Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady announced his retirement from the NFL after 22 seasons, sending a variety of shockwaves throughout the league. Though it wasn't much of a surprise after NFL Insider Adam Schefter and the social media manager for @TB12Sports both jumped the gun with their posts prior to the Conference Championship games, we are still left with a number of questions, for both the Bucs and the National Football League, regarding life after Brady.
Through his two-plus decades of service to the game of football, Brady has done it all. He can be whomever you want him to be. As a sixth-round pick and backup to a $100 million man, he can be the underdog. Against an improbable hero in Nick Foles, he’s been the favorite. Many simply look at their favorite franchise quarterback and consider Tom the rival. He was Goliath to Eli Manning’s David. He was Godzilla to Patrick Mahomes’ King Kong. He was Luke Skywalker to Roger Goodell’s Evil Empire.
He’s an athlete, an actor, a model, a spokesman, an ambassador. You can call him the GOAT, you can call him a cheater – you can call him whatever your personal experience was. But for the first time, he’s no longer the one thing that has defined him the most: a football player.
I grew up a Patriots fan so I’ve gone through this experience already. You have the best quarterback of all time, you win the big game, you laugh, you cry. Then he’s gone. You need to move on. There’s always time to watch highlights and reminisce, but football stops for no man. There will be a brand new team and brand new season come September – so it’s time to look ahead.
To Bridge or Compete?
The first question here boils down to whether the Buccaneers are willing to do a “bridge year” or not. With any retirement, the Buccaneers have the option to delay the formal filing until after June 1st – which would allow them to spread the hit out over multiple years. They are highly likely to do this in some fashion, so the question is whether they want to move as much of that hit to 2023 as possible and continue trying to compete now or if they want to structure it in a way that absorbs more of the hit this year and rolls more money into the future. We should get a pretty good idea of the direction they are going in the coming months, but here’s how I see those two directions playing out.
The bridge move comes with some short-term sacrifices. As Aaron Rodgers himself said, a lot of older players aren’t willing to spend a full season in a non-competitive year – so it’s not going to be easy to sell them on staying. Your best bet is to appeal to the long-term players and, if possible, front load contracts where you can afford to with the understanding that the extra money in 2023 and 2024 will be used to get back to the Super Bowl.
If the Buccaneers opt for the bridge-year route, here is how it might look.
- WALK: Let the following free agents walk, along with anyone else who isn’t a long term impact player: Ndamukong Suh (35), Jason Pierre-Paul (33), Richard Sherman (33), Rob Gronkowski (32). These are the exact guys who won’t wait around for a year, especially with the future being uncertain. You are probably also letting all three running backs (Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones and Giovani Bernard) and tight end OJ Howard. You can get a maximum of four compensatory picks back for players, but players like the four listed up top who have accrued 10+ seasons can only return a maximum 5th-round pick. So there is value in letting some of the “younger” players like Fournette walk and sign elsewhere.
- CUT: Cameron Brate, Ryan Succop and Bradley Pinion. Brate is 30 years old and, quite frankly, not worth the money. Succop is 35 years old, plus you have Jose Borregales waiting in the wings. It’s a bridge year and you aren’t really competing, so who cares about the punter - Pinion only has one year left on his deal anyway and you can save $3 million here with zero dead cap.
- TRADE: Lavonte David. He’s 32 years old and ended the season on IR. With a trade designation after June 1st, you can save $12.5 million for this year to either use or roll forward.
- SIGN: Chris Godwin and/or Ryan Jensen. Both these players should have about half a decade of high-level production left. If you take the projected cap space – money you can potentially get from Brady retiring – and $25 million that you’d save from the moves detailed above, you can potentially retain these players long-term (or at least one of them). If possible, retain Carlton Davis and Will Gholston. Whatever you do, DON’T spend heavily on incoming free agents because that will throw off the compensatory pick formula. Once you decide to let guys walk, it now realistically costs you the money AND a pick to sign incoming players.
- RESTRUCTURE: Anyone’s contract who is willing to, whether that be for the short or long-term benefit. Mike Evans willing to restructure to help keep Chris Godwin around? Great. If you can retain the guys above without that and you want to front-load contracts to roll even more money into the future, that’s great as well. With the bridge-year option, you are a lot more flexible.
- DRAFT: Long-term assets. You are hoping your new window to compete is 2023 and onward. Next year you can go after luxury assets or try to fill holes. This year's draft is a “best player available” situation.
And that’s what that looks like. Since you are trading Lavonte David, you end up with surprisingly few guys who are free agents in 2023. So when the salary cap drastically increases based on the upcoming TV deals, you're left with a good chunk of money to pursue whatever positions of need. In the meantime, you draft with the future in mind and give Kyle Trask, Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Tyler Johnson, etc. extended chances to earn a spot with this team long-term.
This one is a bit more tricky but, if it were up to Bruce Arians, this is what they would do. As he puts it, you don’t rebuild – you reload. In that sense you basically try to retain whomever you can from your current team as much as possible and then replace the quarterback with someone you think is ready to win a Super Bowl now. You're going to have to be a lot more creative with the contracts with a lot less flexibility in the direction you go.
- RESTRUCTURE: Going this route, this part absolutely needs to come first. You need to hit up all of the guys making big money and ask them if they want to help the team win right now. Mike Evans, Ali Marpet, Shaq Barrett, Vita Vea -- you name it. The more money you can put together, the more guys you can keep.
- TRIM: Anyone that isn’t deemed absolutely necessary and isn’t cooperating with the vision of running it back. Short-term cash is everything now and you have to start weighing the risk vs. reward. How much worse is Jose Borregales than Ryan Succop for instance? How much worse is OJ Howard + Cameron Brate vs. Rob Gronkowski? These are the decisions.
- TRADE: For a quarterback. There are endless articles speculating on this but there is no sense going all in now with a completely unproven Kyle Trask. You need someone you trust to compete with. Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, hell, even Gardner Minshew. Atlanta would never do it, but Matt Ryan too. You need a plan here. We’ve seen teams eat dead cap to help facilitate a deal (like the Lions with the Stafford trade) – so that is going to be your best bet.
- SIGN and DRAFT: Whomever you have to in order to fill holes in the leaky ship. Completely different draft strategy than the one above. The Seahawks thought they would be competing now, which is why they drafted a 24-year-old wide receiver in Dee Eskridge. They went for short-term polish over long-term upside. There's no time for developmental players. Whatever money and picks aren’t used on a quarterback need to be used on immediate needs.
And that’s pretty much how that looks. We can only speculate at this point on which direction the Buccaneers will go, but there is one thing we do know - Tom Brady isn’t walking through that door. So they have to do something!