TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers face tough decisions as they install a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. They have $17.97 million in salary-cap space, and that’s after cutting defensive end Vinny Curry, which essentially freed up the $9.28 million needed to pay their draft picks. More moves will need to be made, and the biggest decision revolves around defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
The six-time Pro Bowler turns 31 next week. While still productive, his play as of late (12.0 sacks over the past two seasons) hasn’t justified the $13 million that he’s owed in 2019, especially when left tackle Donovan Smith and linebacker Kwon Alexander remain unsigned and a new deal looms for quarterback Jameis Winston.
With three years and $38.43 million remaining (none guaranteed) on his contract, McCoy accounts for nearly 18 percent of the cap space the Bucs are using on defense -- second only to defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul at 20 percent. Only three 3-4 defensive ends (which is what McCoy would be in the new scheme) make more per year: Aaron Donald ($22.5 million), J.J. Watt ($16.67 million) and Jurrell Casey ($15.1 million).
So what are the Bucs’ options with McCoy?
Arguably the best thing Tampa Bay could do is trade McCoy while he still has value. Last year, Pierre-Paul was acquired by swapping a third-round draft pick and getting a fourth from the New York Giants. In McCoy’s case, the Bucs might be able to land a fifth-round draft pick, possibly a fourth.
The problem with a trade is that it's already a strong free-agent class with Grady Jarrett, Ndamukong Suh, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson, to name several. Why lose valuable draft capital if you can sign a free agent?
It's also a strong draft class at the position, which works to the Bucs' advantage, including Houston’s Ed Oliver, Alabama’s Quinnen Williams and Clemson’s Christian Wilkins.
If the Bucs can’t find a trade partner, the next step would be to cut McCoy, which is less than ideal because a roster filled with holes -- cornerback, left tackle, interior offensive line, running back and linebacker -- suddenly will have one more with no additional resources to allocate toward filling them.
In cutting McCoy, the Bucs wouldn’t face any financial implications because there is no guaranteed money remaining on his deal. It would free up $13 million in cap space for 2019, $12.5 million in 2020 and $12.93 million in 2021.
Renegotiate with him
Could they convince McCoy to take a pay cut by including more guaranteed money, as Bill Barnwell suggested? It'd be easier to restructure McCoy's contract if he had a longer career ahead of him, but he already has nine seasons under his belt, so a pay cut makes more sense.
The deal could be for $10 million annually, with incentives that would push it to $13 million, so the cap charge would be $10 million instead of $13 million. Other moves would be needed, though (see below), but it would allow them to keep a player whose 54.5 sacks rank fourth among active defensive tackles.
He's also been one of the most visible players in the Tampa Bay community with his Patricia Diane Foundation, which assists single parents. Would he be willing to stay with Tampa Bay by taking less, if it means his family -- including five children -- can stay in one spot while he finishes his career?
Keep the status quo
Perhaps McCoy’s play isn't declining, and a scheme change under new coaches will give him a shot of life.
If the Bucs don’t touch McCoy’s contract, they could free up cap space by trading or cutting wide receiver DeSean Jackson ($10 million), at the very least, and they’d have $27.97 million -- about enough to sign Smith to a new contract.
They could create more space by extending Winston to drop his cap figure from $20.9 million to, say, $10 million. They also could cut defensive end William Gholston ($3.75 million), defensive tackle Beau Allen ($5 million, although they’d have to eat a $1.5 million roster bonus) and defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, although Unrein had a concussion last season, so he’d likely get $1 million if he can’t pass a physical, but it still would save $2.75 million.