TAMPA, Fla. — Who’s sorry now? Not Bucs general manager Jason Licht, who issued an invitation to anyone who thought the Bucs mortgaged too much of their future — $100 million of salary cap space in subsequent years — for winning a Super Bowl and two division titles with Tom Brady.
Seated Thursday next to cornerback Jamel Dean and outside linebacker Anthony Nelson — two of the four unrestricted free agents the team re-signed — Licht had no remorse, of course.
“If I go back in time, I would do it all again,” Licht said. “We pushed, we borrowed about $100 million against this year’s cap and future cap to do what we did. Came close the second time, but you know, if anybody wants to criticize what they did, they can come to any of our three homes and look at our rings. And we’re going to pursue another one, too.”
Licht and his front office staff have every reason to take a victory lap considering their recent haul in free agency, when they began the process more than $57 million over the $224.8 million salary cap. Of course, $35 million of it was dead money for Brady, who heaped it all on 2023 by submitting retirement papers.
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If there was a checklist entering the 2023 offseason, all the boxes have been marked. Not only did they re-sign Dean and linebacker Lavonte David — two of the highest-rated players entering free agency — they also added quarterback Baker Mayfield and running back Chase Edmonds, traded guard Shaq Mason to the Texans and re-signed guard Aaron Stinnie.
And they may not be done yet.
“It’s a great feeling,” Licht said. “You know with all the challenges that we had going into this offseason, (Wednesday), today is a great day to see that, you know, people still believe in the vision that we have and the ability that we have as a football team to still compete for this division.”
Certainly, Dean, David and Nelson believe.
Each had solid offers to sign with other teams but preferred to remain with the Bucs even without Brady.
Dean, 26, was ranked fifth among all free agents by Pro Football Focus when the negotiating period began Monday, and he made it clear he turned down other offers to remain in Tampa Bay and with head coach Todd Bowles.
“I was a little worried,” said Dean, a third-round pick out of Auburn in 2019 who signed a four-year, $52 million contract. “I was like, ‘I would hate to go up north because, man, I don’t like the cold really.’ But you know, (the Bucs) started making adjustments and I was like, ‘Okay, there’s a chance.’ And then (cornerback) Carlton (Davis) called me and said, ‘No, they really want you.’ And I was like, okay, they started to lean back in my favor now. Things worked out and I’m happy to be here.”
The signing of Dean gives the Bucs bookend cornerbacks with Davis, his former Auburn teammate who signed a three-year, $44.5 million extension a year ago.
Dean said his fortunes changed during a two-game span as a rookie. Pressed into action to play for an injured Davis, he gave up three touchdown passes in a 40-34 loss at Seattle. He spent the next week grinding over film study, coming in with Bowles at 4 a.m. It resulted in a great game in a win over Arizona in which he had his first career interception and four passes defensed.
“It is really big because me and (Bowles), we put in a lot of work together,” Dean said. “It was like, why would I let another coach reap the benefits of what me and Coach did. That was really big because I only want to be coached by Bowles because he’s taught me everything I know.”
Nelson, a fourth-round pick from Iowa in 2019, was forced to start the final eight games in 2022 after Shaquil Barrett’s season-ending torn Achilles. He has 10.5 sacks in two seasons.
“Being able to get some more opportunities definitely helped,” said Nelson, 26, who signed a two-year, $11 million deal. “There was a lot of work throughout the four years. But it was nice to be able to show it, be able to produce, be able to help us win some games, win the division. It was awesome to be a part of something like that and that’s a big reason I came back.”
David, 33, expressed an interest in finishing his career with the Bucs and signed a one-year deal for $7 million and will return for a 12th season.
Remarkably, the Bucs and Licht were able to land a competitive veteran quarterback and former No. 1 overall pick in Mayfield, who agreed to terms on a one-year deal worth up to $8.5 million, and he will arrive to Tampa early next week.
The Bucs are his fourth team since he was traded to the Panthers last July but he maybe has the best chance to start given that Kyle Trask has only appeared in one NFL game in his career.
“We’ve seen a fiery competitor. Very confident. Smart. He’s got a very good arm,” Licht said of Mayfield. “He’s had a lot of success. You know, he took Cleveland to the playoffs the first time since 1994 when (Bill) Belichick was coaching. That says something. We’re excited to add him to the fray. It’s going to be a great competition.”
Licht credited his front office staff for manipulating the salary cap so the Bucs could begin to pay off some of the debt they ran up with Brady while retaining and even adding players to the roster that should keep them competitive in the NFC South.
“There’s a lot of challenges and we were able to get through it … but never once did we ever think that we were not going to be a good team this year,” Licht said. “We have a lot of good players, players entering their prime, players in their prime, players who haven’t even scratched the surface of their prime.
“It’s the same situation that drew Tom Brady to want to come sign here. It’s a very similar team. We’re not done. ... These guys wanted to come back. They believe in the vision we have with our coaches and front office and that’s going to continue.”