It's hard to focus on the upcoming offseason right now as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers currently hold the No. 6 seed in the 2020-21 NFC playoff picture. However, it's the bye weekend, and with a complicated offseason ahead with several pending free agents and less-than-ideal cap space to keep them all, it's never too early to take a look into the future.
While he isn't a pending free agent, the Buccaneers may have a decision to make regarding the future of left tackle Donovan Smith. Smith has one year and $14.25 million remaining on his three-year, $41.25 million contract, with no guarantees left.
It's tough to say Smith has lived up to his fully-guaranteed 2020 value of $14.5 million, however, as he's allowing 2.75 quarterback pressures per game according to Pro Football Focus, more than any of Tampa Bay's starting offensive linemen. Right guard Alex Cappa is allowing the next-most, at 1.83 pressures per game, for reference.
Meanwhile, the Bucs are preparing for a busy offseason with several needs to address, a hefty slate of pending free agents - 30 in total, including wide receiver Chris Godwin, edge rusher Shaq Barrett, and linebacker Lavonte David - and of course, the idea of maintaining a playoff-caliber roster in mind.
Currently, the Bucs are projected to have $31.5 million in cap space this offseason, per Over The Cap. Smith's contract could make an impact on how Tampa Bay goes about its business in March and April. What are general manager Jason Licht's options?
Do nothing, and absorb Smith's $14.25m cap hit
This story could be all for not if the Buccaneers decide Smith is worth his current contract value. Perhaps that's how they feel, as head coach Bruce Arians has made it clear that he's a fan of Smith's game and attitude this season.
“I can’t say enough about Donovan," Arians said of Smith after last Sunday's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Smith was questionable entering the game with an ankle injury but played every offensive snap, giving up just one pressure (PFF) with Ali Marpet back at his side after the left guard missed three games with a concussion.
"He was in a boot when he came to the stadium. He tried it out and told me, ‘I can probably play a half. I don’t know if I’ll finish the game, but I can give you a half.’ He played the whole game. He gutted it out," Arians continued. "I know a lot of people want to tear on that guy – he’s a heck of a football player for me."
If Arians has any say in personnel decisions, the odds of Smith returning would be solid. Familiarity and experience across the offensive line, entering the final year of quarterback Tom Brady's contract with the Bucs, could be a factor that benefits Smith here as well.
Sure, Tampa Bay has money to allot elsewhere, but it isn't as if the Bucs' offensive line is demanding a large chunk of the team's salary cap beyond Smith's deal. Marpet has three years left on his five year, $55.1 million deal with zero guarantees left, center Ryan Jensen has one year and $10 million left on his contract, while Cappa and right tackle Tristan Wirfs are on rookie agreements.
When it comes to this unit, the Bucs can afford another year of Smith's salary on the books. It's when you look across the roster and at who has one foot at the door, when you realize the best option is probably to...
Offer a contract restructure/extension
There is no guarantee that Smith would accept a contract restructure or extension, but at least the Buccaneers could try. Perhaps Smith, working towards his third pro contract, is a team player who would be willing to meet in the middle as the Bucs go for gold one more time around with Brady at the helm.
The Bucs could restructure and extend Smith on a short-term deal to provide some job and financial security beyond the 2021 season, in a flexible enough manner where the Bucs could get out of the deal quickly if they'd want/need to while also giving Smith some guaranteed money in return.
Converting Smith's salary into a signing bonus over the length of a two or three year deal would create a higher cap hit and dead money down the road, but it would save the Bucs money now.
By 2022, the Buccaneers are projected to have about $160 million in cap space - that is, obviously, subject to change drastically - but with Brady ($25 million/year) and other cash cows likely off the roster by that point, Tampa would most likely be able to eat what's left of a new contract for Smith. The Bucs have barely any dead money left to pay out as is, meaning this is a risk the team can take without being hurt in the long run.
Again, no one knows if Smith would be willing to move his money around on behalf of the Bucs' cap issues. He very well may not, as the free agent market rewards the tackle position - Halapoulivaati Vaitai signed a five year, $45 million deal with Detroit last offseason with just 20 starts as a four-year backup under his belt.
But it'd be worth a shot.
Release Smith and draft his replacement
This would be the biggest risk-reward scenario of the three, but if the Bucs were to move on from Smith this offseason, his replacement would need to come through the draft rather than free agency.
It would make no sense to release Smith only to go and sign his replacement this offseason. The 2021 left tackle market offers some names of recognition, such as Trent Williams, Russell Okung, Alejandro Villanueva, Jason Peters, Cam Robinson, and others. However, several of these tackles are likely to re-sign with their old squads, while others are likely to demand more than Smith's contract - worth it or not - or are simply not an upgrade to Smith.
If Tampa Bay wants to move on from Smith and attempt the left tackle position, the draft will be the way to go.
The Draft Network has top 32 grades (in correspondence with the 32 picks in the first round) on six offensive tackles in the 2021 NFL Draft class, based on its team of scout's current assessments. Another four are currently ranked as second round (No. 33-64) prospects. The Buccaneers would own the No. 21 pick in the first round and No. 53 pick in the second round if the NFL Draft were today, so there should be some solid options available.
However, much like with free agency, would such a draft pick be worth it for a team in a win-now situation? How much improvement would a rookie left tackle offer, especially one taken outside of the top ten picks? Remember, not every prospect is Tristan Wirfs (No. 14) and makes a positive impact as quickly as he has, especially tackles that aren't viewed as the cream of the crop.
Those two picks could also be used elsewhere to better help this Buccaneers' team. Left tackle could be considered a need given Smith's level of play, but so could outside cornerback (opposite of Carlton Davis III), defensive line, edge rusher, and other positions.
The Buccaneers' 2021 offseason won't be an easy one to predict. With so many pending free agents including three premier names, Tampa Bay's loaded roster is in a position where it could take some hits in the January-through-March timeframe.
Smith's contract probably isn't at the top of anyone's list right now inside of Raymond James Stadium and the Buccaneers' front office. Winning games in 2020, and holding onto franchise players in the months after are sure to be the priorities.
However, Smith is underperforming and on a contract that the team can manipulate. It takes two to tango, but there's a possibility for the Bucs and Smith to re-negotiate his deal to give the team more flexibility this offseason to keep its stars while Smith benefits from an extension and cash immediately in his pocket.
That, or the Bucs can do two things: Eat what's left of Smith's deal with less immediate cap flexibility, or move on in order to secure extensions for better players but lessen the experience on Brady's offensive line.