Let’s get the biggest question of this “Can Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers repeat as Super Bowl champions?” article out of the way right off the bat. Yes, Tom Brady will be back for the 2021 season — he said as much in his postgame remarks after Sunday’s 34-9 Super Bowl LV victory over the Kansas City Chiefs — and yes, he will still be playing at a high level.
Tom Brady and the Buccaneers’ post-Super Bowl overview
We all know that he will be 44 years old and looked like Old Man Brady at times during the 2020 season. Yet, betting on Brady to decline has been a great way to be wrong since the mid-2010s. NFL Recap won’t be falling into that trap again, nosiree.
Head coach Bruce Arians will also be back next year, as will Rob Gronkowski, per Rob Gronkowski. But there’s more to a title defense than a coach, a quarterback, and a Gronk.
The Buccaneers face some serious questions in 2021 free agency about key players like defensive end/Super Bowl hero Shaquil Barrett and wide receiver Chris Godwin. However, they also enjoy a unique opportunity thanks to the current state of the NFC South.
Returning to the Super Bowl won’t be easy in 2021. Though, it should be possible if the Buccaneers continue to benefit from good decisions, good vibes, and a little good luck.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ salary cap outlook
The Buccaneers are projected to be about $29 million over the 2021 salary cap, per OverTheCap.com. That number may creep up once the NFL officially locks in next year’s cap; financial projections for 2021 are less dire than they appeared a few months ago.
The Buccaneers can add several million dollars in cap space by tidying their ledger here and there.
Tight end O.J. Howard is probably not in the team’s 2021 plans, for example. His departure will clear about $6 million. Left tackle Donovan Smith is in the final year of his contract and due for an extension, which could clear some extra space by turning some of his $14.2 million salary into prorated bonus bucks.
Tampa Bay’s available spending money
Per OverTheCap.com, the Buccaneers have the seventh-most cap space in the NFL entering the 2021 offseason. That’s great news because cap space relative to the league is more important than the gross dollar total.
When everyone has a zillion dollars to spend, the free agent market becomes so inflated that teams end up overpaying for ordinary veterans. In belt-tightening 2021, having a little money to spend will put the Bucs a leg up on the many teams who will be throwing starters overboard to stay afloat. Being a proven champion that veterans will want to play for in a warm-weather region with user-friendly tax laws won’t hurt a bit.
Now, the bad news. Cap space is meaningless until in-house free agents are accounted for. And the Buccaneers have some significant in-house free agents to account for.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ free agent outlook
Shaquil Barrett, Antonio Brown, Lavonte David, Leonard Fournette, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh, and Ryan Succop headline the Buccaneers’ free agent list. That’s a lot of free agents, several more than the team is likely to be able to fit within its 2021 budget.
Let’s do some trimming. Suh is enjoying his mercenary-for-hire routine and will sign with some team like the Buffalo Bills. Playoff Lenny was fun to spend January and early February with, but Fournette is expendable, and some team that does not believe in analytics will overpay for him. (Hel-lo, Houston Texans!)
LeSean McCoy is also likely gone, as are some veteran role players like Steve McClendon, Kevin Minter, and Joe Haeg (the designated sixth lineman who dropped the Chonk Guy Touchdown Pass in the Super Bowl).
Roster decisions start to get tighter
Barrett is going to fetch huge money from someone after 8 sacks in 2020, a league-leading 19.5 sacks in 2019, and a star turn in the Super Bowl. Let’s assume that Barrett is eager to return and that the Bucs prioritize keeping their pass rush intact. That will eat up a large chunk of the team’s available cap space.
Did you notice Godwin in the Super Bowl? Neither did Tom Brady! Godwin had an injury-and-dropped-pass marred season, and Brady never seemed to click with him. Godwin will look great in a Miami Dolphins jersey.
Gronk won’t play anywhere but Tampa Bay next year, and he’s unlikely to sign for more than one or two years. Thus, the Bucs won’t be able to play any prorated cap savings games. He’ll munch at least $9 million in 2021.
Brady will want Brown back, and the team may decide it’s worth rolling that pair of infernal dice if they let Godwin walk. Considering the Bucs’ past kicker luck, re-signing Succop for a few years makes much more sense than trying to pinch pennies at the position and ending up with Roberto Aguayo again.
Perhaps the toughest decision of all
That leaves David, the heart and soul of the Buccaneers’ defense for a decade, but also a 31-year-old who is beginning to decline. David will be hard to replace — he and Devin White allowed the Buccaneers to stay in nickel defense in situations where most teams would use six or seven defensive backs — but it would take a significant hometown discount to fit David under the cap.
Add it all up, and the Buccaneers are likely to lose a significant piece or two, plus some role players. They may be able to squeeze an impact free agent arrival in somewhere, especially with the prospects of playing with Tom Brady. However, that’s only if they let just about everyone except Barrett and Gronk walk.
The Buccaneers won’t really be able to make many upgrades this year for a roster that went just 10-6 in the regular season and enjoyed remarkable good health at most positions. The Buccaneers won’t be forced to make many downgrades, either. That’s significant when the rest of the division and NFC are factored into their equation for repeating as Super Bowl champions.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ opponent outlook
Let’s briefly break down the rest of the NFC South:
New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees is retiring. The team’s budget is the sort of thing lawyers are forced to sift through after a bitter divorce. The Saints will be forced to run nothing but Taysom Hill Wildcat plays — the football equivalent of eating supermarket ramen for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — just to make ends meet next year.
New general manager. New coaching staff. Same old Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and 51 guys who aren’t very good because all of the team’s money goes to Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
Matt Rhule is in the second year of a seven-year contract and does not appear to be in any hurry to build anything more than a team that looks very professional every week while almost covering the spread.
In other words, the NFC South is wide open for a balanced team that’s great in the trenches and comfortable (heh) with its quarterback situation, even if that team loses a few big names to free agency.
Every other NFC team
As for the rest of the NFC, we’ll assume that the latest Aaron Rodgers drama is just his usual passive-aggression, and Russell Wilson will drag another mediocre Seattle Seahawks to another 10 or 11-win season.
Who does that leave among the conference contenders for 2021? Matthew Stafford will make the Los Angeles Rams every bit as good as the 2011 or 2014 Detroit Lions. The NFC East will spit out another .500-caliber division winner. The Chicago Bears are an honorary NFC East team. All of the dangerous up-and-coming teams are now in the AFC!
What’s next for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?
Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are by no means prohibitive favorites to repeat as NFC or Super Bowl champions. But they are clear short-listers, along with the Packers and a few other teams.
Similarly, replay Super Bowl LV with a healthier Chiefs offensive line and some slightly more even-handed officiating in the first half and the results would be very different. Teams like the Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, and Baltimore Ravens are better bets to win Super Bowl LVI than the Buccaneers, who still belong among the top contenders.
Of course, all of this is moot if Brady finally starts to do what human beings in their 40s are supposed to do. When that happens, it happens. Until then, the Buccaneers have a chance.
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