The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost a heartbreaking divisional playoff game to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles Rams in late January, and it’s gone downhill for them ever since.
The latest gut punch came Sunday afternoon when Pro Bowl guard Ali Marpet, all of 28 years old and in the prime of his career, decided to retire. The move wasn’t expected until Marpet told the team and then posted the announcement on his Instagram account on the same day.
“This organization and the people surrounding it have helped not only fulfill a dream, but also helped build me into the person I am today,” Marpet said in his announcement.
And because Marpet is a respected member of the locker room as well as an anchor on the offensive line, his departure comes complete with effusive words from coach Bruce Arians.
“I can’t say enough about what Ali has meant to our team over the three seasons since my arrival,” Arians said. “He has been the consummate professional and has been a rock for us in the interior of our offensive line.
“We will miss him on the field and in the locker room, but I am happy that he gets to go out a Super Bowl champion and Pro Bowler. It is never easy saying goodbye to a player who has meant so much to our success, but I support and respect his decision and wish him a great life after football.”
But amid all the niceties and warm regards, this hurts the Bucs. It creates a problem at a position where they thought they were set.
And in a broader sense, this makes the offensive line, a team strength the past couple of years, a significant problem that must be addressed the rest of the offseason:
Marpet has retired.
Starting center Ryan Jensen is scheduled to be a free agent who has said he might like to test the open market.
Starting guard Alex Cappa is scheduled to be a free agent.
And reserve guard Aaron Stinnie is scheduled to be a free agent.
There’s nothing stopping the Buccaneers from locking up those three who now comprise the interior of the line, but the team is scheduled to be slightly over the $208.2 million salary cap when the league year opens in mid-March, unless general manager Jason Licht juggles the roster or restructures some current contracts.
The Bucs could actually create between $35-$45 million in cap space if they wanted to try to keep their team as intact as possible.
But the truth is with losses that continue to mount, this team is looking more like they need a significant rebuild than a minor refurbish.
The Bucs are one year from an offseason in which they brought back all 22 of the offensive and defensive starters from their 2021 Super Bowl championship team.
But right now, as their staff heads to the annual NFL Combine starting Monday, this a club bleeding talent:
Starting receiver Chris Godwin is going to be a free agent.
Starting running back Leonard Fournette is going to be a free agent.
Starting tight end Rob Gronkowski is going to be a free agent if he doesn’t retire.
Starting outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul is going to be a free agent if he doesn’t retire.
Starting interior lineman Ndamukong Suh is going to be a free agent if he doesn’t retire.
Starting interior lineman William Gholston is going to be a free agent.
Starting cornerback Carlton Davis is going to be a free agent.
Starting safety Jordan Whitehead is going to be a free agent.
The Buccaneers can keep one of these players, perhaps Fournette, by using the franchise tag. But each team gets only one of those, so it’ll be hard to keep everyone.
The truth is the 50 players the Buccaneers currently have under contract comprise a roster that more closely resembles one that delivered a 7-9 record in 2019 when Arians first arrived than the one that combined for a 24-9 record the past two years.
No one associated with the club is admitting this. The Bucs are hopeful about what this offseason can still offer.
First, there’s the slim hope Brady changes his mind and returns for 2022 — yeah, not likely.
There’s also hope either Blaine Gabbert or Kyle Trask can surprise and play like an elite quarterback. (I know, I know, but that’s what they’re hoping.)
Unless all this hope pays a huge dividend, this offseason has been a disaster so far for the Buccaneers.
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero