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Buccaneers appear likely to keep Donovan Smith around

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Whether it’s on a franchise tag or a long-term deal, it looks like the 2015 second-rounder will be sticking with Tampa Bay.

NFL: New York Jets at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL’s franchise tag window opens up Tuesday, which means the Buccaneers have some decisions to make soon. Donovan Smith is a prime candidate for the tag, which has led to speculation for months about his future. Plenty of fans don’t want anything to do with giving Smith big money, but he could be getting a nice payday soon.

In a Monday article from ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters predicting franchise tag decisions, Jenna Laine made it clear that Tampa Bay will be keeping its left tackle for at least one more year. Here’s what she had to say in her prediction section:

Smith will be back with the Bucs in 2019. The question is whether it’s under the franchise tag or a long-term deal. He has started 64 consecutive games, tied for second most of any left tackle in the league behind Jake Matthews. That would make Smith the top left tackle in the free-agent market. Yes, he has shined at times, but he has also had some issues with consistency. Still, at just 25 years old, the Bucs believe he has not reached his ceiling and his greatest asset is his durability. Prediction: If the Bucs can’t work out a long-term deal, which is believed to be in the ballpark of $12 million to $13 million per year, they’ll franchise him at an estimated $14.077 million for one year.

It’s hard to argue with anything Laine said. As she mentions, Smith’s durability is a big reason why he can be a valuable guy to have on the roster. Having that kind of reliability would be huge, especially considering the number of other transitions Tampa Bay is going through this offseason. Does Smith have his issues? Of course he does. Otherwise, there wouldn’t even be a question here about money or contract length. But it’s plenty reasonable to believe that Bruce Arians and this new Buccaneer coaching staff can get the best out of the 6-foot-6, 338-pounder out of Penn State.

Plus, at this point, what better options do the Bucs have? If Smith is widely considered to be the top free agent left tackle this offseason, the draft is the only other option for the team if it wants to address the position. Would Jason Licht want to spend a top-five pick on a left tackle, even with so many needs on defense and at right guard (and elsewhere, if we’re being honest)? It feels more likely that Licht wants to trade down, stock up on picks and address as many needs as possible.

Regardless, would the Bucs really be better off with the growing pains of a rookie left tackle or the experience and clear upside of a four-year NFL starter?

There have been complaints about Smith’s consistency and effort, but there is undoubtedly still some untapped potential there. There’s a reason he was a second-round pick and a selection to the Pro Football Writers Association’s all-rookie team in 2015. Not only that, but questioning effort can be tricky. No one from the outside truly knows about the drive of another person, not to mention what that person’s assignments are on a given play.

So, we’re pretty clear on Smith coming back in 2019. But as Laine says, the question is whether he will be back on a franchise tag or with a long-term deal. She seems to indicate that the Bucs would want to work on a deal first and resort to the tag if nothing gets worked out. That would fall in line with the team’s history. Tampa Bay has only used the franchise tag four times ever, with the last time coming in 2012 (Connor Barth).

To me, this situation feels like one that the tag would be good for. Even if the Bucs are hoping for Arians and his staff to get the best out of Smith, wouldn’t a one-year trial be better than banking on it with a long-term contract? I would think so.

A long-term deal wouldn’t be all that surprising though. Licht seems to have confidence in Smith, and Smith has said he wants to stay in Tampa Bay.

The Bucs have been very good as of late when it comes to structuring contracts in a way that benefits them. With that in mind, it makes sense that they’re looking to make a deal first. If Smith is asking for too much or things don’t work out, then the tag (of an estimated $14 million for 2019) would presumably be the move.

The team has until March 5 at 4 p.m. to decide whether it will be using a franchise tag for 2019.