By Tom Krasniqi
New coach. New GM. New uniforms. The culture is changing once again for the Buccaneers. Now it’s time to go to work.
The Bucs were 4-12 last season for a reason. They weren’t very good in many areas. The offense ranked 32nd in the NFL. The defense showed flashes but they weren’t as consistent as they need to be to compete in the NFC South.
Expect Lovie Smith and Jason Licht to be active in free agency. There are plenty of holes to fill before the draft because as it stands right now, the Bucs have just 5 draft picks. Denver made the Super Bowl after making 5 terrific signings last year in free agency— WR Wes Welker, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DT Terrence Knighton, LB Shaun Phillips and G Louis Vasquez. Not to mention Peyton Manning the year before that. Licht and Lovie want to build through the draft, but with only five picks to work with, the Bucs will have to make a plunge into free agency. It can work if (and that’s a big if) you get players that fit your scheme.
As of right now, the Bucs are about $19 million under the cap so they will have plenty of cash to go shopping. The free agent signing period begins next Tuesday. Teams can begin negotiating with free agents on Saturday. Let’s see who they might target:
Offense- The team was dead last in total offense in 2013 so expect some changes here. There’s no doubt the team will bring in competition at quarterback to compete with Mike Glennon. The free agent group doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence. Josh McCown played extremely well last season in Chicago and Lovie is familiar with him. McCown threw 13 touchdowns and just one interception but there are some factors you need to consider. McCown is 34 and is only a stop-gap option. He had a big year in Marc Trestman’s offense with some elite talent around him at the skill positions— Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey and Martellus Bennett. Michael Vick is an intriguing option. When Smith took over, he said he wants “athletes at every position and that includes quarterback.” Vick would certainly fit the bill. He turns 34 in June and he hasn’t been durable— he’s only played one full season and that was back in 2006 with Atlanta. But you can’t argue with his talent. Vick is still a threat to beat you with his arm and legs. Vick has more explosive upside than McCown but he will be in demand— Jets and Raiders and expected to make a push for him as well. If it gets down to a bidding war, don’t expect the Bucs to go hang around.
The offensive line was underwhelming last season and will likely be re-tooled. Left tackle Donald Penn allowed the second most sacks in the league. At age 30 going on 31, I believe he can still play at a high level but will the new regime concur? The Bucs are rumored to be high on free agent left tackles Eugene Monroe and Branden Albert. The 26-year-old Monroe is clearly the top tackle available in free agency and will command around $9 to $10 million per year. Penn’s cap number is $8.08 million for 2014. If he’s cut or traded, the Bucs would save $7.4 million. Miami and Arizona are also in the market for a left tackle. If the Bucs sign either Monroe or Albert, they will undoubtedly part ways with Penn. Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah are also in trouble. Last season, Joseph battled through a staph infection and he looked slow to recover from a crippling knee injury he suffered in 2012. He counts $6 million against the cap with no penalty so the Bucs can save the entire amount if they move him. Joseph is a leader who should play better in 2014 but when a new regime takes over, changes will be made. Jeremy Zuttah has a $4.5 million cap number and like Joseph, the Bucs can save the entire amount by cutting him. Zuttah’s salary is much too large for a fringe starter. Cutting Joseph and Zuttah will save $10.5 million in cap space. Because of his massive cap charge, the Bucs have no choice but to stay the course with left guard Carl Nicks. Smith says Nicks has been rehabbing at One Buc Place but no one really knows where he’s at physically. Expect the Bucs to make a play for a guard in free agency but they won’t break the bank. Guard Shaun Lauvao could be an option. New Bucs offensive line coach George Warhop coached him in Cleveland. Warhop also worked with All-Pro center Alex Mack, who would be ideal but he won’t come cheap. Mack would certainly solidify the middle of the Bucs offensive line but is he worth $$7 to 8 million per year? Another interesting note regarding Mack: He played for new Bucs offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford at Cal. Another guard option could be Uche Nwaneri, who was just cut by the Jaguars. Changes are coming. Right tackle Demar Dotson is the only starter who is truly safe.
One thing is for sure— the Bucs are loaded at running back and won’t need help there. Doug Martin will be back and he’ll be backed up by Mike James and Bobby Rainey, who just re-signed for 1 year. Starting fullback Erik Lorig is an unrestricted free agent whom the team is trying to bring back.
At wideout, the only dependable option right now is Vincent Jackson. Behind V-Jax are plenty of question marks. The team is unhappy with the recent behavior of Mike Williams. His talent, contract and lack of depth at the position are the only factors that are saving Williams. Tiquan Underwood is a free agent and is not likely to return. Regardless, the Bucs need to bring in bodies at this position. The free agent crop at WR is deep and there are plenty of options in the draft as well. Free agent Andre Roberts makes a lot of sense for the Bucs. Roberts (5-11, 195) is only 26 and has missed just two games in his career. He’s more of a #3 WR than a #2. Largo native Dexter McCluster makes all the sense in the world for the Bucs. He’s a dynamic return man and caught 53 passes last season with the Chiefs. Signing McCluster would fill two roles— return specialist and slot WR. That would provide Tedford with another weapon to play with.
Tight end is a need area. Tim Wright proved to a nice find last season but the team needs more help. Tom Crabtree was banged up and finished the season on IR. Brandon Pettigrew has terrific size (6-5, 265) and would fill the role of being an all-around TE who can block and catch. Jeff Cumberland, Garrett Graham and Andrew Quarless are also possibilities.
Defense: The Bucs can make a claim that many teams can’t. Tampa Bay has elite players at each level of their defense— Gerald McCoy, LaVonte David and Darrelle Revis. Lovie will run his version of the Tampa 2 with some twists— expect the Bucs to play plenty of man coverage by using Revis on the opposing team’s #1 WR. The Revis trade talk is pure speculation. His contract— $16 million per year— is monstrous. But his talent is undeniable. Unless the Bucs get a Herschel Walker-type of deal, expect Revis to be here.
The Bucs’ #1 need is a pass rushing defensive end. In order to make the Tampa 2 work, you must be able to generate pressure from your front four. McCoy is coming off a 9.5 sack season and is a stud. If the Bucs can get an edge rusher to along with him, then the Bucs will be in business. Former Vikings DE Jared Allen could be a target and racked up 11.5 sacks last season. New Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was Allen’s head coach in Minnesota. Problem is, Allen turns 32 in April and he might be the type of player you sign if you’re one player away from being a Super Bowl contender. The Bucs aren’t there. Michael Johnson is a better and younger option. Johnson (6-7, 270) just turned 27. He had only 3.5 sacks last season but he knocks down passes and plays the run really well. Johnson will be heavily recruited by several teams so if the Bucs want him, they will need to pay up. Former Bucs DE Michael Bennett will be available and he still has plenty of friends on the team. Bennett was not fond of Greg Schiano but Schiano is gone so there’s a chance of a reunion. One name to keep an eye on is Everson Griffen. Frazier coached Griffen in Minnesota and would be a younger, cheaper version of Allen. Former Cowboys DE Anthony Spencer and DT Jason Hatcher could be targets as well. One obscure name to keep an eye on is former Bears DE Corey Wootton is coming off hip surgery. His size (6-6, 270), his age (26) and familiarity with Lovie makes him an interesting option. Another name to keep an eye is former Bears DT Henry Melton, who was a Pro Bowler on 2012 before tearing his ACL early last season. The Bucs are looking to add another active DT to pair with McCoy. Akeem Spence is more of a run plugger and may not be a good fit in this defense.
The Bucs have a number of linebackers who are free agents—Adam Hayward, Dekoda Watson and Jonathan Casillas. All three are very good special teams players and since the new coaching staff is placing an emphasis on special teams, expect one or two of them to return. LaVonte David and Mason Foster appear entrenched, although there are some questions about Foster’s ability to play in coverage. Licht is familiar with free agent LB Karlos Dansby, but his price tag might be too rich for the Bucs.
The Bucs appear to be in good shape with their secondary but some tweaks are certainly possible. Revis (if he’s around) along with safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson appear to be set. Jonathan Banks may not be a true “Cover 2” type of corner and the Bucs could use another CB to compete with Banks and nickel back Leonard Johnson. Charles Tillman has been mentioned as a possibility but there are things to consider: He’s 33 and not fully recovered from a torn triceps injury. The Bucs would be wise to pursue Corey Graham, who played really well last season as the Ravens’ nickel back. He recorded career highs with 74 tackles and 4 interceptions and graded out as a top-15 slot CB by Pro Football Focus.
Special teams: Devin Hester won’t be back with the Bears and he loves Lovie. Question is, do the Bucs want him? Hester is perhaps the greatest return man in NFL history but he’s 31 and didn’t play on offense last season. McCluster would be a younger and more versatile option, both as a return man and as an offensive weapon. New Bucs special teams coach Kevin O’Dea was K.C’s special teams coach last season. You do the math. Punter Michael Koenen carries a big cap number ($3.25 million) so he could be on the chopping block. Connor Barth should return from a torn Achilles tendon but expect the Bucs to add some competition.