But there were plenty of unknowns. The NFL’s salary cap figure wouldn’t come in until a month later. The Bucs had 24 unrestricted free agents — third most in the league — and it was possible several of them could look to score big paydays with other teams. The team needed to make sure it was leaving room to invest in its younger players in the coming years.
“When we started putting it together to plan it out, it turned out to be a little bit more complicated when you’re writing down the numbers on a piece of paper,” Licht said. “You still want to plan for the future, and you still have players who you want to extend at some point moving forward, so there’s a lot that went into it.”
By the time the early portion of the offseason concluded, however, the Bucs had done something that in many ways seemed impossible: They were able to retain every starter on their Super Bowl-winning team. It was the first time that happened since the Pittsburgh Steelers pulled off the feat in 1979 — back when there was no free agency and no salary cap and player contracts were a small fraction of the size they are now.
“I didn’t realize how rare it was,” Licht said of keeping all 22 Super Bowl starters. “I knew I didn’t want to divulge our plans. We kept a lid on it and kept it between myself, my staff and the owners, so we didn’t have anybody doing any research on it.”
Licht added: “If I would have known [how rare it was] the day of our first meetings, I would have been sweating a lot more than I was.”
The scramble to keep the team together began in full March 10, when the cap number was released by the league — seven days before the start of free agency. The Bucs then went to work, freeing up cap room by getting quarterback Tom Brady to sign a two-year, $50 million contract extension, retaining linebacker Lavonte David on a two-year, $25 million deal and placing the franchise tag on wide receiver Chris Godwin, which cost nearly $16 million.
As free agency began, the team made its most expensive move, reaching a four-year, $68 million deal with edge rusher Shaquil Barrett, who had been one of the most coveted free agents on the market. After that, the deals kept coming in. Tight end Rob Gronkowski signed a one-year, $8 million deal. Kicker Ryan Succop signed a three-year, $12 million deal.
On March 31, the Bucs got running back Leonard Fournette to take a one-year deal at $3.25 million. They freed up more cap room when they extended left tackle Donovan Smith on a two-year, $31 million deal, then retained defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for one year and $9 million. Tight end Cameron Brate restructured his contract to open up more space, and then the final piece came together when wide receiver Antonio Brown signed a one-year, $3.1 million deal.
The mission was accomplished — in no small part, Licht said, because of the players’ interest in coming back and taking a run at another Super Bowl.
“You know players aren’t going to play for free,” Licht said. “I don’t want to say anyone gave us big discounts, but the common thing was that everyone was motivated to come back. Every negotiation was not stress-free and easy. … All the negotiations were unique challenges. At the end of the day, everyone wanted to be here, which is great.”
According to the website Over the Cap, the Bucs were fourth to the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants in total guaranteed money spent in free agency. And yet Licht feels confident the moves set the team up for success even beyond next season.
“We’re very happy,” Licht said. “… There’s going to be some challenges moving forward, but we didn’t cripple ourselves.”
One of the more remarkable things about the Bucs’ Super Bowl run last season — and why many are bullish on the team’s chances to repeat — is that it happened a year earlier than most analysts thought possible. It was Brady’s first year with the team, and the Bucs hadn’t made the playoffs in the previous 12 seasons. They also had to contend with the New Orleans Saints, a perennial contender who won the NFC South before losing to Tampa Bay in the divisional round of the playoffs.
But Brady seems to have seen the team’s potential before signing with the Bucs as a free agent in March 2020. What surprised Licht during the team’s courtship of Brady was how much the legendary quarterback knew about the roster. Despite the team’s recent past, Brady looked at the lineup and saw a potential big winner.
“All I knew is that he was excited to come here and he had done his research,” Licht said. “We talked about just about every player on the team. I don’t think he’d come here if he didn’t think we had a chance. He thought we had a very good chance. I know he was excited about the talent that we had and the coaching staff.”
The Bucs did have an impressive collection of talent, from wide receivers Godwin and Mike Evans to linebackers David and Devin White. But they also benefited from several additions that came after Brady signed, including first-round offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, second-round safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and Brady’s old pal from New England, Gronkowski.
With the team’s core back in its entirety, the only obvious question is how the roster — which is the oldest in football — will perform now that it’s a year older. But Licht isn’t concerned.
“They all take care of themselves very well,” he said. “We have a great training staff … great strength and conditioning and sports science program. And Tom is incredible in terms of how he takes care of himself, and the players are learning how to do that here. Bruce is a great head coach to play for if you’re an older player. He knows when to pull the reins back. He knows when to give players days off.”
There is some history on the Bucs’ side when it comes to their chances of repeating. The Steelers team that was the last Super Bowl winner to bring back all of its starters followed it up by winning another title the next year. That’s the goal for this year’s Bucs.
“We went over what we would need to do, and the owners were all for it,” Licht said. “We won a Super Bowl and have got a chance to have success again this year.”