TAMPA, Fla. -- While the NFL's annual free-agency period in March typically involves pillaging the roster of the defending Super Bowl champion, with players eager to capitalize on their individual success and leave for a big contract, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers somehow managed to “keep the band together.”
They’re returning all 22 starters on offense and defense and three of four starters on special teams from their Super Bowl LV victory -- the most of any team in NFL history since the current free-agency system began in 1993, a measure designed to create more competitive balance in the NFL. They’ve lost three free agents -- all backups -- in safety Andrew Adams, offensive lineman Joe Haeg and cornerback Ryan Smith, with the only key free agent unsigned at this point being Antonio Brown, whom the organization hasn’t turned the page on.
"There's a number of factors. I think they all know the culture, love the culture,” coach Bruce Arians said Tuesday. “They’re all getting paid. Ain’t nobody coming back cheap, you know what I mean? It’s a great organization. We obviously have a team that should be in the hunt again.
“But I think the camaraderie of that football team, what they went through together with the pandemic and everything else -- there's a bond that starts, and it's hard to break that bond, and I think they all want to play for each other.”
To Arians’ first point on culture, having a 43-year-old quarterback in Tom Brady willing to take less money to keep talent around him by signing an extension to create $19 million in salary cap space set the tone.
It was aided by left tackle Donovan Smith signing an extension that freed up $10.65 million, allowing them to sign defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh to a contract where he’ll earn $10 million annually (the details on Suh’s contract in terms of voidable years and cap hit are being worked out).
“It just shows you, what better place to be than in Tampa?” Smith said. “These guys, we love it here, we love it here and want to be here, to continue to build and go back out there and chase it again. It just shows, the guys, how much they love it here, and [are] selfless and everything.”
To Arians’ second point, players want to feel wanted. While the Bucs didn’t break the bank when it came to free-agent spending and couldn’t (they had $14 million in salary-cap space before free agency began), they presented competitive offers to their own within the constraints of the pandemic, which cut the salary cap by 8%. So rather than competing with the highest amount paid at that position on deals signed in previous years, they gave players the highest amounts within the pandemic free agency.
Shaq Barrett’s $17 million annual salary ties him as the ninth-highest-paid edge rusher in the league. But it’s more money and more guaranteed money ($34.5 million) than any other edge rusher signed in free agency this year. They also agreed to settle his grievance over his franchise tag position last year by awarding him an additional $1.372 million.
“Jason Licht was really honest and stuck to his word the whole time,” Barrett said. “He’s a world-class GM. ... Usually, teams win, they let people go and walk, because people will demand a higher salary than teams are willing to pay, but we made it work. He moved some stuff around, made some amazing deals with other guys who [were] free and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to get it done.”
Lavonte David’s deal will pay him $12.5 million this year, making him the eighth-highest-paid non-edge-rushing linebacker in the NFL. But that amount is still the most of any non-edge-rushing linebacker signed during this free-agency period. Tight end Rob Gronkowski’s $8 million on a one-year deal made him the second-highest-paid tight end for the 2021 season this free agency behind Hunter Henry.
The Bucs, like other teams, also got creative by using voidable years for the first time in director of football administration Mike Greenberg’s tenure negotiating contracts. Under him, they always operated under a "pay as you go" contract structure, with the largest salary-cap hits coming at the beginning of a player’s contract. But this time, they recognized it wasn't feasible with a lowered cap in 2021, while anticipating a significant boost from new television deals in 2022. That’s how they were able to give Smith a salary of $15.9 million per year -- the second most of any left tackle signed this free agency behind Trent Williams -- while carrying just a $3.6 million cap hit. David’s cap hit is just $3.5 million.
"I have to say ... Mike Greenberg and [director of football research] Jackie Davidson -- they're superstars, man,” Arians said of the salary-cap work the duo orchestrated. “They did an unbelievable job, along with Jason.”
Aside from culture and competitive financial compensation, coaches and players believe they can be a lot better in 2021 with an actual offseason where younger players can develop and with Brady having another year in the same system.
“I definitely think we can be better on the offensive side of the ball,” Gronkowski said. “You saw it sometimes during the season at the beginning of the year, like we weren’t really putting up points, we weren’t really clicking together. I feel like with so many players coming back, another offseason under our belts, another training camp, a whole season under our belt -- that we can definitely continue where we left off.”
The offense and defense didn’t hit their respective strides until after the Week 13 bye, when they closed out the season on a four-game win streak and rode that momentum all the way to the Super Bowl. They also did not have tight end O.J. Howard after Week 4 and didn’t get defensive tackle Vita Vea back from his fractured ankle until the NFC Championship Game.
“When you go back and look at the film, we have so many things to correct from last year,” Arians said. “There was steady growth, but we’re nowhere near where we could possibly be if we have a great offseason and stay healthy, and continue to build a ton of depth.”
There are personal reasons for players returning as well. Barrett and his wife Jordanna are expecting their fourth child -- a baby girl -- next month, and are eager to establish roots. The week Barrett signed his deal, they put an offer in on a house and celebrated by visiting LEGOLAND.
Gronkowski wanted to briefly test free agency since he had never been a free agent before (the Bucs traded with New England for his rights after he retired), but quickly decided to return to the Bucs, where he was able to play a full season for the first time since 2011, thanks in part to Arians monitoring his workload and giving him preventative days off -- something he hadn’t had previously. He also has enjoyed being near his mother, Diane Walters, whom he visits weekly in Fort Myers.
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“I wanted to be back with the Buccaneers organization,” Gronkowski said. “Just the setup here is just unbelievable. Just the chemistry that I’ve built up over the last season -- it’s just fantastic. I knew I wanted to be here.”
There were sentimental reasons tied to players’ returns, too. David, the longest-tenured Buc after nine seasons -- just two of them with a winning record -- has never put on another uniform, and the hope from both sides is that he won’t. He’s been a team captain for seven consecutive seasons and is regarded as the heart and soul of the Bucs’ locker room.
“Honestly, all in all, I didn’t want to go nowhere,” David said. “The bond that we had, the bond that we shared this year -- it was just like no other. With the coaching staff included, everybody is a real tight-knit group. It’s something that I haven’t been around in a while and something I definitely wanted to be a part of.”
"I mean, I have a legacy here that I'm trying to chase, and I'm trying to stamp, you know, and I'm just trying to win more Super Bowls,” David said. “Dealing with the stuff I dealt with the previous eight years, then finally you win one and finally up and leave? I’m like ‘No, I want to keep on winning.’ This team, this organization, this city deserves a lot more and I want to be a part of it.”