There has been a lot of talk over the past week about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers using “cap wizardry” to sign their players. It’s overblown and undercuts the TRUE genius of the front office.
The media has been spinning a tale of dark magic and fantasy around the Bucs ability to sign their Super Bowl roster back. The way they’re talking you’d think that Jason Licht and Mike Greenberg were in some dim candlelit chamber underneath Raymond James Stadium drawing pentagrams surrounded by little effigies of Shaq Barrett and Lavonte David. The reality is that they’re using the same exact tactics every other team in the league uses to keep talent: back-loaded contracts, signing bonuses, voidable years, restructure, and extensions. Any and every other general manager could get signings like these done with no problem. Mortgaging your future for the now is actually the go-to plan for 90 percent of the NFL.
The problem is it distracts from the two things this front office has done so well, which are understanding where the roster was and waiting to go all in, and building a stacked roster through savvy free agent moves and great drafting.
The Bucs last year had the lowest dead cap in the NFL by a mile going into free agency. This year they’re bottom of the NFL again with less than a million in dead cap. Most teams are running tens of millions of dead cap every year. The reason often is that when you give out back-loaded contracts with big signing bonuses when those bills come due teams are forced to cut the players to stay cap compliant.
Tampa also managed to keep the cap hits of its core of highly talented players low in comparison to other teams by not kicking the can down the road with signing bonuses and restructuring contracts. The front office has done a great job over the years of understanding where they stood. Most teams tread water trying to stay relevant constantly being forced to cut, restructure and extend players because past bills are coming due. The Bucs did the opposite, by giving out evenly spaced contracts. This gave the Bucs the option, should they become a contender team, to sign bonus players on top. Last year’s Super Bowl was as much about how the cap was managed five years in advance as it was the actual year they won.
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The reason all the good accounting mattered was, of course, all of the talent they brought in. It cannot be overstated how important the draft is to a team. Cheap talent is the lifeblood of a Super Bowl team. Players in the third and fourth year of rookie contracts can be talented and valuable to a team for literally a tenth the cost of what they would get on the open market. The majority of the Bucs defense this year, and upcoming year, are on rookie deals.
Players like Devin White, Carlton Davis, Tristan Wirfs, Alex Cappa, Ronald Jones, Chris Godwin, Jamel Dean, Vita Vea, and Antoine Winfield are top 20 players at their position being paid backup or low-end starter money. This allows them to pay the rest of the offensive line, and keep players like David and Barret. Throw in the last couple of years very efficient free agent signings like Barret, Ryan Jensen, and Tom Brady, years of great drafting, great free agent signings, and not being afraid to release and not overpay players made winning the Super Bowl an inevitability.
Jason Licht and his entire team have been building up to this moment with talent acquisition and fiscal restraint. It’s not special or difficult to keep the team together at this point. It was getting to this point that was the real magic act.