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Why the Bucs were quiet in free agency and what's coming next

TAMPA, Fla. -- For the first time in years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers weren’t big spenders early in free agency, despite a regime change under new head coach Bruce Arians in 2019. Here’s a look at what was behind their lack of spending, how it impacts their overall offseason performance and where they go from here.

How did they get here?

How did the Bucs go from having the third-most salary-cap space in the league with $74.15 million in 2018 to the least most in the league at $3 million in 2019? The Bucs picked up quarterback Jameis Winston’s fifth-year option, taking his cap figure from $7.9 million last season to $20.9 million in 2019. The Bucs extended wide receiver Mike Evans ($20 million cap hit

in 2019), tight end Cameron Brate ($7 million) and offensive guard Ali Marpet ($11.02 million) last offseason.

They also traded last year for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul ($14.9 million cap hit in 2019) and signed center Ryan Jensen ($10 million) and defensive tackle Beau Allen ($5 million) -- although they just restructured him. That's roughly $75 million right there.

Cutting defensive end Vinny Curry ($8 million) and punter Bryan Anger ($3 milliion) and trading wide receiver DeSean Jackson ($10 million) could do only so much. The Bucs were able to eke out a bit more cap space by extending offensive tackle Donovan Smith rather than using the franchise tag -- a move that dropped his cap figure from $14.067 million to $12.5 million -- and by restructuring Allen.

Bargain shopping

Holding on to six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy, who counts $13 million against the salary gap, limited the Bucs' spending options. So instead of shopping for Gucci, they got Michael Kors -- still a reliable brand without the hefty investment -- stretching what little cash they had into addressing needs at wide receiver, offensive guard, safety, inside linebacker, outside linebacker, kicker and punter.

No outside free agent other than punter Bradley Pinion was signed for more than one year or will earn more than $4 million in guaranteed money (Breshad Perriman). This unquestionably made it more challenging to compete for talent, but the Bucs found players such as linebacker Deone Bucannon and guard Earl Watford who have a strong familiarity with the new staff.

Considering how many failed free agents they’ve had under GM Jason Licht (Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins and Alterraun Verner, to name a few) versus success in the draft (Evans, Winston, Marpet, Smith, Kwon Alexander and Chris Godwin) and with undrafted free agents (Cameron Brate and Adam Humphries), it’s no wonder the team has put more emphasis on what it has done well in recent years -- drafting and developing young talent.

And we've seen that winning free agency doesn’t necessarily equate to success.

Look at the Indianapolis Colts, who were 10-6 and reached the playoffs in 2018, and GM Chris Ballard was named NFL Executive of the Year. This came after a very quiet free-agency period. Ballard's formula for success? Strong coaching from Frank Reich, a healthy starting quarterback in Andrew Luck, solidifying protection for Luck and nailing draft picks (the largest draft class in team history thanks to a blockbuster trade with the New York Jets) with guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard, who both were named AP First-Team All-Pros.

Ballard said he prefers building through the draft over free agency and that he would not be caught overspending. Recent history suggests that's a sound strategy. Of the 10 teams that spent the most in terms of active cash spending in 2018, only two reached the postseason: the Rams and the Chicago Bears. However, five of the top 10 spenders did in 2017 -- the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings. But in 2016, just the New York Giants and Kansas City Chiefs reached the postseason among top-10 spenders.

Is the Bucs' window closing?

A big reason the Los Angeles Rams were able to spend big in free agency last year AND still pay Aaron Donald was because quarterback Jared Goff is still playing on a rookie deal, and the rookie wage scale puts a cap on how much players can make in their first four to five years in the league, depending on if the fifth-year option is picked up. It’ll be the same thing for the Cleveland Browns with Baker Mayfield -- which is part of the reason they could absorb Odell Beckham Jr.’s $17 million cap hit this season -- the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes and the Houston Texans with Deshaun Watson.

Winston’s fifth-year option in 2019 gives a glimpse of the reality teams with quarterbacks on long-term deals -- the Minnesota Vikings with Kirk Cousins, the Falcons with Matt Ryan and the Green Bay Packers with Aaron Rodgers -- have faced, which really started with Joe Flacco’s extension with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013.

In fact, only one team with one of the five highest-paid quarterbacks (Falcons, Packers, Ravens, plus the San Francisco 49ers with Jimmy Garoppolo and Detroit Lions with Matthew Stafford) made the playoffs in 2018 -- and Flacco was on the bench for the Ravens.

Some would say that Winston, who has yet to reach the playoffs, hasn’t earned a deal in the $23 million to $28 million threshold. But as proved by the Garoppolo deal -- which at the time was the richest in the NFL history -- sustained winning isn’t a prerequisite. Contracts are based on market value. The Bucs will have to work smart with Winston when putting together a new deal, balancing fair compensation while appealing to his desire to be a team player.

The compensatory pick game

Compensatory draft picks are awarded to NFL teams that lose more or higher-value compensatory free agents (they must be unrestricted free agents; restricted free agents don’t qualify) than they acquire, with a maximum of four awarded per team and 32 awarded total. The Patriots have made a habit of doing this and are in line for four compensatory picks for the second straight year.

The Bucs have lost five of their own free agents (Alexander, Humphries, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Adarius Taylor and Josh Shaw) and signed five outside free agents (Perriman, Bucannon, Watford, Bradley Pinion and Shaquil Barrett). They would need one more free-agent departure, such as Brent Grimes or Chris Conte, without a signing to offset it, to yield a compensatory pick (note that Andrew Adams and Kentrell Brice don’t count toward the formula because they were restricted free agents). A third-round compensatory pick for the loss of Alexander -- which is still possible -- would be the highest in team history.

What now?

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It's rare that a linebacker prospect has speed, toughness, leadership and football acumen all in one package, but according to Field Yates, Devin White of LSU and Devin Bush of Michigan are the real deal and will make a big impact in the NFL.

While Alexander's departure seemed to shock fans, it became clear in December that the Bucs likely were not going to be able to keep him unless some real roster cutting was made. If Bucannon's and Minter’s signings aren’t enough to satisfy the Bucs at the inside linebacker position, Devin White or Devin Bush would be strong first-round draft choices to plug in and play next to Lavonte David, and the Bucs could theoretically trade out of the top five and still possibly land one of those players. Licht has traded down two out of the past three years, but this is just the second time he’s had a top-five pick.

If the Bucs stay put, Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen could be there for the taking at No. 5, or defensive end Montez Sweat could be available. They also could fill needs at cornerback -- a position they only addressed by re-signing De’Vante Harris -- by using that top pick on LSU's Greedy Williams. Or they could begin grooming Gerald McCoy’s replacement by selecting among defensive linemen Ed Oliver and Quinnen Williams.