TAMPA, Fla. — With free agency winding down and Todd Bowles replacing Bruce Arians as head coach, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have addressed a number of key needs, including re-signing wide receivers Chris Godwin and Breshad Perriman, center Ryan Jensen, cornerback Carlton Davis, running backs Leonard Fournette and Giovani Bernard, defensive lineman William Gholston, offensive tackle Josh Wells and long-snapper Zach Triner.
They also brought in outside help in wide receiver Russell Gage, defensive back Logan Ryan and offensive lineman Fred Johnson, and they traded for guard Shaq Mason. Plus they signed Keanu Neal, who, if healthy, fills the void left by Jordan Whitehead as an in-the-box safety.
The Bucs will need about $3 million to sign their draft picks, and they have $8.5 million in salary-cap space. So what still needs to be addressed?
While Mason steps into the right guard spot, the Bucs don’t have a clear-cut starter on the left to replace Ali Marpet, who retired in February. The Bucs re-signed Aaron Stinnie this offseason, and he has a chance to compete for that role, along with backup center Robert Hainsey and Nick Leverett, although Leverett’s ability to line up in every spot along the offensive line makes him most valuable as a backup on game day.
This is one area in which the draft (they pick 27th in Round 1) could make a lot of sense. Some draft options at guard include Zion Johnson out of Boston College, Kenyon Green out of Texas A&M, Chasen Hines out of LSU, Dylan Parham out of Memphis, Jamaree Salyer out of Georgia — and Chattanooga’s Cole Strange, a choice that would be very on brand for general manager Jason Licht, given his proclivity for finding small-school offensive linemen.
While the Bucs re-signed defensive end William Gholston, Ndamukong Suh remains an unrestricted free agent, and the Bucs want to get quicker along the interior. Licht told reporters at the NFL owners meetings that they remain in touch with Suh’s representatives.
“Still in touch, still talk, got a lot of things that the ball’s in the air [on], a lot of decisions that we have to make here moving forward for different reasons … it’s an open door for a lot of different things that can come up, but we’ll see what happens,” Licht said.
It’s not a deep draft class of defensive tackles, so this is another spot where a high draft pick makes sense. Georgia defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt could be available when the Bucs make their pick at No. 27. There’s also Travis Jones out of UConn or Perrion Winfrey out of Oklahoma, should those first two be off the board.
Fournette is the top running back, with Ke’Shawn Vaughn set up as the No. 2, Bernard as the third-down option and Kenjon Barner also signed. The third-down role is less of a need now because they have Bernard, but since they signed him for the veteran minimum, the Bucs could still draft a third-down back. Iowa State’s Breece Hall — whose strength is pass protection — is an option.
Georgia running back James Cook (brother of Dalvin Cook), Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller, Arizona State’s Rachaad White (improved a lot as a pass-catcher his senior year), the shifty Tyler Badie out of Missouri and Dameon Pierce out of Florida are options at a position the Bucs have given a close look at during the pre-draft process.
Rob Gronkowski still has not re-signed, leaving them with just one experienced tight end under contract in Cameron Brate, as O.J. Howard signed with the Buffalo Bills as a free agent. Gronkowski was caught on video last month at a west Tampa barbershop saying there’s a “good chance” he returns. However, his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, told reporters at Tyreek Hill’s news conference with the Miami Dolphins that Gronk is still “undecided” about returning. Licht said the Bucs have been in touch with his representatives.
The Bucs are also pleased with the development of Codey McElroy, whom they signed to a futures contract.
But what if Gronk doesn’t return? There’s no replacing him, for one, but this is considered a deeper class of tight ends. Trey McBride out of Colorado State (arguably the top tight end in this year’s class who clocked a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine), Jeremy Ruckert out of Ohio State (one of the best blockers in this class), Daniel Bellinger out of San Diego State, Nebraska’s Austin Allen and Cade Otton out of Washington State could be options for the Bucs.
While this might not be as pressing as other needs, the Bucs would be wise to address cornerback. Jamel Dean is entering a contract year, and so is safety Sean Murphy-Bunting. The Bucs wouldn’t want to be caught flat-footed here.
In the draft, UTSA cornerback Tariq Woolen makes sense — he’s long and fast, clocking an earth-shattering 4.26 at the NFL combine with a 42-inch vertical. There’s also Kaiir Elam (6-foot-2, 191 pounds) out of Florida and Akayleb Evans (6-foot-2, 198 pounds) out of Missouri; they both fit the mold of what they’re looking for.