Buccaneers can’t risk offending Tom Brady amid contract dilemmas

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What can the Buccaneers possibly do for an encore?

After a franchise-altering offseason lifted the Buccaneers from no playoff wins since 2002 to Super Bowl 2021 champions, a bill is due in the form of stars reaching free agency. General manager Jason Licht must decide whether he wants to run-it-back with mostly the same cast or risk making changes to the rare superteam not driven off the rails by egos.

Here are three pressing offseason questions the Buccaneers must answer:

1. How long does Tom Brady want to play?

Brady created a stir at the Super Bowl by saying he will consider playing past 45 years old. He is only signed through next season, which means he could test free agency again at 44 in 2022.

Brady left no doubt about his immediate future during the Lombardi Trophy and Super Bowl MVP presentation.

“We’re coming back,” Brady said after throwing three touchdowns in Tampa Bay’s 31-9 triumph over Kansas City. “You all know that.”

It’s never been easy to lock Brady into a retirement date, but the Buccaneers realize they won the jackpot by landing Brady last offseason. If he is interested in signing an extension, they should never let him play in a walk-year ever again.

And don’t make the same mistake the Patriots did by drafting his successor and risking hurt feelings. Load up by drafting young contributors and worry about the future when it comes.

2. Who to franchise tag?

The Buccaneers have three premier free agents in their primes: Wide receiver Chris Godwin, edge-rusher Shaq Barrett and linebacker Lavonte David. Pro Football Focus projects that trio to command average annual salaries of $22 million, $17 million and $13.3 million, respectively, on multiyear deals.

They can keep one on the franchise tag — that doesn’t necessarily mean the other two will leave — but Barrett could be the most expensive and the riskiest. Because he was tagged last year, a second straight tag will raise his cost to 120 percent of his 2020 salary. And he could threaten a holdout rather than play on another one-year deal.

To free up more space than the $38 million already available, the Buccaneers could approach left tackle Donovan Smith about restructuring to lower his $14.2 million cap hit.

3. Re-sign aging greats Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski?

The Buccaneers’ receiving corps is one of the best bargains in the NFL because Mike Evans’ extension, Godwin’s third-round draft status and Brown’s limited market — given history as a toxic teammate, pending civil and criminal allegations and an NFL suspension — made for three relatively small cap hits in 2020. Time to pay the piper in 2021.

With Evans due a big raise, can the Buccaneers afford Godwin and Brown? If Godwin leaves in free agency, will the Buccaneers look elsewhere or re-sign the potentially combustible Brown? Brown won’t come as cheap as the one-year, $1.6 million deal he signed just to get back in the league at Week 9.

Brown, 32, had 45 catches for 483 yards and four touchdowns in the regular season but was injured throughout the playoffs. There are younger options with more upside, but Brown is a preferred target of Brady.

Gronkowski, 31, isn’t the same risk as Brown. But he isn’t as productive, either. At least until Gronkowski turned back the clock on Sunday night to torch the Chiefs for for six catches for 67 yards and the first two touchdowns of the game.

“Coming down to Tampa Bay, coming into this organization, they were an organization ready to win,’’ Gronkowski said. “The players were ready to win, and just to come in and be a small, big part of it and play my role was just amazing. Just to have a situation like this, with so many great players and be Super Bowl 55 champs is unreal. It’s surreal, man.’’

“Gronk” played in 16 games for the first time since 2011 but had just 45 catches for 623 yards. Has he lost two steps? Or was he just slow to return from a one-year retirement and better days are ahead?

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