How Bucs can solve their salary cap issues, with and without Tom Brady

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Even before they begin to ponder the possibility of life without Tom Brady, the Buccaneers have a tough two months ahead of them. That’s $55 million over the projected 2023 salary cap of $225 million, which requires plenty of maneuvering before they can re-sign the impending first free agent.

The Bucs have spent the past three years aggressively borrowing from the future to help fund the present, giving Brady the best possible cast to maximize his window of opportunity with him. And that gamble paid off with a Super Bowl championship in 2020 and, to a lesser extent, the first back-to-back division titles in franchise history.

This invoice has now arrived.

Will Tom Brady return to the Bucs next season?

Will Tom Brady return to the Bucs next season?

Nick Wright explores all possible landing spots for Tom Brady.

Forget about 24 unrestricted free agents for a moment. On offense, the story isn’t so bad: Brady had 17 starts, but the rest of the offensive free agents combined for 16, so it’s like losing another starter. On defense, it’s substantial: free agents account for 102 starts or 54% of all defensive starts in 2022, including eight players who made eight or more starts. We’ll save most of that for another story, since that’s pretty much all that needs to happen to fall under the salary cap when the new league year begins in March before free agency.

There are very few simple cuts to be made, as most veteran contracts are already loaded with prorated bonuses that create “dead money” — salary cap space dedicated to players who aren’t on the team. A few years ago, the Bucs were incredibly cautious with this, with less than a million in dead money under the cap. They knew exactly what they were doing in the bonus change and voidable years, and that will make things more difficult this year and even next year.

But here’s a humble plan to get the Bucs under the cap, knowing it will take more magic to create enough cap space to keep a few free agents and try to fill the voids left by the inevitable departures. There is a lot of math involved, so apologies in advance for that part.

Free four players directly

This is the most difficult part for a front office, moving on from players who were central parts in the success of years past. But start here, and we’ll suggest four cuts for cap purposes: left tackle Donovan Smith, running back Leonard Fournette, kicker Ryan Succop and tight end Cameron Brate. The cap savings total $19.2 million: Smith saves $9.95 million, Fournette $3.5 million, Succop $3.75 million and Brate $2 million.

Smith pushed through an elbow injury that would have sidelined a lesser player, but Pro Football Focus ranked him as the NFL’s No. 68 tackle, down substantially from No. 14 a year earlier. Finding a new left tackle won’t be easy, and the Bucs may be tempted to move Pro Bowl right tackle Tristan Wirfs to the left side, but he’s done so well on the right side that it might be better to leave him there and look for a substitution in the draft.

Fournette has been the team’s leading rusher, but the Bucs were last in the NFL in yards per game and yards per carry, so if you’re going to do it, at least don’t overpay for it. Brate overcame a concussion and a scary neck injury, but managed just 174 yards to cap what has been a great nine-year career with 33 touchdowns, among the top five in Bucs history. Succop was wonderfully reliable inside 50, but he went 2-for-7 from 50 and beyond, and today’s kickers (at least the high-paid ones) have much more functional range.

Those cuts create more holes, but it’s a necessary evil this offseason.

To give Mike Evans i Chris Godwin one year extensions

Evans is entering the final year of his contract and Godwin has two years left, but both are model citizens and reliable talents, so if you’re going to keep borrowing from future years for cap relief, these are the boys you want to do it with

If you give Evans $20 million through 2024, you can reduce his $15 million compensation to a league minimum of $1,165,000 (we’ll call it $1.2 million hereafter) and turn the rest into a bonus that can be prorated for cap purposes. That will free up $8.9 million in cap space, and doing the same to Godwin (say, $22 million in 2025) will free up another $14.1 million.

So that’s $23 million, or a little over $42 million so far.

Restructuring of offers for Vita Vea i Carlton Davis

Two of last year’s biggest contracts have high base salaries through 2023: Davis should make $14.5 million and Vea $12.5 million. A simple restructuring to a minimum salary and bonus will save $10.3 million with Davis (we add two void years to help) and $8.8 million with Vea.

That’s another $19.1 million, so we’ve added up to just over $61 million in peak savings. Those moves move the cap load to 2024, but the Bucs are in much better shape there — just $54 million committed before our moves, 23rd out of 32 teams. Half the league already has $80 million or more in cap space by 2024, when the cap should top $250 million.

Now, about Tom Brady

All of these moves would leave the Bucs with about $6 million in cap space, enough to cover their draft picks, but not a ton more, so they’ll need to make more moves to allow them to keep some of their best free agents

That brings us to Brady and a reminder that even if you think he won’t be playing for the Bucs in 2023, there are two very different financial impacts to him retiring or playing elsewhere. Even with him fresh out of the game, the Bucs will have $35 million in dead money from reworking their previous deals to create cap space. If he opts out, the Bucs can process this move so that about $11 million counts toward 2023 and $24 million carries over to 2024. That’s $24 million in new spending money to keep free agents and add a few modest newcomers.

But if Brady signs with another team, all $35 million counts toward the 2023 cap, and there’s nothing the Bucs can do to change that. It would severely restrict their ability to bring back their top free agents.

Bucs, Raiders, Titans, 49ers among interested teams?

Bucs, Raiders, Titans, 49ers among interested teams?

If Tom Brady leaves Tampa Bay, reports have linked him to the Raiders, Titans and 49ers as he becomes a free agent. Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe speculate on what’s next for Brady.

Without going into the voidable years explanation, we’ll simply say that the Bucs have another $18 million in dead money coming from non-Brady free agents if they don’t re-sign them before the new league year begins in March. Sign a new deal and a portion of the cap from voided years will carry over into future seasons, giving you an incentive to move up again to avoid taking a bigger hit.

Take linebacker Lavonte David, who turned 33 this week and is the Bucs’ most-started player in 11 seasons, nine of them as captain. Linebacker isn’t a big man position, and he’s coming off a deal that paid him $12.5 million a year. If he doesn’t re-sign, he’ll count $6.9 million in dead money in 2023, but if they can re-sign him, that’s only $2.3 million in dead money in 2023 and $4.6 million in 2024, a short-term limit. savings of $4.6 million.

So let’s say you offer David one year and $8M (a downer, of course) and make most of it a bonus with a zero year, then he ends up with the same 2023 cap number as if wasn’t playing, and you’re just creating $8 million in dead money by 2024. It’s kicking the can down the road.

We’ll suggest doing the same with defensive lineman Will Gholston. If he doesn’t come back, he has $2.4 million in dead money against the cap. But if he takes $3 million for one year, his cap number is just $3.6 million this year, just an extra $1.2 million. He wants to stay in Tampa, and it’s a pay cut, but one that allows him to have one more year with the only team he’s ever played for.

If Brady retires, with all these moves, the Bucs would have roughly $30 million in cap space, enough to keep one of the corners, maybe outside linebacker Anthony Nelson and a safety, and a bunch of veterans around ‘minimum league agreements. Those deals are harder to come by without the allure of chasing a championship with Brady, but the Bucs will find a few. Seeing 24 unrestricted free agents is daunting, but 10 (almost half of them) started a game or none in 2022, so their departures can be offset by draft picks and depth signings.

And if Brady somehow wants to return to Tampa, paying for him would complicate all those financial decisions. But that’s something the Bucs will gladly work to figure out.

Greg Auman is the NFC South reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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