Buccaneers' offseason priorities center around Tom Brady, defense and run game

TAMPA, Fla. -- Following a disappointing 31-14 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round Monday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got right to work on making some improvements for 2023.

On Thursday, the Bucs fired offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich after he spent four seasons with the team. Eight other coaches won't be joining next season's staff, either, including three who decided to retire.

With changes already underway, here is a look at what else is in store this offseason, including pending free agents and areas of improvement:

Where things stand with the Bucs and Brady

The Bucs are projected at $43 million over the salary cap, according to Roster Management data. The team’s direction and how much it’ll want to borrow from future years will largely be dictated by whether Tom Brady comes back, chooses a different team or retires.

“We will meet with Tom, we will meet with everybody else and we will meet with the brass to come up with a plan and see where we are,” coach Todd Bowles said. “If that’s the case, hopefully it doesn’t have to come after free agency and everything else like that. You want to have plans going into it, so we will do our due diligence, meet with the parties involved, and we will come up with a plan one way or the other.”

If Brady’s decision (if it is to play) is influenced by proximity to his kids, there are a couple of options. If Brady chooses to remain in Tampa, he is several hours away from his ex-wife, Gisele Bundchen, and their two children, Benjamin and Vivian, in Miami. While his oldest son, Jack, lives in New York with his mother, Bridget Moynahan.

General manager Jason Licht will make every effort to retain Brady despite the Bucs’ struggles this season -- finishing 8-9 during the regular season -- and what many perceived as a goodbye message in Brady’s postgame news conference. Should he stay, Licht could give Brady a say in the hiring of a new offensive coordinator.

Starters on defense among host of other Bucs free agents

Alongside Brady, inside linebacker and longtime defensive captain Lavonte David tops the Bucs’ list of 23 free agents this offseason.

David, the longest-tenured Bucs player, said Tuesday that he would love to finish out his career in Tampa.

“Of course [I want to stay]. Who wouldn’t?" David said. "They have trusted me for 11 years. I’ve been captain eight or nine of those 11 years. I’ve definitely enjoyed my time here. I would love to finish my career here."

Given the way he finished the season, the Bucs should be able to honor his wishes. He led the team with 80 solo tackles (124 combined) and had three sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and five passes defensed. The former first-team All-Pro is still not sure what the future will look like coming off a two-year, $25 million contract.

The Bucs also have four current and previous starters from their secondary (Jamel Dean, Mike Edwards, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Logan Ryan) up for new deals. Dean took over at outside cornerback for Murphy-Bunting this year, but Murphy-Bunting wound up starting in the final four games of the regular season and in the postseason.

Changes to this group could also be possible after Bowles expressed frustration with their playoff performances -- especially Edwards, who had one of his worst games as a pro with multiple coverage busts.

"If you do it nine out of 10 times right, it’s not a coaching thing or a playing thing -- that means you know what you’re doing but you just busted that play,” Bowles said. “A guy makes a play on you, and you bust the play or you just miss something -- it has nothing to do with coaching or studying, that’s just in the moment of the game you messed up that play. You’ve got to be more disciplined than that.”

Improved ground game

At age 45, Brady broke the NFL record for pass attempts in a season (733), and he attempted a playoff career-high 66 passes. But he had to out of necessity, as the Bucs averaged 76.94 rushing yards per game -- last in the league.

A lot of that was a function of their run blocking. The Bucs averaged 1.85 rushing yards before contact per run this year, the worst in the NFL. Further, their run block win rate was 69.4% -- second worst.

Left tackle Donovan Smith had a 64.9% run block win rate -- second worst among offensive tackles in the league behind only Rodger Saffold -- and Nick Leverett, who stepped into the left guard spot for rookie Luke Goedeke, came in at a 68.2%. Right guard Shaq Mason, who was acquired in a trade with the New England Patriots during the offseason to replace free-agent departure Alex Cappa, was at 70.1% (although Mason was a significantly better pass-blocker, producing a 92.7% pass block win rate). Goedeke had a 71.4% rate in run blocking, but his pass blocking was among the league’s worst for guards at 80.1%.

It wasn’t just run blocking, though. Running backs struggled in short yardage. Leonard Fournette, who averaged just 3.53 yards per carry, seemed to lack the explosiveness that he's had in the past. Whether that was because of a foot injury or his weight, Fournette simply didn’t have the space to get going. He also led the team with a 4.8% drop rate with four.

Rookie Rachaad White showed promise when given the chance, but he averaged only 3.73 yards per carry.

The defense needs to improve pass rush

Losing linebacker Shaquil Barrett -- who’s had 40.5 sacks since 2019 -- to a torn left Achilles was a brutal blow in Week 8. This meant Anthony Nelson would take over, in addition to second-year pro Joe Tryon-Shoyinka stepping in for the departed Jason Pierre-Paul.

“I think when your nose [tackle] is your leading sack guy, I don’t think the pass rush was good enough,” said Bowles in reference to Vita Vea's 6.5 sacks.

Despite the lack of sacks, Bowles said that he’s hopeful that Barrett can come back healthy and that Nelson can be re-signed.

“We definitely need more sacks out of [our outside linebackers]," Bowles said. "... That’s one of our money positions where we count on sacks to come from -- the majority of them, anyway.”

Barrett has been walking for about a month since undergoing surgery for the injury and is doing his rehab in Tampa this offseason in hopes he can be ready by the opener in September.

“They said the latest possible I’d be ready would be the regular season,” Barrett said. “It’s been a long process, but I’ll do everything I can to be ready for the first game.”

Bowles said he hopes Tryon-Shoyinka, who finished his first season as a full-time starter with four sacks, “can get a lot better" and continues to improve.

"He fell off quite a few sacks,” Bowles said. “If he finished closing ... he might have made more sacks than he missed.”

A different approach to the offseason

Bowles said he wants to see a change in the offseason with more faces at voluntary workouts after the short playoff run -- a slight deviation from former coach Bruce Arians’ philosophy, which was to rest veterans after a deep postseason run.

“When we came back, offseason is voluntary," Bowles said, "but at the same time, it builds camaraderie, it builds chemistry and it builds culture."

When asked if he felt they were lacking in camaraderie this season, Bowles said, “We had a lot of it, but you can have more of it."

"It starts there," Bowles added. "Especially in the offseason, that’s all you can do, so it has to start there.”