinda found that during this process, that everybody wanted to be here,” Licht said. “I don’t want to say they took discounts, but it wasn’t as difficult as it would be if we were coming off a 9-7 year, that’s for sure. They all wanted to be here. They all love playing for this coach. They all love playing with the quarterback and with each other.
“It’s the absolute best locker room I’ve ever been a part of, and it’s so selfless and there’s no drama and everybody really wants to win. It’s funny, bringing up Jimmy (Johnson), I worked for him for one year, my second year in the league, and he sent me a text after the Super Bowl and said, ‘Now the hard part begins.’ “
Still, fitting in all the returning players under the salary cap wouldn’t be easy. The Buccaneers had just $24 million in cap space, so Licht and Co. had to get a little creative as they looked to bring players back.
Bucs use franchise tag on Chris Godwin
The first move that the Bucs made was one of the easiest. They slapped Chris Godwin with the franchise tag on March 10 to guarantee they would keep him ahead of free agency.
Godwin was expected to be one of the best receivers on the open market. He has averaged 93 catches, 1,337 yards and 10 touchdowns per 16 games played the last two seasons. He only played in 12 games during Tom Brady’s first season, but he still finished second on the team in targets (84) despite missing action.
But as coach Bruce Arians said ahead of free agency, Godwin’s value goes beyond his stat line.
“He brings so much more than targets,” Arians said, per Buccaneers.com. “When you look at what he does as an outside receiver and a slot receiver, he’s so unique in that regard. And then you put his blocking in there, so he’s a huge part of what we do offensively. It’s more than stats. It’s also what the guy brings to the huddle. I think with all these guys, each and everyone is so different because of what they bring into the huddle. But Chris is very, very unique.”
As such, retaining his services for $15.9 million over one year was a no-brainer. In all likelihood, the team will continue with its efforts to sign him to a long-term deal during the 2022 offseason.
How Bucs used contract extensions, voidable years to create cap space
The Buccaneers didn’t have a lot of cap space after tagging Godwin, so they had to get creative in looking for ways to create it. They ultimately decided on using two tools in conjunction with one another: contract extensions that had “voidable years” on them to save money.
Contract extensions are simple enough. Essentially, teams sign players to another deal to push money further into the future. These contracts are often backloaded and in the case of the Buccaneers, they made the first year of each extension very cap-light.
Voidable years work conjunctively with contract extensions. Like extensions, void years allow teams to tack on another year to a deal to defer payment into the future. Unlike extensions, the players are not under contract for the team during the void years.
The Buccaneers had three smart transactions that allowed them to continue creating cap space to re-sign their free agents.
Lavonte David contract extension
David was set to be a free agent after playing the first nine years of his career with the Buccaneers. He re-signed with the team on March 12 to guarantee he would remain in Tampa Bay.
David’s deal ended up being worth $25 million over two years, but it came with voidable years, which allowed his cap hit to be $3.5 million in 2021. The Bucs will be paying David through 2025 because of the void years, but they don’t mind; they’re trying to take advantage of Brady’s Super Bowl window.
Retaining a player that has recorded over 100 tackles eight times in nine seasons seems like a good way to do that.
Tom Brady extension
Brady signed a contract extension on March 12 that will tie him to Tampa Bay through 2022. This came after the Bucs had used most of their cap space to re-sign Godwin and David, so Brady added voidable years to his deal and helped to clear $19 million in cap space for the Bucs.
Licht was happy to get the extra cap space, but he was even happier that this deal effectively confirmed Brady would stick around for another season.
“When we acquired Tom a year ago, we were extremely excited about the leadership, poise and winning track record that he would bring to our locker room. Since that time, he has proven himself to be the ultimate competitor and delivered in every way we had imagined, helping us capture the Lombardi Trophy,” Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht said in a statement, per ESPN. “Year after year, Tom proves that he remains one of the elite quarterbacks in this game and we couldn’t be happier to keep him in Tampa Bay as we continue to pursue our goals together.”
Donovan Smith extension
David and Brady’s deals both came before free agency. Smith’s came after its first wave, as the Buccaneers needed more cap space once to re-sign a few other key veterans. So, they turned to their left tackle Donovan Smith to make that happen.
The Bucs agreed to a two-year, $31.8 million contract extension with Smith on March 25. That will keep Smith in Tampa Bay through 2023 and helped them to open $10.6 million more in cap space by adding two voidable years to his deal. So, the Buccaneers will be paying him through 2025.
Bucs continue to use void years in free agency
Tampa Bay continued to manipulate the cap during free agency. It focused largely on re-signing its own players. That said, of their four major re-signings during free agency, three came with void years attached to their contracts.
Shaquil Barrett re-signs
The Buccaneers made it a priority to re-sign Shaquil Barrett once free agency opened. He had spent two years in Tampa Bay on a one-year deal each time and racked up 27.5 sacks.
Barrett signed a huge contract, worth up to $72 million over four years, on March 17. However, the Bucs tacked on — you guessed it — a void year to his deal to defray the cost slightly. That allowed Barrett to carry a cap hit of just $5 million in 2021, per Spotrac.com. His cap hit will jump up to at least $18.75 million during the ensuing three seasons.
“Shaq has made a profound and immediate impact on our defense from the day he stepped into the building two years ago,” Licht said after Barrett’s re-signing. “From leading the league in sacks in 2019 to leaving his mark during our postseason run to Super Bowl LV, Shaq’s contributions have been vital to our success as a team, and we look forward to continuing that success in the years ahead.”
Rob Gronkowski re-signs
Gronkowski’s return to the Buccaneers was virtually sealed. He came out of retirement to play with Brady; he wasn’t going to go anywhere else. He agreed to a one-year deal worth $8 million on March 22.
However, Gronkowski’s contract comes with four void years. So, Tampa Bay will be paying him through 2025 for one year of production. That’s not ideal, but given that Brady is 44 and has a tiny Super Bowl window, it could prove to be the right decision.
Ndamukong Suh re-signs
The Bucs agreed to terms with Suh on a one-year contract worth $9 million almost immediately after they extended Donovan Smith. It wasn’t made official until April 7, but it guaranteed that Suh would return to the team.
Perhaps part of that was related to the four void years that Suh received. Like Gronkowski, he’ll be paid for one year of production over five years, but it was worth it to keep his cap hit at just $3 million.
Suh had 44 tackles and six sacks during his second season in Tampa Bay. Now 34, he didn’t see any point in looking for work elsewhere and was happy to get a lucrative contract from the Bucs.
“At the end of the day, I wanted to have an opportunity to come back with a group of guys that have an opportunity to potentially go back in and earn another ring,” Suh said, per Buccaneers.com. “The sky’s the limit for us. We just got to continue to hone in and understand what Coach Arians wants from each one of us and really embrace our roles, so I’m excited.”
Leonard Fournette re-signs
Fournette was the final starter to re-sign with the Buccaneers. He agreed to a one-year deal worth $3.25 million on March 31. This contract came with no void years.
Fournette logged 448 yards from scrimmage during the postseason, the ninth-most in NFL history, and created a solid tandem with Ronald Jones. He had 448 scrimmage yards in the playoffs, the ninth-most in NFL history, so the Buccaneers will hope he can continue to produce at a high level.
Other notable Bucs re-signings
The Buccaneers didn’t just keep their starters. They kept a good chunk of their depth players as well, and the void years helped give them enough money to do that.
That should give them a deep, experienced team as they look to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Below are the rest of the players that agreed to return to the Bucs:
- WR Antonio Brown
- OL Aaron Stinnie
- CB Ross Cockrell
- QB Ryan Griffin
- DL Steve McLendon
- ILB Kevin Minter
- DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches
- DL Patrick O’Connor
- K Ryan Succop
- LS Zach Triner
- T Josh Wells
What does this roster continuity mean for the Buccaneers?
We’ve never seen this type of roster continuity in the modern NFL, so it’s hard to know if it will translate to anything tangible.
That said, they should have no trouble syncing up early in the season and their locker room dynamic will be very similar to the Super Bowl-winning team of 2021. Those factors are one of the reasons that Sporting News anticipates the Bucs will emerge from the NFC once again come the playoffs.
Additionally, this continuity reflects well on the team that Jason Licht has built. He flexed his muscles again this offseason and made sure that Tampa Bay came out of the off period as big winners.
It will be interesting to see when the void years catch up to the Bucs, but short-term, Licht has done a great job. He continues to establish himself as a strong GM, and if he continues to build the right way, the Buccaneers will continue to be contenders under his watch.
Need Your Help Today. Your $1 can change life.