One of the many decisions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers must make this offseason is what will happen to players on the salary cap bubble — and which players exist in that space.
It’s not hard to argue that left tackle Donovan Smith is firmly on the roster bubble as the Bucs front office assesses what to do moving forward. After coming off arguably one of the best seasons of his career, Smith cratered in 2022 and was both a frustration and a liability.
He played through an elbow injury that likely would have sidelined him in any other scenario but with the Buccaneers offensive line depth thinner than papier-mâché, Smith powered through as to not further deplete the unit.
Unfortunately, that resulted in his admirable effort being overshadowed by bad penalties and blown blocks. Smith committed 12 penalties last season, which was tied for fourth among tackles in the league. He also allowed six sacks and finished the season with a PPF grade of 58.1, down significantly from the 83.3 grade he posted in 2021.
He also carries a hefty price tag heading into an offseason where the Bucs are looking to slash salary. Tampa Bay entered the offseason roughly $55 million over the cap, which is the worst in football. Cutting Smith is an option on the table as it would help Tampa Bay save $9.95 million while also moving on from an underperforming veteran.
The problem is replacing Smith is easier said than done. Left tackles — good ones — are hard to come by and the Bucs are already in a financial bind as it is.
One possible replacement for Smith might be about to become available, though. Tennessee Titans veteran left tackle Taylor Lewan announced this week that he’s expecting to be released by the team and hit free agency.
“In the next couple of weeks, I will be cut by the Tennessee Titans – that will happen,” Lewan said, via Jim Wyatt of TennesseeTitans.com. “I truly believe that in my heart of hearts. Then I have to go into a situation that I’ve never been in in my entire life: I have to weigh the pros and cons of playing football, or not playing football.”
Lewan has one more year in the league than Smith, and his PFF grade wasn’t much higher last year but he could present a breath of fresh air on the left end of the line. He also seems open about playing on a cheaper deal than he is on with the Titans, which is about $1 million less than Smith and could go even lower.
What’s worrying in that statement for Bucs fans is that Lewan doesn’t sound set on continuing his career if the right opportunity doesn’t present itself. Whether or not Lewan deems Tampa Bay an opportunity he wants to extend his career for is yet to be seen, and it’s a harder argument ot make with all of the uncertainty surrounding the team.
Had Tom Brady returned for another season, it’s not hard to see someone like Lewan wanting to join rank to try and win a Super Bowl. Without Brady, and without a true option at quarterback, the Bucs suddenly become a much less attractive destination for a veteran like Lewan.
This could end up being a common theme among free agents this offseason. While the Bucs were a landing spot for mercenary ring chasers, the team is at a crossroads and won’t have the same sort of sizzle to free agents that it did the last three seasons.