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Whatever Tom Brady decides in the coming weeks, change is coming to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The team that famously ran it back in 2021, returning 22 out of 22 starters from their Super Bowl championship team the season before, is headed off in different directions.
It was bound to happen.
And it could start as early as Wednesday or Thursday with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, a favorite in the Jacksonville Jaguars coaching search, landing that job, per NFL sources.
Brady, obviously, isn’t sure he wants to return for season No. 248,032, so everyone is trying to decipher every word he’s uttered, whether in his postgame press conference, on his Monday podcast or a Tuesday Instagram post, to find hints about which way he’s leaning.
“I understand that at this stage in my career, there is going to be interest in my future whenever a season ends, but this week, all that is on my mind is the gratitude I have for this team and the fans that have supported us all year long,” Brady said. “This year has been incredibly rewarding personally and professionally and I am appreciative of everyone who worked their ass off to help our team achieve so much.”
The thing is, no matter what Brady does, the Buccaneers are going to look different in 2022. It’s a matter of guys making life and financial decisions.
The Buccaneers have only 35 players from this year’s active roster under contract for next year. And the list of players not under contract and about to weigh their future is a who’s who of major NFL talent:
Tampa will have approximately $5 million in cap space available after it reaches its top 51 contracts, which is what the NFL uses to count against the salary cap in the offseason. So there simply will not be room to run it back next season.
“It’s a reload, like it is every year,” coach Bruce Arians told reporters this week. “Our [priority] in free agency will be our guys – see how many that we can get back and then build a team from there.
“I always look forward to that part of it, and then the draft. Each year is so different and so new. Last year, to get everybody back was amazing. I doubt we can do it all again this year, but we’re sure going to give it our best.”
The priority for the Buccaneers in a year their quarterback might walk or, at best, will be 45 years old, is to bring back the team’s leading rusher, Leonard Fournette, who just turned 27 and averaged a career-high 4.5 yards per rush.
“Yeah, I mean he’s one of the top guys of that [big] group that we’ve got of free agents,” Arians said. “We’ll sit down this week and start prioritizing and see whose paychecks are what. It’s going to be a while before we see what other offers are out there and everything else.”
It’s a good bet that if Brady decides to return, he’d like receiver Chris Godwin, scheduled to hit free agency, to re-sign with Tampa Bay as well. Godwin tore his ACL in a Week 15 shutout loss to New Orleans, and that could affect his value on the open market.
But nonetheless there will be a market — perhaps from teams such as New England or Las Vegas or Jacksonville — for a receiver whose goal is to be ready for the start of the regular season or soon after.
When Brady joined Tampa Bay, he acted as a type of pied piper, attracting players such as Fournette, Antonio Brown (yikes), Richard Sherman and others to want to join the team.
The most obvious of those was Gronkowski, who bonded with Brady during their years in New England and actually came out of retirement to join his friend in Tampa.
So, no surprise, Gronkowski is non-committal about what he does next.
“The process, I would say, is to take some time off, recover, let the body heal,” the tight end said. “See where your thoughts are. See where your feelings are. Give it a couple weeks, then go from there.”
Gronkowski has said he will only play with Brady, but there is a scenario in which Brady retires and Gronkowski decides to play anyway, although that doesn’t necessarily mean he’d return to Tampa.
If the right team with the right quarterback and the right contract offer were to come calling, that might persuade Gronk to play without Brady in 2022, per a source who added no decision on that is remotely close to being made.
None of this even includes the idea the Tampa Bay coaching staff could suffer losses it avoided last year. Aside from Leftwich on offense likely headed to Jacksonville, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is also interviewing with multiple teams this week. Arians said there is “a really good chance” that if Leftwich leaves, he will take over the offensive play-calling duties.
But all that is secondary to what happens at quarterback. And the Bucs will soon start going over myriad contingencies, should Brady walk away.
“Yeah, we do that with every position,” Arians said. “Quarterback, obviously, you start there. Again, [we’ll] see where we’re heading and wait and see what Tom does. But we’ll be doing our homework, that’s for sure.”
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