What Jason Pierre-Paul's fractured vertebrae means for the Bucs

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in wait-and-see mode with star pass-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, who has elected not to have surgery on his fractured vertebrae, for now, and will consult with doctors again in four months. Pierre-Paul was involved in a single-car crash on May 2.

Here are some answers to questions that have emerged about the situation and what it means for Pierre-Paul and the Bucs.

What is the timetable for Pierre-Paul and when could he see a return to the field?

The best-case scenario, according to coach Bruce Arians, would be that he is ready in five to six months, which would mean a return by October or November.

He can go on the active/non-football injury list (NFI) during training camp, meaning he won’t be able to practice with the team during that time, but he can still participate in rehabilitative and conditioning work with the training staff, depending on where he is in his healing.

Procedurally, this would give the Bucs the option to put him on the regular-season active/NFI list should he not be ready in September, but he might be ready later in the season. Starting the year on the active/NFI list would prevent him from seeing any action for at least the first six weeks of the season. He would not occupy a roster spot during that time frame.

The team would have until Week 9 to activate him. If he is not ready at that point, the Bucs can keep him on the NFI list through the remainder of the season or place him on injured reserve. These designations matter because they dictate pay.

How does this impact Pierre-Paul and the Bucs financially?

After the first six weeks of the season, the Bucs have two options: 1) activate him or 2) place him on the reserve/NFI list.

Players who start the season on the NFI list are unpaid until they are either activated to the 53-man roster or placed on IR. Pierre-Paul will lose his $250,000 offseason workout bonus by not participating in the offseason program. The Bucs already have paid him for the $7.5 million he earned in guaranteed money that was triggered March 15.

If he is activated or placed on IR (which they could do if this was an on-field injury), he’ll earn his weekly $360,294.18 game check (subtracting $7.5 million from his base salary of $13.625 million and dividing that by 17 weeks), plus his weekly $62,500 roster bonus ($1 million split across 17 games) for whatever games he is able to play. He most likely will lose out on $1.6 million in incentives for sacks and the Pro Bowl.

If the team decides to put him on the reserve/NFI list instead of IR, they could theoretically save up to $6.125 million because they’re not obligated to pay him anything, but as was seen with Kendell Beckwith last year, they paid him his full $570,000 last year despite being placed on NFI after he sustained an ankle injury in a car accident. If they don’t want to pay Pierre-Paul in full, they can attempt to renegotiate his salary for the season, which is what the Bucs did with kicker Connor Barth when he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in a charity basketball game in 2013.

As for salary-cap implications, any amount saved won’t impact the Bucs’ situation in 2019, but instead for 2020. The most they could save from their salary cap would be roughly $8.975 million next year.

Does this impact the Bucs' situation with Gerald McCoy?

While both are impactful players up front, Pierre-Paul and McCoy play different positions in Todd Bowles' defense: McCoy would play a 3-technique role along the defensive line, while Pierre-Paul would be a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end. The only way McCoy, who has been absent from the Bucs' offseason program thus far, impacts Pierre-Paul is that should the Bucs cut or trade him, McCoy's $13 million could be used to sign a free agent or to pay a player the team traded for.

Who can step up in Pierre-Paul's absence?

Shaquil Barrett, Carl Nassib and Noah Spence would be next in line. The Bucs also drafted Anthony Nelson, and they signed undrafted free agent Kahzin Daniels and, after a very strong rookie camp, David Kenney. It's too soon to determine what impact those rookies might have, so let's look at the three veterans.

After being waived by the Cleveland Browns just before the start of the regular season, Nassib went on to start nine games last year at defensive end, registering 6.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two pass breakups.

Barrett signed as a free agent this offseason after five seasons with the Denver Broncos. He saw action in 61 games during that span, starting 15 games. He registered 14.0 sacks with Denver, with his best year being 5.5 in 2015.

Spence, a second-round draft pick in 2016, played nearly his entire rookie season with a torn labrum and still registered 5.5 sacks, although the injury forced him to miss most of 2017. In 2018, he attempted to put on 35 pounds (going from 228 to 263) in an effort to become an every-down player, and the decision backfired, as he barely saw the field in 2018. If he can stay healthy and figure out an ideal playing weight that works for him in this scheme -- a scheme that coaches and front-office members believe better suits him than a 4-3 -- Spence could finally make his mark.

If there's concern that none of these players can step up, Arians said the team would look elsewhere.

"When I was in Arizona, every year that last week we would always add the missing piece," Arians said. "We’re looking for the missing piece right now. There is somebody out there. John Abraham came in, Dwight Freeney came in, guys that really impacted our defense, and Todd [Bowles] did a great job of matching them up. We’re nowhere near where we are going to be in September, so we will just wait and see.”