Keeping Shaq Barrett will be pricey, but Bucs can't afford to let him go

TAMPA, Fla. -- The latest praise bestowed upon Shaquil Barrett came from Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians after the outside linebacker had two sacks Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars to raise his league-leading total to 14.5.

Arians said Monday that he’d be “shocked” if Barrett didn’t surpass Hall of Famer Warren Sapp’s single-season franchise record of 16.5 sacks.

"I don’t think it’s stopping anytime soon,” said Arians, who’s seen Barrett go from an unproven rotational player who never eclipsed 5.5 sacks with the Denver Broncos to one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers with the Buccaneers.

“He’s a hungry young fella that even after he gets paid, it’s going to continue. He’s just continued to work on his craft, getting slipperier and slipperier."

There’s no question Barrett -- who signed a one-year, prove-it deal this past offseason with the Bucs after the Cincinnati Bengals backed out of a two-year offer -- will cash in as an unrestricted free agent, and rightfully so. The question is, can the Bucs afford to re-sign him, with 19 players set to become unrestricted free agents and no decision made on the future of quarterback Jameis Winston?

If you look closely at the Bucs’ history at the edge-rusher position, which is filled with a few hits and far more misses, can they afford not to?

How much will a new contract cost?

Team sources say they love Barrett and want to bring him back. He’ll turn 28 in two weeks and is entering his prime with a full arsenal of not just pass-rush moves, but countermoves -- so if he doesn’t initially win, he can still get to the quarterback. In addition to his 14.5 sacks, he’s got a league-leading six forced fumbles. He’s also created opportunities for other players, with 15 sacks created, a new metric from NFL Next Gen Stats.

But what’s it going to cost them? Regardless of the length of the contract, Barrett could get north of $18 million per season.

For context, the Dallas Cowboys re-signed DeMarcus Lawrence to a five-year deal this offseason worth $105 million with $65 million guaranteed. But he is a 4-3 defensive end, a different position than Barrett's.

Khalil Mack of the Chicago Bears remains the highest-paid outside linebacker, averaging $23.5 million per year. His six-year deal, signed in 2018, is worth $141 million. This past offseason, the Kansas City Chiefs signed Frank Clark to a five-year deal worth $104 million ($20.8 million per season average) with $62.3 million guaranteed.

It doesn’t have to be a five- or six-year deal. New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has 13.5 sacks on the season, signed a three-year deal this offseason worth $52.5 million ($17.5 million per year) with over $42 million guaranteed.

What about the franchise tag?

This is an attractive option with the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) set to expire, which could change contract parameters for players. The salary cap is also expected to go up. The franchise numbers for 2020 won’t be set until after the 2019 season, but projected amounts for a linebacker (the NFL doesn’t differentiate between outside and inside linebackers for franchise-tag purposes) would be $16.27 million (it’s $19.32 million for defensive ends), and that works in the Bucs’ favor.

The Bucs could tag Barrett for the season and up to two more times after -- Lawrence was tagged twice by the Cowboys before landing his deal. The only issue with tagging Barrett is that it would preclude them from tagging Winston, should they wish to have another year to evaluate him without giving him an extension.

What about the others?

What will make the Bucs’ 2020 offseason challenging is that, despite having a projected $84.318 million in salary-cap space (third-most in the league), nearly all of their outside linebackers -- Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib -- will become unrestricted free agents, along with Ndamukong Suh and Beau Allen. And even though he plays in an entirely different position group, wide receiver Chris Godwin will also be eligible for an extension, and the team would like to reward him for his Pro Bowl-caliber season.

Pierre-Paul is one season removed from reaching double-digit sacks and has shined in his return from an offseason neck fracture. He’s also become the most vocal leader on the Bucs’ defense but hasn’t committed to playing beyond 2019. Nassib boasts the league’s best pass-rush win rate versus double teams (22%) while Suh has seen the fifth-most double teams (137) in the league. Barrett has credited them for helping him getting to the quarterback.

What if the Bucs move on?

Say the Bucs opt to move on and turn to the draft for his replacement. They could hope to get production similar to the Jaguars' Josh Allen (9.0 sacks) or the 49ers' Nick Bosa (8.0 sacks), or perhaps the Raiders' Maxx Crosby (7.5). But last year, only one rookie eclipsed the double-digit sack mark: Denver's Bradley Chubb (12.0). The average rookie outside linebacker/defensive end generated 3.8 sacks in 2018. In 2017 it was 3.0, with no rookie eclipsing the 10-sack threshold.

The Bucs could look at their own draft history over the past 25 years -- Eric Curry, Regan Upshaw, DeWayne White, Gaines Adams, Da'Quan Bowers, Adrian Clayborn and Noah Spence -- and see investing high draft picks on pass-rushers hasn’t always worked out. Marcus Jones was the last Buc-drafted edge rusher to reach double-digit sacks (13.0 in 2000) and he produced one such season, so you can add him to the list of failed draft picks.

Say they turn to free agency for Barrett’s replacement. In Jason Licht’s first free agency as Bucs GM, he and then-head coach Lovie Smith whiffed horribly on Michael Johnson, signing him to a five-year deal worth $43.75 million. He was gone after one season.

What does Barrett think of all this?

Barrett's focus is on the current season, letting agent Drew Rosenhaus handle any impending contract negotiations. His priorities include developing his skills, as he tries to help the Bucs climb out of a 5-7 hole, and gaining long-term financial security for himself and his family.

"We really don't talk about it," Barrett said of Rosenhaus. "I think we met once earlier, but we didn't talk too much about it. We just talked about the game, and how I played," Barrett said. "I think about it a little bit, but nothing's coming if I don't worry about what's going on right now. ... I stay in the moment. It could be gone just like that, so I've gotta keep going.

"It would mean a lot," Barrett said of getting a new contract. "The security, the team believing in me to keep me for that long -- however long it may be -- it's gonna make me want to play harder for the team to show that much faith in me."