Free agency in the NFL begins at 4 p.m. Tuesday, and it gives the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a critical chance to begin shaping their roster for coach Greg Schiano’s second season. They’re far from short on resources: The Bucs enter the period with $30.1 million in cap space, among the league’s highest totals, which means they can choose to be aggressive to boost areas of need such as a loose pass rush and a searching secondary.
Tampa Bay showed an ability to attack this time of year last spring. The Bucs signed guard Carl Nicks, cornerback Eric Wright and wide receiver Vincent Jackson to contracts worth a combined $141.05 million. Nicks and Jackson are considered to have high ceilings within the franchise, whereas Wright encountered, well, more than a few issues in his short time in red and pewter.
Where should the money go this year? Who could be targets? Will the Bucs make a splash or have buyer’s remorse later?
Ready … set … start shaping the future.
Who should be free-agency priorities?
Michael Bennett (defensive end) – He’s the most significant piece to the Bucs’ free-agency puzzle on defense. General manager Mark Dominik has expressed a desire to have the 6-foot-4, 274-pound Texas A&M product return to Tampa Bay for a fifth season. But will he? The Bucs could use his services: Bennett earned a career-high 41 tackles and nine sacks last fall, continuing a progression that has seen him raise his production each season since he entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the Seattle Seahawks in 2009. Consider: No other player on the Bucs’ line had more than defensive tackle Gerald McCoy’s five sacks (the unit produced 27). In a somewhat surprising move, Dominik chose to pass placing the franchise tag on Bennett. (The Bucs passed on using the franchise tag altogether). But the organization hasn’t ruled out the possibility that Bennett will be back next season.
E.J. Biggers (cornerback) – He became an important presence last season after Aqib Talib was suspended for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. In an area where there are so many holes that it’s hard to pick where to start repairs, Biggers would be a good place to begin. He started 13 games and proved his staying power by earning 51 tackles with an interception. The Bucs can certainly upgrade in this area with names larger than Biggers, but the three-year talent from Miami would be worth holding onto for the near future. Talib was a significant loss for Tampa Bay, as the player’s contributions with the New England Patriots showed, but Biggers did well in the absence.
Dallas Clark (tight end) – His veteran outlook would be valued for another year. Clark’s 10th season in the league, his first with Tampa Bay after leaving the Indianapolis Colts, saw him catch 47 passes for 435 yards with four touchdowns last year. For the first time since 2009 – and for only the second time in his career – Clark played a full 16-game schedule. Dominik has expressed an interest in having the sage tight end return, though it’s uncertain if retirement is an option for the 6-foot-3, 252-pound Livermore, Iowa, native. Clark is 33 years old, but the general manager shared at the NFL Combine that he could see Clark coming back.
LeGarrette Blount (running back) – He’s not a major priority, but having a physical No. 2 option behind Doug Martin could be a plus. Blount appeared in 13 games last season and carried the ball 41 times for 151 yards – a significant drop from his 184 carries for 781 yards in 2011 and his career-high 201 carries for 1,007 yards in 2010. Martin won the starting job before the season, and the rookie’s 1,454 rushing yards that followed have secured his place as the Bucs’ back of the future. However, returning Blount for a change-of-pace option could be a smart short-term move.
Daniel Te’o-Nesheim (defensive end) – He became a surprise contributor last season, earning 40 tackles and four sacks. A starter in 14 games, Te’o-Nesheim made the most of his chance last season after replacing Adrian Clayborn (season-ending right knee injury). Signed from the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad in November 2011, Te’o-Nesheim showed through his experience that chance comes at unexpected times in the league. (Before last season, Te’o-Nesheim played in a combined seven career games with the Eagles and Bucs.) Dominik has said he will explore different options to keep the 6-foot-3, 263-pound Washington product, though it could take some creative maneuvering.
Which free agents can the Bucs afford to let go?
Ronde Barber (safety) – He’s a veteran leader, yes, someone who would offer a model for younger colleagues if he chooses to return for a 17th season. But eventually, Tampa Bay must move on from the Barber era. If the process starts this offseason, the development can be part of a restructuring of their secondary. Soon, the Bucs will learn how much more Barber, 37, has left in him. Officials were expected to meet with him this week to gauge his interest. If he returns, Barber could be asked to take a lesser role on the defense – to make room for the development of younger talent. Mark Barron, an Alabama product, was taken in the first round – seventh overall – last year as a possible face of the future at the position. Certainly, the organization would welcome Barber back if he chooses to return. But the Bucs will look for ways to fix their most glaring area of need if he doesn’t.
Roscoe Parrish (wide receiver) – He was primarily used on punt returns in his only season with the Bucs, after seven years with the Buffalo Bills. Parrish was brought in to replace Jordan Shipley, who was cut after a muffed punt in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 3. The veteran proved serviceable in the role – he averaged 9.9 yards per return and had a long of 39 – but he’s expendable if Tampa Bay chooses to search for another wide receiver who could add offensive depth. For the first time in his career, Parrish went without a catch last season.
Corvey Irvin (defensive tackle) – He played in a career-high 12 games last season, following two and four with the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively, during his first two seasons in the league. Tampa Bay could look elsewhere, though, to strengthen a pass rush that struggled last season in finishing tied for 29th in sacks with the Kansas City Chiefs. Defensive tackle Roy Miller, also a free agent who had 24 tackles last season, has established himself as a consistent veteran and could be a higher priority.
What are positions of need?
Cornerback – Eric Wright, a marquee free-agent signing last year who appeared in 10 games, has been mentioned as a possible cut after a drama-filled season that included a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. He also failed to make the required amount of offseason workouts and, in many ways, failed to fit first-year coach Greg Schiano’s vision. Other names on roster include Brandon McDonald (24 tackles and one interception in 11 games), Anthony Gaitor (seven tackles in four games) and Leonard Johnson (41 tackles and three interceptions). Along with the safety position, this is the greatest area of need for a defense looking to boost its profile against the pass.
Safety – Like the cornerback position, this is a thin area for the Bucs. Barber’s decision to leave, retire or return for another season in Tampa Bay will help dictate how the franchise approaches the area. Other notable talent on roster includes Ahmad Black (36 tackles and two interceptions in 16 games) and Mark Barron (88 tackles in 16 games). Should he choose to return, Barber would be welcomed back to mentor those younger around him. Don’t be surprised to see some movement in this area to help strengthen one of the defense’s largest weaknesses last season.
Defensive line – Simply, the pass rush must improve. Yes, the Bucs were solid against the run – they led the league by allowing 82.5 yards per game last season – but pressuring the quarterback remained an issue. Bennett and Te’o-Nesheim should be free-agency priorities, and both would help in this area moving forward. Two-year defensive end Da’Quan Bowers (three sacks in 10 games last season) is still developing, as is McCoy, a three-year veteran.
Who are potential top free-agent targets?
Brent Grimes (cornerback) – He has 254 tackles and 13 in six seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. He played a career-low one game last fall due to an Achilles injury, but he could be an intriguing option should the Falcons fail to re-sign the 2010 Pro Bowl selection.
Sean Smith (cornerback) – He has 210 tackles and five interceptions in four seasons with the Miami Dolphins. At 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, he’s long and athletic and could provide the Bucs’ secondary with versatility.
Kenny Phillips (safety) – He has 263 tackles and eight interceptions in five seasons with the New York Giants. Phillips, 26, could serve as a veteran influence to younger teammates in the secondary.
William Moore (safety) – He has 203 tackles and 11 interceptions in four seasons with the Falcons. At age 27, he could add instant depth to the secondary.
Richard Seymour (defensive tackle) – He’s a 12-year veteran, so the former New England Patriot and Oakland Raider could be tapped as a short-term pass-rush solution. He had three sacks in eight games with the Raiders last season, a year after earning six while playing a full season in silver and black.
Which free agents should be avoided?
LaRon Landry (safety) – At first glance, the former longtime Washington Redskins player looks like a solid buy. He had 99 tackles and two interceptions last season, his first with the New York Jets after spending five campaigns within the Beltway. But can the 28-year-old be trusted to stay healthy? Last season was the first time he played more than nine games in a single year since 2009, when he appeared in 15. How long will his renaissance last?
Mike Jenkins (cornerback) – The five-year veteran underwent reconstructive surgery for a separated right shoulder in January 2012. He had a career-low 14 tackles last fall and no interceptions for the first time in his NFL tenure. The Bucs need a healthy, sure thing signing at this position. Jenkins falls short of that standard.
Glenn Dorsey (defensive end) – Where to begin? He’s one of the largest busts in recent memory. The former fifth overall pick has been criticized for his lax work ethic and lack of self-discipline. He became damaged goods for the Kansas City Chiefs last season, appearing in a career-low four games. He only has four sacks over a five-year career. The Bucs need a pass rusher, not a gamble. Stay away. Stay far, far away.