Bucs emerge as destination for veterans seeking elusive Super Bowl ring

TAMPA — Between them, Julio Jones, Kyle Rudolph and Akiem Hicks have made 10 Pro Bowls, appeared in 21 playoff games and started 399 times.

The other common denominator on their résumés: zero Super Bowl rings.

Three of the Bucs’ veteran signings this offseason — including Jones and Rudolph within the past 11 days — all entered training camp on the other side of age 30. They all signed one-year deals, too. And if everything goes right from their perspective, they’ll secure the elusive championship during that time.

“All of those negotiations, one of the top priorities that they had on their list was going to a team that they had a good chance of getting the ring,” general manager Jason Licht said Thursday. “And how they want to end their career — not necessarily end it this year, but have a chance before their career is over to win a Super Bowl.”

Licht said he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that established players without a ring dotted Tampa Bay’s offseason transaction log, adding that those players and the situation present a “very attractive” commodity. Free agents know the Bucs’ status as a win-now team, linebacker Devin White said.

The Bucs weren’t necessarily in that position when they drafted White in 2019 and went 7-9, but that changed the next year with Tom Brady aboard and a Super Bowl win. Now, they’re viewed as a contender because of their past results, returning pieces and new veteran additions.

Brady sits at the crux of those signings and that transformation. General managers with veteran quarterbacks hold recruiting edges in free agency, Licht said, but having Brady presents “even more of an advantage.” If Licht and his staff spot an available player, he’ll occasionally call Brady and ask if the quarterback can help.

“I’m never gonna apologize for using him to help me bring in players for this team,” Licht said.

New tight end Kyle Rudolph, center, knew his chances of an extended playoff run increased by joining the Bucs.
New tight end Kyle Rudolph, center, knew his chances of an extended playoff run increased by joining the Bucs. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Recently, those recruiting tasks revolved around Jones and Rudolph. For Jones, the closest he has been to winning a Super Bowl came in 2017 with the Falcons. They led the Patriots — and Brady — 28-3. Then the historic Super Bowl 51 comeback unfolded.

Brady erased the deficit, forced overtime and scored on the first drive. When asked about that game twice during his introductory news conference Wednesday, Jones shook his head behind the microphone.

“Why are you bringing up old stuff? We don’t go back,” Jones said. “(Brady) did it. He did it.”

Jones called his decision to join the Bucs “not a money play.” Rudolph’s introductory news conference hit similar tones.

“At this point in my career … everything is about winning,” Rudolph said.

Hicks, who signed June 1, said he noticed differences from the first day of minicamp. Defensive players were “chirping” at the other defensive players, trying to motivate each other.

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That criticism prompts improvements, Hicks said back in June, and he found that appealing. He spent most of the 2015 season with Brady in New England after a trade from New Orleans, but the Patriots lost in the AFC Championship Game.

Last offseason, the one directly following Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl win, a similar scenario unfolded for running back Giovani Bernard. He was a veteran who hadn’t won it all — or even advanced to the second round of the playoffs — across eight seasons with the Bengals. Then he signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay for 2021 and added another contract with an identical length this offseason.

Giovani Bernard didn't reach the Super Bowl last season with the Bucs, but he liked their chances enough to sign on for another year.
Giovani Bernard didn’t reach the Super Bowl last season with the Bucs, but he liked their chances enough to sign on for another year. [ CHRIS O’MEARA | AP ]

Bernard said Tampa Bay’s situation reflects a “we want to win right now” mindset present across the league, where competing teams offer one-year deals to veterans they view as missing parts.

“I think you came here for that mindset,” Bernard said. “You know the type of team that this team is. What these guys have been able to accomplish the last few years, and just adding more pieces to it, it’s only gonna get better.”

None of those signings guarantee they’ll stand on State Farm Stadium’s field in early February, though. It doesn’t mean they’ll hoist the Lombardi Trophy before flying from Glendale, Ariz., to Tampa for another boat parade, either. But the scenes from the first week of training camp reflect Tampa Bay’s new reality as a veteran haven.

“Everybody wants to win a Super Bowl,” White said. “Everybody’s going to say that. But every team don’t have the pieces to do that.”

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