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Armando Salguero: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Intend To ‘Reload’ For Another Title Run

Rob Gronkowski was considering having his agent negotiate with teams that have telegraphed interest in him recently, and that process was supposed to start Monday at noon when the NFL’s so-called legal tampering period opens for players becoming free agents.

Upon seeing what opportunities lay ahead, Gronkowski was going to decide whether to …

…Retire.

…Or sign as a free agent somewhere other than Tampa Bay where he played the past two seasons.

And then Tom Brady announced on Twitter Sunday evening he’s returning to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 2022. And that changes, well, everything.

You know where Gronkowski now wants to play in 2022? Yeah, Tampa Bay, where he can reunite with his friend Brady, per a source.

The Buccaneers have 23 players who are free agents starting at noon, including starters cornerback Carlton Davis, guard Alex Cappa, running back Leonard Fournette, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and safety Jordan Whitehead.

Other free agents such as running backs Ronald Jones and Gio Bernard are solid contributors.

And the Bradyless Bucs seemed destined to lose most of those players because the club had no championship replacement at quarterback and few prospects of landing one. But the fact that Brady and now quite possibly Gronkowski are coming back might convince others to reconsider returning as well.

We know this is already happening because center Ryan Jensen, scheduled to hit free agency, agreed to a three-year deal with the Bucs just before midnight Sunday night, per his agent Mike McCartney.

That deal is worth a reported $39 million.

And this is what general manger Jason Licht is clearly hoping continues.

“We said we would leave all options open for [Brady] should he reconsider his retirement and today’s announcement is something we have been preparing for in recent days,” Licht said in a statement released by the club Sunday evening. “Bruce [Arians] and I have had plenty of conversations with Tom recently that led us to believe there was a realistic chance he would want to come back.

“Tom is the greatest quarterback of all time who is still playing at an elite level. With this decision now made, we will continue to move forward with our offseason plans to reload this roster for another championship run.”

There is, of course, one small issue with that: the NFL salary cap.

The cap for 2022 is 208.2 million, and as of Friday, Tampa Bay was approximately $3 million over that mark and up to $6.7 million over when one factors in the team’s top 51 contracts, which is the effective cap the NFL uses until the first week of the regular season.

So how can the Bucs re-sign Gronkowski and some of the others when their cap situation is under water?

The team will be cap compliant when the league year opens at 4 p.m. on March 16, and if Licht and his staff want to, they could easily create tens of millions of cap space fairly quickly.

The first move is to reconfigure Brady’s contract to pay him more — he’s due an unrealistic base of $8.9 million this season — while lowering this $20 million cap charge. The way that is done is the team would have to add years to Brady’s contract and pay him much of that in the form of bonuses that prorate over several years.

The club could also add approximately $26.4 million in cap space by restructuring the contracts of just four players — receiver Mike Evans, linebacker Shaquil Barrett, offensive tackle Donovan Smith, and tight end Cameron Brate.

A restructure simply converts a player’s current base salary to their veteran minimum and pushes the remainder into a signing bonus that prorates over the remaining years of his contract.

The team does this to add cap space. The players generally agree to the restructure because it gives them money immediately, like right now, instead of waiting to get it over an 18-week NFL season starting in September.

The team can save $6.5 million by restructuring Evans’ contract.

The team can save almost $10 million by restructuring Barrett’s contract.

The team can save $7.3 million by restructuring Smith’s contract.

And the team can save $2.7 million by restructuring Brate’s contract.

Do that, and suddenly the Bucs are back in salary cap business.

Do that in addition to getting Tom Brady back, and the Bucs are suddenly championship contenders again.

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

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