Keep One: Tampa Bay Buccaneers TE Cameron Brate or O.J. Howard?

In order to create cap room, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will likely be tasked with a tough decision in the tight end room.
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This is an analysis story by AllBucs' Zach Goodall. Note that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have not released any players in order to create cap space as of this story's publishing.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently projected to own $124 million in cap space for the 2022 offseason, with only 30 players scheduled to be under contract a year and some change from now. 

That doesn't include linebacker Lavonte David, we should note, so the number of players will rise to 31 shortly. The figures of his two-year, $25 million contract extension that was signed on Tuesday have yet to hit Over the Cap's books as of this story. 

Still, even when David's contract is accounted for, the Buccaneers should be fairly cap-healthy in the long-term. That doesn't apply to the offseason in front of us, however.

The Buccaneers figure to take advantage of their long-term health to retain the team's stars before and throughout the upcoming free agency period. David's deal will create just a $3.5 million cap hit in 2021 before growing substantially in 2022 and in the three voidable years of the contract to follow. 

Similar structures could be expected if quarterback Tom Brady receives an extension (to create immediate wiggle room) and if edge rusher Shaq Barrett reaches a long-term agreement with the Buccaneers.

These methods will be necessary, because right now, Tampa Bay $5.5 million over the 2021 salary cap, according to Over the Cap. 

This leads us to the point of this story. Although the Buccaneers are in a position where they can retain their superstars, sacrifices still must be made in order to not be penalized for going over the cap in 2021. There's an easy position to pinpoint as sacrificial, as well.

Tampa Bay is expected to bring tight end Rob Gronkowski back for a second season, although he is currently set to hit the market on Mar. 17. At 31 years old and after earning $9.25 million last season, he could certainly take a small pay cut, but it is unlikely that he earns a new contract while both tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard count for at least $6 million against the cap, apiece.

One of Brate and Howard, if not both, could be on their way out of Tampa Bay as such. Whether it be via release as cap casualties or in potential trades, this is the harsh side of the business and it isn't practical to spend... let's call it a projected $20 million per season among three tight ends. 

Brate's 2021 cap hit currently sits at $6.5 million in 2021 while the deal has three years remaining. Howard is set to play the 2021 season on a fifth-year option, valued at $6.01 million. No dead cap penalty would be incurred should either be released, which is substantially important.

Brady has found a lot of success with two capable tight ends on the roster throughout his career, particularly in 2020 with the Buccaneers. Gronkowski took some time to shake off the retirement rust before posting seven regular-season touchdowns - and another two in the Super Bowl - while Brate hauled in 28 receptions for 282 yards of his own during the regular season. Howard, Tampa  Bay's first-round pick in 2017, caught two touchdowns in four games before suffering a season-ending Achilles rupture.

Therefore, Tampa Bay may look to keep Gronkowski and one of their two highly-paid backup tight ends moving forward. So, who would be the wiser player to keep: Brate, or Howard?

Howard presents a fractional amount of cap savings as it would be about $500,000 cheaper to retain him over Brate, but every dollar is important provided the Buccaneers' current cap outlook. Howard's injury is an obvious concern, though, and the Buccaneers might not want to risk such a large cap hit on his services when he might not return to his previous form in 2021.

Brate, however, had his six-year contract with the Buccaneers restructured a year ago to create immediate savings at that time. You thought $6.5 million was expensive for a player in Brate's role? Well, he's due $6.8 million in 2022 and $7.5 million in 2023.

Again, Tampa Bay's future cap situation is promising. The final two years of Brate's deal should be affordable when the time comes, but he'll also be on the wrong side of 30 years old by then.

Decisions, decisions.

Teams across the NFL have already begun shedding their expensive contracts in order to meet the lowered 2021 salary cap, which has settled in at $182.5 million. Less than a week removed from the new league year, the Buccaneers will soon have to begin making similar moves. 

Although both players have meaningfully contributed to the Buccaneers' success, one of Brate or Howard's Buccaneer careers could be coming to its close in that timeframe.