Free agency review: Bucs’ overhaul shows Lovie Smith’s plan in action
TAMPA, Fla. — A joke has traveled throughout the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ media room in recent days, one that rings true for these changing times.
”There’s a reason they got new uniforms. They would have had to change all the names on the back anyway.”
Sounds about right, doesn’t it?
Goodbye, Donald Penn. Hello, Anthony Collins. Goodbye, Davin Joseph. Hello, Evan Dietrich-Smith. Goodbye, Darrelle Revis. Hello, Alterraun Verner.
And on. And on. And on.
If you’re counting heads at home, coach Lovie Smith has gone all Black Friday in March to the tune of signing 10 players in free agency. To make room for the newbies, of course, there had to be some notable departures. That’s where ex-Bucs like Penn, Joseph and Revis — with eight Pro Bowls between them — fit into this makeover/spending spree/departure from the old.
”I definitely would say that we’re not trying to build anything slowly,” Smith said. ”It’s not about rebuilding or anything like that. We want to put a better football team on the field next year, and in order to do that you can’t stand pat. For us, we knew we had to improve. We’re a 4-12 team, so we knew we had to look into all areas to improve. Luckily, we had flexibility to do that, and then we had players that seemed like a perfect fit for what we wanted to do.”
Got it? Good. Because chances are, the Bucs aren’t done wheeling and dealing just yet.
Here’s a full offseason overview as free agency heads into its second week.
QB Josh McCown (two years, $10 million)
Move over, Mike Glennon. McCown’s reunion with Smith means the Bucs will have a new starter next fall. The two-year deal is appropriate for a 34-year-old who had served as Jay Cutler’s No. 2 with the Chicago Bears in the 2011 and 2013 seasons. McCown will arrive, serve and help set the foundation of Smith’s plan before becoming a bridge to … someone.
Who will be the Bucs’ quarterback of the future? It’s hard to see McCown playing the role, that same former journeyman who has started more than six games in a season just once since 2005 (nine with the Oakland Raiders in 2007). His veteran eye and familiarity with Smith will be assets for both men in their early partnership. But the Bucs should dream about three, four, five years into the future behind center.
DE Michael Johnson (five years, $43.75 million)
The Bucs are banking on Johnson to do one thing: Make quarterbacks’ lives miserable. Rinse. Repeat.
It’s no secret that Smith needs pressure from the defensive line to make his zone-centric philosophy work. Johnson, who’s an imposing 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, is an intriguing pickup given his age (27) and potential (high).
He had a career-high 11½ sacks for the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2012 season, and he has 26½ sacks throughout his five-year career, to complement his 202 tackles, 25 passes defensed, three interceptions and three forced fumbles. One reason for pause: He only had 3½ sacks last year, when offenses keyed on him after he became known as a beast up front. He must do more.
CB Alterraun Verner (four years, $25.75 million)
Here, the Bucs received Pro Bowl value at a bargain-shopping price tag. Verner is no Darrelle Revis — who is? — but he has delicious upside as a Cover-2 corner: 288 tackles, 50 passes defensed, 11 interceptions and two forced fumbles in four seasons with the Tennessee Titans.
Verner’s addition, to date, is the savviest signing by Smith and new general manager Jason Licht. The cutting of Revis was understandable, even if it stung a bit, given his $16 million-a-year paycheck. But Verner is the right man for the right position in Smith’s defense.
OT Anthony Collins (five years, $30 million)
Bottom line: Collins is an upgrade over Donald Penn. Pass protection was an issue for the Bucs last year, when they allowed 47 sacks, which ranked 27th in the league. Penn allowed 12 of those, which is why Smith and Licht looked elsewhere to protect McCown’s blind side.
Collins has the physical tools to do the job. At 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, he played in 59 games with 25 starts in six years with Cincinnati. He allowed no sacks, only one quarterback hit and 12 quarterback hurries last season in 586 pass attempts for the Bengals’ Andy Dalton.
DT Clinton McDonald (four years, $12 million)
The Bucs want more than a big, burly run-plugger at defensive tackle, and McDonald has a chance to be that guy. He has 99 tackles and 5½ sacks, all with the Seattle Seahawks last season, throughout his four-year career. That sack number is crucial, though, because Smith wants him to pressure the quarterback as well as clog the middle.
C/G Evan Dietrich-Smith (four years, $14.25 million)
Dietrich-Smith can play either guard or center, so the versatility helps. Expect him to receive looks at both positions. His addition showed how aggressive Smith and Licht were about taking a wrecking ball to the Bucs’ offensive line and building it anew. Dietrich-Smith has played in 61 games with 25 starts in his five-year career, most with the Green Bay Packers, so he’ll need a change in wardrobe as well.
TE Brandon Myers (two years, $4.25 million)
Myers is an interesting signing, given Tim Wright’s success at this position last year. Myers’ best season came with the Raiders in 2012, when he had 79 catches for 806 yards and four touchdowns. A five-year veteran, he had 522 yards receiving with four touchdowns last year as part of the New York Giants.
LB Dane Fletcher (one year, $1.2 million)
The former New England Patriots player has 81 tackles in 38 games during his four-year career. He’s expected to be a special-teams ace, after leading New England with 15 tackles on the unit last season. He could also receive occasional defensive snaps, much like Dekoda Watson before the Florida State product bolted for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
G Oniel Cousins (one year, veteran minimum)
Cousins is a prototypical depth piece on the offensive line. He has played in 59 games with nine starts since entering the league with the Baltimore Ravens in 2008. He had four starts with the Cleveland Browns last season.
LS Jeremy Cain (contract information unavailable)
Cain’s addition likely spells the end of Andrew Economos’ time with the Bucs. Economos was the longest-tenured Tampa Bay player, with the team since the 2006 season. But Cain appeared in each game for the Jaguars from 2009-2012 and has plenty of experience at the position since entering the league with the Bears in 2004.
LB Jonathan Casillas (one year, N/A)
Wise move by the Bucs to bring back Casillas. He served well in mostly a reserve role at linebacker, earning 35 tackles, two passes defensed and one forced fumble. He played in 12 games and started four.
G/OT Jamon Meredith (two years, $2.7 million)
One of the few survivors of the Great Offensive Line Purge, Meredith can play either guard or tackle. A five-year veteran, he has played in 30 games (20 starts) in two seasons with Tampa Bay.
Michael Johnson. If Johnson is worth the hype, he will fit a need as glaring as the noon sun. Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers, as written time and time again, have fallen short of proving themselves as effective rushers. The Bucs are in desperate need of an elite terror on the edge, because something is wrong when your best rush comes from the middle (tackle Gerald McCoy had 9 ½ sacks last season). Johnson has the chance to make a weakness their strength.
WR Louis Murphy. Offensive line, defense, quarterback. The Bucs have burned through the top shelf of the free-agent market, but they must address their wide receiver depth soon. Outside of Vincent Jackson, there are many questions facing them, including two big ones: How will Mike Williams play after so many off-the-field headlines? And what will Smith and Licht do about their wide-open No. 3 spot? Murphy could be a decent addition here. The five-year veteran, who played for the New York Giants last season, has 1,744 yards receiving with eight touchdowns since joining the league with the Raiders. He visited with the Bucs on Tuesday.
CB Darrelle Revis (released, saving $16 million)
When you say the following 10 words without context, ”The Bucs cut five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis,” the move sounds nuts, wild, crazy. But his release shows no one man, or no one ”island,” is above the massive overhaul underway at One Buc Place.
Revis did plenty of good with Tampa Bay, despite the fact he wasn’t at full strength most of the year because of his healing left knee: 50 tackles, 11 passes defensed, two interceptions, two forced fumbles. Above all, he was a deterrent for skittish quarterbacks. But his $16 million contract was way, way too much with so many other holes to plug.
LB Dekoda Watson (three years, $6.25 million)
Watson was a strong special-teams presence and serviceable on defense when called upon, earning 106 tackles with one interception and two forced fumbles in his four years with the Bucs. Still, by signing Fletcher, the Bucs receive a comparable player at a fraction of the cost. That’s smart economics.
FB Erik Lorig (four years, $4.8 million)
This one hurts a bit. Lorig was a solid blocking fullback in his four seasons with the Bucs, and when asked to catch, he had 193 yards receiving with one touchdown on 30 receptions. The Bucs wanted to keep him, and losing him to a division foe, where he’ll become a new toy for New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, adds to the sting.
LB Adam Hayward (three years, $3 million)
Hayward was known for his special-teams contributions and durability. He earned eight tackles on special teams last season, and he missed just five games in seven years with the Bucs. But there was no need for them to pay $3 million over three years for him.
G Ted Larsen (two years, $2.6 million)
Larsen started a career-high 13 games in 2012, but he received the starting nod only four times last season. The Bucs aren’t short on offensive line skill after their March facelift. They’ll be fine.
OT Donald Penn (released, saving $7.5 million)
He was blunt, honest and a workhorse who, before his release, started 108 consecutive games for the Bucs. But there was a brutal number that stuck out like a neon sign when the new regime popped in game film to study him: 12 sacks allowed last season. Can’t have that. Not at his price.
G Davin Joseph (released, saving $6 million)
The two-time Pro Bowl guard wasn’t the same last season. It’s a shame, given how strong he was before he sustained a gruesome right knee injury in the 2012 preseason that kept him out that fall. The new regime saw opportunity to build elsewhere, and it’s not hard to blame them.
Darrelle Revis. This is the ”worst loss” only in the sense that it should make Smith and Licht cringe a bit to part ways with such an elite player. Yes, Revis wasn’t willing to lower his price. Yes, his contract didn’t fit with the new regime’s plans. Yes, this marriage never would have worked out given the factors involved. But when Revis stars for the Patriots next season in their chase to catch the Denver Broncos, presumably on a healthier knee, all Bucs fans should take a second to ask, ”What if?”
Davin Joseph. Teammates and media will miss him. He was a smart voice that offered depth during some of the most traumatic moments of a wild, bizarre 2013 season. But the Bucs’ reconstruction on the offensive line had to start somewhere, and their release of Joseph before free agency signaled the start of major, needed change. Joseph became one of the best the Bucs had to offer, before his unfortunate knee injury changed his career. Moving on was the right call.