With free agency right around the corner, the Buccaneers will have to start making decisions on their pending unrestricted free agents and the list is long and has many notable names on it. Due to the cap issues they currently have, they will not be able to bring everyone back and a lot of names will have to leave this offseason, but there are a few they should prioritize.
Number 1- LB Lavonte David
Simply put... Lavonte David needs to retire a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. After 11 seasons with the team, David has been the heart and soul of the defense and losing him would be a massive, massive loss not just on the field, but in the locker room as well. He has become a leader of the defense and that is not something that can be easily replaced.
His on-field play continues to speak for itself. As in 2022 he had 124 combined tackles, three sacks and 10 tackles for loss. He is not as explosive as he was earlier in his career, but that doesn’t mean he is still not insanely productive. Another reason why the Bucs cannot afford to lose him? They have very little behind him. How would they replace David? They have not allocated resources to much starting caliber depth behind he and Devin White. Should they really trust K.J. Britt to fill those shoes? I don’t see how they can and still expect to compete in 2023.
Spotrac projects his market value at a one year deal worth 9.7 million. That is more than fair but David will likely be seeking a bit more than that which the Bucs should be willing to do. It is rare that a player gets to play his whole career with one team. Heck, did people really think Tom Brady was going to be in another uniform that wasn’t New England? David should be one of those players. He’s earned it, and the Bucs need to make it happen.
Number 2- CB Jamel Dean
Dean broke out in 2022 and was Tampa Bay’s best corner this season. The 26 year old cornerback started in 15 games, racking up 57 combined tackles as well as two interceptions which both happened in the same week two contest against New Orleans. Dean has progressively gotten better each year and while the consistency is not all the way there, this is a really good number two/fringe number one corner.
The issue for the Bucs though is that last offseason they rewarded his running mate Carlton Davis with a three year, 45 million dollar extension. Dean is likely to get a contract similar or above that. Spotrac projects his market value to be a three year deal worth 16.5 million annually. That number is probably too much for the Bucs to pay so while he should be one of their top priorities, unfortunately it is unlikely that they will be able to bring him back if he fetches that type of contract on the open market.
What they prioritize and what they can get done are two different things. Sacrifices will have to be made and Dean could very well be one of the bigger ones this offseason.
Number 3- S Mike Edwards
This is the point in the list where they can be some debate about who the priority should be as there are a lot of players in the same boat when it comes to where they potentially stand with the team and their plans. If the money is right though, they should be looking to bring back Mike Edwards into the mix. Currently, Antoine Winfield Jr is the only safety under contract with the team in 2023 who contributed the season before, so bringing back a guy who is familiar with the system would be wise.
Edwards, 26 is a ball hawking safety that did not have his best year in 2022, which could bode well for Tampa Bay. With the up and down year, he could come cheaper to the Bucs and would provide a lot of upside. Edwards has been a good fit in Todd Bowles’ defense and there is no reason to think he can’t bounce back this season. A one or two year deal worth about 5-6 million a year might be the sweet spot for Edwards and the Bucs to team back up again and keep the playmaking safety in Tampa Bay.
Number 4- CB Sean Murphy-Bunting
This may be the most polarizing name on the list. SMB has been criticized by many Bucs fans over the year due to inconsistent play and lack of splash plays, but the value may be hard to ignore, especially if they are not able to bring back Jamel Dean. Currently, the Bucs have Carlton Davis as their top corner with Zyon McCollum being the number two option. McCollum has potential, but his 2022 season proved he is not quite there yet and the Bucs can’t afford to take that gamble on him, so bringing back Murphy-Bunting makes sense.
Like Edwards, it would be a player in the secondary that is very familiar with the system that Bowles runs and he could end up fetching a very similar contract that Edwards could get. Would not surprise me to see the Bucs try and bring both he and Edwards back on one year prove it deals. SMB has been very inconsistent, but he is sill an NFL caliber corner, which is something the Bucs currently don’t have a lot of right now so there should be interest in bringing him back.
Number 5- Keanu Neal
Neal was a value signing for Tampa Bay in 2022. After signing a one year deal for just over a million dollars, Neal would be the Bucs thumper and deliver heavy hits while also helping with run defense. He was a solid rotational piece for Todd Bowles and someone who could provide similar production for the team in 2023. As noted with Edwards, the Bucs currently do not have much in regards to the safety position, so bringing back Neal could make sense.
It may come down to price for a guy like him as I’m sure he will likely be seeking a little bit more than what he made in 2022, but Neal proved he has value on a defense that likes versatility like Bowles’ unit does. Neal is also surprisingly still just 27 years old and will be 28 when the season begins so this is a player who is a veteran but also still has some fresh legs. If the price is right, the Bucs should look to bring him back.
The Bucs are going to have to say goodbye to a lot of their pending unrestricted free agents this offseason, possibly even some names on this list. They also still need to field an NFL caliber team in 2023 and there has been no indication that the Bucs intend to tank or rebuild. Prioritizing re-signing a lot of these names would make a lot of sense and also provide value for Tampa Bay.