Sign or trade for a marquee free-agent quarterback, and the window to contend stays open. But if they come up empty and are forced to turn to Blaine Gabbert, who hasn’t started a game since 2018, or Kyle Trask, who was their fourth quarterback on the depth chart last season, it will be a rebuild, even if general manager Jason Licht and coach Bruce Arians won’t be calling it that — preferring to instead use the term “reload.”
Even before they attempt to reassemble their roster, their daunting list of opponents outside their division will make for an uphill battle: They face the Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys.
Projected salary-cap space: $7.9 million
Top free agents: WR Chris Godwin, TE Rob Gronkowski, C Ryan Jensen, RB Leonard Fournette, DL Ndamukong Suh, OLB Jason Pierre-Paul, CB Carlton Davis, S Jordan Whitehead, RG Alex Cappa, RB Ronald Jones II, RB Giovani Bernard, DL William Gholston, TE O.J. Howard, QB Blaine Gabbert
Potential cut candidates: With so many players set to become free agents, it’s less about who will be cut and more about who they won’t bring back. Pierre-Paul played through a torn rotator cuff all season — might Joe Tryon-Shoyinka be ready to take over as the starter opposite Shaquil Barrett? Even with Gronkowski missing five games, Howard essentially disappeared. And it was very telling that in crucial situations last season, the Bucs didn’t look to Jones, who, one can argue, was eclipsed by Ke’Shawn Vaughn during the postseason when Jones was injured.
The big question: Could Brady return? Six days after he announced his retirement after 22 seasons, Brady opened the door for a possible return, saying on his podcast that while he was happy with his decision and looked forward to focusing his energy on things away from football, “You never say never.” Whether Brady wants to return to the Bucs remains to be seen — although the Bucs did everything they could to appease him — but by placing him on the reserve/retired list, they’ll retain his rights, meaning, if he wanted to play elsewhere, another team would need to compensate the Bucs, similar to what happened with Gronkowski and the New England Patriots.
Best-case scenario for the team’s offseason: If the Bucs can trade for quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson — or even Kyler Murray, Carson Wentz or Derek Carr — and still manage to re-sign their most important free agents — Godwin, Davis, Jensen, Fournette and Whitehead — it’s a win.
Worst-case scenario for the team’s offseason: The Bucs aren’t able to sign or trade for a top-tier quarterback, they’re forced to rely on Trask or Gabbert, Gronkowski retires and leaves them with one tight end on their current roster in Cameron Brate. The lure of coming to Tampa to win championships is no more.
Early look at the NFL draft, from ESPN analyst Jordan Reid: With Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting entering the final year of their rookie deals and Davis being a franchise tag candidate, the Buccaneers’ long-term outlook at cornerback is bleak. Finding a young player at the position could be an option. After Brady’s retirement, quarterback is another big question mark. They selected Trask with the last pick in the second round a year ago, and he could be given a chance to start, but the team could also be aggressive with finding its next answer under center.
Top needs: CB, QB, IDL
Top pick: No. 27