The Buccaneers May Have Just Told Us They Plan To Rebuild

The Buccaneers were always going to look different after Tom Brady's retirement. But their decision on Brady's contract gives us a glimpse into their 2023 plans.

Following Tom Brady’s second retirement, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered the offseason with a fascinating decision tree. With their Hall of Fame quarterback off the roster, would the Bucs target an experienced signal-caller and try to compete with a veteran-laden depth chart? Or would they take a step back and regroup for 2024?

NFL free agency doesn’t begin for another month, so Tampa Bay still has time to arrange its plans. But the team’s decision on how to handle the remainder of Brady’s contract may have given us insight into how the Buccaneers intend to proceed.

The Buccaneers Plan To Absorb All of Tom Brady’s Dead Money in 2023

When the Buccaneers extended Brady in 2021, they didn’t just add one more season to his contract and ensure that he would stick around through the 2022 campaign. They also added void years, essentially fake years that exist solely to prorate a signing bonus.

When Brady reworked his contract in 2022, Tampa Bay added another void year in 2026. Instead of absorbing Brady’s signing bonus over only the duration of his deal, the Buccaneers were able to spread that money out over multiple seasons and maintain more flexibility in the near term.

This type of financial calculation represented a departure from Tampa Bay’s salary cap management strategy. In the past, the Bucs rarely used signing bonuses, preferring to offer large base salaries that featured more guarantees than most NFL teams.

But with Brady in town, Tampa Bay deviated from that approach. Instead, they began using signing bonuses just as much as other clubs in order to move money into the future. The Bucs were kicking the can down the road, but that was a viable strategy with a win-now roster and Brady under center.

That run of success may be coming to an end. Brady is hanging up his cleats, leaving Tampa Bay with a difficult decision on managing the $35+ million in dead money remaining on his deal.

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According to NFL Media, the Buccaneers plan to absorb the entirety of that total in 2023. They will take on all of Brady’s dead money hit this upcoming season, allocating $35 million of cap space to a player no longer on their roster.

General manager Jason Licht could have taken a different path. If Tampa Bay wanted to maximize its salary cap space in 2023, it could have approached Brady about signing a one-year extension for next season that he would never actually play on. By giving Brady a league minimum salary in 2023, the Bucs would have been able to spread out his dead money over the next two years.

In that scenario, Tampa Bay could have held off on placing Brady on the retired list until after June 1. At that point, Brady would have counted for just $11.9 million on the Bucs’ 2023 salary cap.

That would have represented a savings of nearly more than $23 million compared to what Tampa Bay plans to do. With that extra cap space, the Buccaneers could have gotten involved in the veteran quarterback market and targeted someone like Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo as their next passer.

Instead, Tampa Bay will take the Brady hit immediately. That decision sends a clear signal that the Buccaneers are planning to take a step back in 2023, but it also opens up two more pressing questions: Who will play quarterback in Tampa Bay, and will the Bucs try to trade any of their veterans?

Will Kyle Trask Get His Chance for the Buccaneers?

Let’s try to answer the quarterback question first. The Buccaneers have the worst salary cap situation in the NFL at $55+ million over the cap. I had assumed Tampa Bay would finagle Brady’s contract as outlined, restructure other veteran contracts, and try to compete in 2023.

But with a retired Brady taking up $35 million, the Bucs won’t have room to find a veteran quarterback. Sure, they might have enough cap space to target someone like Andy Dalton, Baker Mayfield, or Taylor Heinicke, but I think they’ll probably be priced out of going after even a Jacoby Brisset-level passer.

What does that mean for the Buccaneers? It sure sounds like it’s Kyle Trask season.

Trask, whom Tampa Bay selected 64th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, has barely played since entering the NFL. Brady didn’t like to come out of games, including blowouts, and even then, Blaine Gabbert was the Bucs’ No. 2 quarterback ahead of Trask.

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Trask has only attempted nine NFL passes, all of which came in Tampa Bay’s meaningless 2022 Week 18 game against the Atlanta Falcons. Trask didn’t enter that contest until midway through the fourth quarter, when he proceeded to complete three of those nine passes for 23 yards.

The University of Florida product has played well in the preseason, especially in 2022, when he showed more arm strength than his college scouting report might have indicated. At 6’5”, 235 pounds, Trask has prototypical NFL size and was named a Heisman finalist after tossing 43 touchdowns during his final season with the Gators.

While he has the physical makeup, Trask is still a virtual unknown at the NFL level. Can he diagnose opposing defenses pre- and post-snap? Can he speed up his mental and physical processing to align with the quickness of the NFL?

The Buccaneers still have a lot of offensive talent on their roster, so Trask wouldn’t necessarily be asked to elevate those around him. New Tampa Bay offensive coordinator and former Seattle Seahawks quarterback coach Dave Canales helped Geno Smith excel after not seeing regular action for years, and Trask could represent a similar project.

If the Buccaneers are truly committed to a rebuild, starting Trask probably makes the most sense. At the end of the 2023 campaign, Tampa Bay will either feel secure in Trask as their franchise quarterback or have lost enough games to be in range to draft a new signal-caller in 2024.

Could the Bucs Trade Mike Evans or Chris Godwin?

If Trask is Tampa Bay’s Week 1 starter, the Buccaneers would only be making life harder on him by trading away some of the team’s veteran core. But dealing a few players to acquire extra draft capital could be the right move if Tampa Bay doesn’t plan to compete in 2023.

Mike Evans could be a candidate to be traded, especially given that he has only one year remaining on his contract. He’s managed at least 65 receptions and 1,000 yards in all nine seasons of his career. Still, last year felt like a down campaign for Evans, both because his chemistry with Brady seemed to vanish and because he scored only six touchdowns (three of which came in Week 17).

Evans is due a $13 million salary and a $1.5 roster bonus in 2023. I’m not sure if the Buccaneers would be able to get a first-round pick by trading him, but a second-rounder shouldn’t be out of the question, especially for teams like the Chicago Bears, New England Patriots, and Baltimore Ravens, who could stand to add a ball-winner to their offense.

A team that acquired fellow Bucs receiver Chris Godwin would assume a slightly more substantial contact. Godwin has two years and $40 million remaining on his deal, but he’s still only 27 years old.

While Tampa Bay would be trading him just one year after agreeing to a three-year extension, the Bucs would have paid him $19 million for that one season of production, roughly the same as the 2022 wide receiver franchise tag.

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Other potential trade candidates litter the Buccaneers’ roster. Tampa Bay has already paid cornerback Carlton Davis III $15 million, but they could get out of the rest of his contract while acquiring extra assets.

Guard Shaq Mason, whom the Bucs picked up from the Patriots last summer, could conceivably garner a mid-to-late-round pick. Linebacker Devin White might be more difficult to move given his $11+ million salary, but a rival team could target the former No. 5 overall pick based on their pre-draft evaluation.

Meanwhile, given the team’s limited cap space, Tampa Bay will likely say goodbye to its crop of pending free agents. Lavonte David is a Buccaneers icon, but it doesn’t make sense for a rebuilding team to extend a 33-year-old linebacker, especially if the price tag reaches $12+ million annually.

Likewise, Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards have been outstanding members of Tampa Bay’s secondary, but they’re likely to receive better offers on the open market than the Bucs should feel comfortable proposing. Perhaps Tampa Bay can re-sign cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting to a modest deal, but for the most part, the team will have to allow its free agents to walk.

This is the start of a new Buccaneers era. We already knew that to be the case once Brady announced his retirement, but Tampa Bay’s decision to take his entire cap hit in 2023 highlights the nature of an impending rebuild. This upcoming season might not be all that fruitful for the Buccaneers, but with the proper management, things could look a little brighter in Tampa Bay by 2024.

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