A Return To Discipline
In case you spent the 2012 football season under a rock there’s a new sheriff in
Tampa. Greg Schiano brought his fiery brand of Jersey football to town and in one year has turned around
a culture of immaturity and unprofessionalism.
A 7-9 record and second straight last place finish do not properly
represent the direction in which this franchise is moving. Accountability is once again en vogue. This is a team that lost only three games by
more than seven points and had just the one no-show in week fifteen at New Orleans. I don’t like the way they finished the
season, losing five of their last six, but I don’t think this was a team that
just mailed it in; see the finale in Atlanta.
Agree with it or not, Schiano’s rough, borderline dirty handling of the kneel down in
York put the Bucs back on the football radar. People were talking about
again, and not in the dismissive manner in which they’ve been covered in recent
years. This was a defense that became
the first team since the merger to go from worst to first against the run. On the
other side of the ball, the offense finished ninth overall despite playing most
of the season without their two best linemen.
It’s not all rainbows and unicorns though in
Tampa. As good as the run defense was, the pass
defense was equally putrid. No one gave
up more yards through the air than the Bucs.
Aqib Talib was traded away, and Eric Wright looked like the free agent
bust most figured he’d be after his agent suckered Mark Dominik. And despite the impressive quantitative
stats, Josh Freeman has yet to ascend to the next level of NFL passers we had
hoped he’d be by the conclusion of his fourth season.
Time to look forward to what the Bucs can do to continue their upward climb and growth in Schiano’s second season. Last year’s draft netted the team three solid building blocks in Mark Barron, Doug Martin, and Lavonte David, with the latter two already establishing themselves as standouts. Prior to drafting those three rookies, the Bucs made big waves in free agency with Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks. The former proved to be well worth the pick up, establish himself as Freeman’s surefire #1 receiver and allowing Mike Williams to settle into a better-suited role of #2. Nicks may have missed a large portion of the season, but no one thinks he’s no longer one of, if not the best at his position.
Here’s my position by position look at the current state of the Bucs and my preferred options in both free agency in the draft. With the Bucs in good cap shape with a cushion greater than $30 million and seven draft picks, they will have plenty of resources with which to take another step forward in improving the roster. That cap space will increase even more after the Bucs deal with Quincy Black and Eric Wright. Even though I expect them to be active in free agency, I’m sure some of that cap room will be reserved for future extensions for guys like Josh Freeman, Mike Williams, and Gerald McCoy.
What an awful year to need a quarterback. I know the Bucs want to upgrade over Orlovsky, but next to no one in free agency or the draft excites me. Matt Moore would have been the only free agent I’d be interested in, but he just resigned with
. David Carr is available and familiar with Mike
Sullivan. I suggested Carr as an option
in free agency last year, and I’ll do so again without much enthusiasm. There simply, understandably, aren’t many attractive options in free agency. Miami
This draft class is weak too. Call me prejudiced, but EJ Manuel is the guy I like the most now that he doesn’t have Jimbo in his brain. And the Bucs would probably have to take him at #43 which probably isn’t the best move given their other needs. Another guy I believe has upside and would be worth a look is Matt Scott. He’s this year’s Russell Wilson; a dual threat quarterback who is “undersized”. Word is he’s climbing fast, and I can’t see the Bucs spending a third round pick on him.
The best value the Bucs may find is Zac Dysert in the fourth or fifth round. What stands out most to me with him is his confidence and how he looks to have some of that “it” factor that everyone wants in a quarterback. He’s far from complete as a quarterback, but I think he’s got a lot to work with. Dysert is an athletic guy who throws well on the run. He puts too much air under a lot of his passes which is correctable. He also threw a lot of timing plays in college, but he does a nice job of seeing the whole field. He’s not a dual threat guy but can pick up yards with his legs. He doesn’t look like Tom Brady when he tucks it and runs.
I think most of the quarterbacks in the draft simply will be what they are now – nothing special, good in some areas, horribly lacking in others. Assuming 2013 is more of the same Freeman, I’d wait until next year to make QB a top priority, and Teddy Bridgewater and Tajh Boyd are the two I’m highest on.
This coming season is obviously a big one for Freeman. He doesn’t deserve a long term commitment from the Bucs at this time, but if he does enough next season for that to be the preferred option, he’s going to be very expensive to retain. I want to see some serious development as a leader before I hand him a ton of cash for one solid season. Let’s say that 2013 is a lot like 2012. Fans feelings aside, I think the Bucs would look to keep him. As we all know it’s not easy to find a franchise QB. Look how long the 49ers stuck with Alex Smith. Sometimes what you’ve got is better than nothing, and that’s kind of where I think we’re going with Freeman.
Despite their claims/desire for it to be so, I don’t see the Bucs’ depth chart behind Freeman looking more inspiring than last year’s.
Free Agent Targets
Welcome to the NFL Doug Martin. Lost in all the rookie QB hype was the tremendous first season by the back from
. Martin became just the second player in NFL
history to rush for 250 plus yards and four touchdowns in a game, both
franchise single game records. He also
became the first player in league history to score on runs of 70 plus, 65 plus,
and 45 plus yards in a game. That Raider
routing wasn’t his only highlight. He
finished the year with 1,454 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns with another 472
yards coming on 49 receptions out of the backfield. As I mentioned earlier, he did most of this without the services of his two best blockers for most of the season. Boise State
Obviously the Bucs don’t need to find a starter, but they should focus on upgrading the depth behind Martin. Sucker Punch, unsurprisingly, proved to be useless once again. I feel like I’ve said this a thousand times, but he brings nothing to the table other than a body to spell Martin. He’s still an indecisive ball carrier and runs much more meekly than the guy on whom he has three inches and thirty pounds. SP is a restricted free agent this offseason, but with DJ Ware in-house, I see no reason to spend a dime on retaining the former Duck.
Ware isn’t the thunder to Martin’s lightning, but I believe he’s a better compliment than SP. In fact Ware nearly doubled SP in percentage of snaps this past season and is a far superior pass catcher out of the backfield. In an ideal world Ware would be #3 on the depth chart behind Martin and another back better capable of giving the Bucs a stronger 1-2 punch at the position. Last year’s other rookie rusher, Michael Smith, got as many carries as I did last year and isn’t guaranteed to return. So where can the Bucs get that back up back?
I see a lot of value in a guy like Danny Woodhead who has thrived in a limited touch role, both on the ground and through the air. I also think he’s better in pass protection than the much larger SP. By no means is Woodhead a bruiser that will come in and beat up on the defense, but he can do a lot of damage in scenarios where the Bucs go fast break style after Martin has worn down the opposition; an ideal third down guy.
Chris Ivory has impressed in limited action with the Saints and would be a significant upgrade over SP as a rusher. Unlike the guy that outweighs him by 25 pounds, Ivory actually runs like a big back. He’s been in the league three years, but due to the stacked Saints depth chart, Ivory hasn’t logged a ton of touches. Based on the Saints extending the original round tender (Ivory was an undrafted free agent), the Bucs wouldn’t owe the Saints any compensation should they sign him. (Correction - the Saints ended up tendering Ivory at the second round level; no one is going to touch that.)
Ahmad Bradshaw is another possibility, and like Carr, he has ties to Sullivan. He would be the well-rounded compliment I’m looking for, but he’d have to be humble enough to play the definite two to Martin’s one. Is he ready for that? Of the other realistic options – Reggie Bush isn’t coming here to play second fiddle, Felix Jones is too fragile, Rashad Jennings flopped as MJD’s fallback, and Ronnie Brown has absolutely nothing to offer.
I think the better option is to find Martin’s backup in free agency and use our draft picks on more urgent positions, basically every other position on the roster. Still, if I was looking at the draft for a back, I believe the middle rounds will hold the best value. Christine Michael has plenty of talent, but his baggage is the reason he won’t get drafted high. I see Kenjon Barner as the Buccaneers' version of Darren Sproles. He’d be an electric compliment to Martin, carrying and catching the ball out of the backfield and helping out on returns. Mike Gillislee showed a lot this season. I like him as an oft-utilized backup, capable of keeping the defense on its heels when subbing for Martin. Part of me wants to draft Marcus Lattimore just so I can root for the guy.
Free Agent Targets
As I mentioned earlier, Vincent Jackson was well worth the investment, stepping in with 72 receptions and 8 touchdowns in his first year as Freeman’s #1 target. Mike Williams bounced back with an improved third season, scoring six more touchdowns and tallying 225 more yards than he did in ’11, and doing it as a #2 receiver. As good as Jackson and Williams are, the Bucs need to upgrade their depth, and I’m (still) looking for someone with quickness and reliable hands who can make plays after the catch.
Randall Cobb was my Buccaneer second round projection a couple of years ago, and we see how he’s blossomed as a professional. Imagine the big play opportunities that could open up for Jackson and Williams out wide if the defense had to be more accountable for someone on the interior. I’m not focusing on a receiver who can only function out of the slot, but that’s where any new guy would get the most reps.
Arrelious Benn has yet to seize that opportunity and may have played his last snap as a Buc. The guy can’t get over the injury hump or consistently produce. The lack of roster depth at the position may be the only thing that keeps him with the club next year. Tiquan Underwood should return, given that he’s one of the few speed guys they have, and I think one from Chris Owusu and David Douglas will stick through final cuts. Nothing against them, but we’re probably not in good shape if they’re both on a five man depth chart. I’d let Sammie Stroughter and Roscoe Parrish walk.
Free agency features some big names, but we’re not signing Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings, or Wes Welker. Danny Amendola has the exact skill set I’m looking for as that slot receiver, but I think the Patriots will snatch him up if they don’t resign Welker. Donald Jones has proven to be an effective slot guy with the Bills and would likely be a low risk high reward signing. Of the remaining free agents, I may consider Brandon Gibson as a #4 guy. Donnie Avery drops too many passes, Austin Collie’s injury history is too severe for my liking, and Titus Young is a joke.
I think the draft is where the Bucs have the best chance of finding that guy, and there are a number of rookies I like in the mid-round range. The two that stand out most to me and who are probably my two favorite receivers in the draft are Stedman Bailey and Ryan Swope. If the Bucs are able to address a couple of defensive deficiencies with their first two selections, I’d love for them to land Bailey or Swope with their third or fourth.
I believe that Bailey is horribly underrated having played in Tavon Austin’s shadow at
, and is going to be a huge value pick for
someone. The guy is a terrific route
runner and has two of the best hands in this draft. The knock on him is size, but give me a guy
with an extensive route tree who consistently racks up yards after the
catch. I think Bailey has a really
bright future as a professional. West
Swope is a very similar receiver. Like Bailey, he plays a lot bigger than his size and is a true difference maker. He has tremendous concentration, catches the ball in any spot in the field, and has more long speed than he’s given credit for. I think he will enter this draft undervalued due to most of the focus being on Johnny Manziel this past season. Welker is the lazy comparison for Swope, but I’d argue that Swope is the more aggressive receiver. He has a large catch radius due to skill not arm length, which is something I look for. The ball doesn’t have to be in his chest in order for him to catch it. The guy is simply a football player. Remember how successful the Bucs offense was with Ike Hilliard in the slot? Bailey and Swope are chains movers.
Kenny Stills is my third mid-round receiver. He’s a reliable deep ball guy, due more in part to hands and concentration than speed. He earned a lot of experience at
and his ability to extend for catches would serve him well in the middle of the
Rounding things out – Marquise Goodwin is an unpolished speed guy, and Markus Wheaton can get separation. Tavarres King and Josh Boyce are a couple of other receivers to keep an eye on.
Free Agent Targets
Expectations were low for Dallas Clark entering the year, and he met them, finishing 21st in receptions, 28th in yards, and 17th in TDs at his position. Luke Stocker has yet to develop into a reliable option at the position, and the rest of the depth chart is filler. I’m guessing this is the offensive position that will get the most urgent attention in free agency, and fortunately for the Bucs, this is a strong group from which to choose.
The first free agent I’d pursue would be Martellus Bennett. In his first season as a starter, Bennett ranked 13th in receptions and yards and 10th in TDs by tight ends. His 55 receptions were good for second on the team behind Cruz. Bennett scored in each of his first three games as a Giant, which was a team record, and proved to be a valuable asset to Eli Manning in the red zone. In addition to his breakout season in the passing game, Bennett continued to excel as a run blocker. He’s among the best at his position in that area and would be a huge upgrade there for the Bucs. It’s no secret that Martellus and Michael would like to play/sign together this offseason, so the idea of acquiring Martellus may not work out if the Bucs go about things the way I would. More on that later.
If Bennett isn’t in play, then others I’d look at are Dustin Keller, James Casey, Fred Davis, and Delanie Walker. I like Keller the best of that bunch and expect him to be a lot more productive in a real offense with a real QB. I think he may be the most undervalued tight end in free agency. He and Bennett are my clear favorites. Casey’s an intriguing option with versatility, and Davis, a guy I liked for the Bucs last offseason, has a lot to prove coming off his Achilles injury.
isn’t going to do a ton of damage in the passing game, but he’d be a huge
upgrade in the blocking department. Walker
I didn’t mention Jared Cook, the Titan who may fetch the largest contract among this group. He’s still more potential than production at this point, due in part to the shaky QB play during his tenure in Tennessee, and I’d rather let someone else make him rich and hope he develops into they guy they’re paying him to be. Given the number of tight ends on the market, if the Bucs don’t land one, it will likely be because they don’t want one.
Tyler Eifert and Zach Ertz are the clear leaders of this draft class, but I wouldn’t spend a first round pick on either one and neither is likely to be there the next time
chooses. Vance McDonald is impressive, but I don’t
think he’ll make it to the Bucs’ third round pick. Gavin Escobar failed to step up in Indy, so I
probably wouldn’t feel comfortable surrendering the necessary pick to get
The most realistic options I see are Dion Sims and Chris Gragg. Sims is a great blocker with a lot of potential as a receiver, and I see Gragg as a guy who can create mismatches with his speed. I’d like to see the Bucs sign one of the free agents I listed above and spend a draft pick on the position as well with a strong lean to Sims due to his skills as a blocker. A healthy offensive line along with two major blocker upgrades at tight end would boost an already thriving run game.
Free Agent Targets
Getting guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph back healthy for training camp will be like two huge new signings due to the Bucs spending most of last year without them. Nicks joined Vincent Jackson as
’s huge free agent
gets last season, but he went down for good with a toe injury after seven
games. Joseph missed the entire season
with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee.
A healthy Nicks at left guard allows Jeremy Zuttah to slide back to center where he’s an upgrade over Ted Larsen. Donald Penn will return at left tackle, and while he’s been known for his hot and cold performances, he’s going to be relatively inexpensive over the next three years if he can maintain his level of play. Demar Dotson took the right tackle job from Jeremy Trueblood and never looked back, which should effectively end Trueblood’s career as a Buccaneer.
With the Bucs solid within and financially committed to the interior, the tackle position is the one area where I’d look for them to spend resources. I doubt it will be in free agency, but if I had a blank check, Sebastian Vollmer would get my money. He’d start right away on the right side and could give them a fallback on the left side should they decide to move
Dare I suggest Gosder Cherilus, another
former Penn. tackle, as a free agent option
for the right side? Boston College
When looking at the draft, I think there’s only one realistic target in the first round. With Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher seemingly top ten locks, Lane Johnson is the probably the only top tier tackle with the possibility of being there at #13. A former quarterback and tight end, Johnson may have the highest upside of this year’s class of tackles due in part to his impressive technique despite such little experience at the position. He also has longer arms than Joeckel and Fisher if you’re into that stuff. Johnson would be awfully tough to pass up should he be on the board when the Bucs are on the clock.
There’s a good bit of potential in the next tier of pass protectors as well in guys like Menelik Watson, Terron Armstead, and Kyle Long. I think Watson ends up a surprise round one pick as the fourth tackle taken in the opening round. Armstead and Long both displayed a ton of athleticism at the Combine. The former is shaping up as a small school lottery ticket, while the latter is looking to continue the Long line of pros.
Free Agent Targets
I already mentioned how solid the Bucs were against the run, but they were again among the league’s worst in getting to the passer; only the Jaguars and Raiders had less sacks. League leaders
Denver and St. Louis nearly doubled ’s
total 52 to 27. Not helping the Bucs’ 2013
outlook is the fact that Michael Bennett, owner of a third of those sacks, is
an unrestricted free agent. I don’t want
to sound entirely like Chicken Little though because I think scheme and poor
coverage played a big role in the lack of sacks. Hopefully that isn’t the case this coming
season. Tampa Bay
Adrian Clayborn saw only three games last year before going down with a knee injury. He and Bowers, the Bucs’ top ’11 draft picks, combined for less sacks than restricted free agent Daniel Te’o-Nesheim. Will Clayborn be healthy? Will Bowers avoid prison? I don’t want to pay him like he’s Jared Allen, but Bennett has a lot of leverage with the Bucs. Maybe too much.
I might get flamed for this, but it may be in
best interest to let Bennett walk.
Someone is going to pay, and pay dearly, for his nine sack season. Aside from Cliff Avril, there isn’t another
pass rusher on the market that will command the years and therefore dollars
that Bennett will. Before his big year,
Bennett had seven sacks in three seasons.
Are we that sure he’s going to continue progressing into one of the
league’s best? Because that’s how we’d
have to pay him to retain him. I
mentioned the poor pass rush situation above, but I’m not convinced that the
Bucs are better in the long run by opening the vault for Bennett. I’m not saying let him go; just don’t
absolutely keep him. Tampa Bay
Could they pick up another pass rusher in free agency? If they don’t retain Bennett they’re not going to sign Avril, and I don’t have interest in Dwight Freeney or Osi Umenyiora. Avril will command more than Bennett, and the latter two are more reputation than substance at this point.
John Abraham would be the one “name” end I’d pursue. He’ll be 35 before the season starts and is projected to decline every year, but he’s tallied 32.5 sacks over the last three seasons. One of the better pass rushers of this era as a mentor for Clayborn and Bowers, on a short deal? Sign me up. I’d take him on a two or three year deal, front loaded, rather than dig deep for Bennett.
I see one guy out there who’d be a really sneaky addition – William Hayes. He doesn’t get a lot of recognition in
behind Chris Long and Robert Quinn, but he notched seven sacks this past season
and is very strong against the run. He’s
arguably been as productive as Bennett and would cost considerably less to
acquire. I like his speed and believe
he’d give the Bucs a valuable nickel rusher at a reasonable rate. St. Louis
At tackle Gerald McCoy had the best season of his three to date and made the Pro Bowl. With him showing what we hope is stability at the defensive tackle position, the Bucs need to look to upgrade at the nose. Roy Miller is a two-down run stopper who, like Bennett, is headed for free agency. He should be cheap to retain, but I’d look at other options first. And that first call would go to Vance Walker, a guy who would probably cost as much as it would to retain Miller but who, unlike Miller, doesn’t come off the field on third down.
would be a fine addition to the tackle
rotation. Terrance Knighton of the
Jaguars is the other free agent tackle I’d look at before I gave Miller a lot
of money. Walker
When I look at defensive linemen in the draft, a guy that jumps out to me as tremendous value is Tank Carradine. Yes, another Nole. I’ve been doing this for a while now, and this is easily the draft with the most Noles I’ll be hyping. Feels nice for a change. Carradine may end up as the best pro from this class of FSU defensive linemen, and that includes Bjoern Werner and Brandon Jenkins. An ACL injury late in the year is the only reason he’s not a first rounder, and the Bucs should be doing backflips to the podium if Carradine is there at #43. He shows impressive skill as a pass rusher for someone with his limited experience but has the size, strength, hands, and feet to be a big time contributor at the next level; huge upside.
Margus Hunt, a mountain of a man from SMU, has been extremely impressive pre-draft. Big, strong, and fast, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone grabbed him late in R1. You don’t hear a lot about it, but I think he can play end in a 4-3. He’d also give the Bucs scheme flexibility as a 5-technique should they employ three man fronts. Devin Taylor from
has a lot
of size and speed to work with, and Armonty Bryant is a small school guy with
impressive measurables and athletic ability. South Carolina
At defensive tackle, you can stop holding your breath that Sharrif Floyd will be there at #13, but Star Lotulelei may turn into a day one steal for the Bucs. Before the Combine, Lotulelei was generally thought to be a top five pick, but that doesn’t appear to be the case any longer. He’s not the penetrator / pass rusher that Floyd or even Sheldon Richardson is at this point, but that’s something he can, and I believe will, develop. When you watch him play, his strength and short area quickness are impossible to ignore, and there wasn’t a tougher collegiate player to move out of a gap than Lotulelei. Bennie Logan has impressive speed for a defensive tackle and would be a nice R3 find, but he’ll likely go between Buccaneer picks. Brandon Williams is a small school guy who has impressed when mixed with the big school dudes. He looks to have some versatility skill-wise on the interior.
Free Agent Targets
Lavonte David was everything the Bucs could have asked for as a rookie, leading the team in tackles and looking like a future All Pro. As well as Mason Foster played last season I’m still not convinced he and the entire defense wouldn’t be better off with him at SLB. That may happen considering Quincy Black’s tenuous future after that serious back injury. Do the Bucs roll with either Dekoda Watson or Najee Goode on the strong side, do they fill the spot with a free agent or draft pick, or do they find a MLB and move Foster over there? Ideally they’d acquire a three down MLB who more than holds his own in coverage. That’s easier said than done though.
The one free agent I’d like to see the Bucs pursue is Philip Wheeler. He played the strong side in
and would be an
ideal addition next to David and Foster.
Wheeler is a plus blitzer which would help remedy the Bucs’ pass rush
woes. In addition, he’s developed into a
reliable coverage linebacker, finishing near the top in his position in passes
defended over the last two seasons.
Securing Wheeler would solidify the starting linebacker trio and allow
the Bucs to spend their draft picks on other positions. Daryl Smith is the other free agent I’d be
interested in. He brings some position
flexibility but injury history as well. Oakland
The draft isn’t loaded with MLB options, and I’m absolutely against bringing in Manti Te’o and his drama. Something still doesn’t smell right about that whole soap opera, and I’d rather it finish playing out elsewhere. He’s either dumber than a box of rocks, or he’s a pathological manipulator. Neither one is a checkmark in the positives column. Alex Ogletree is a hell of an athlete, but his plethora of red flags will certainly have the Bucs passing on him.
I like Khaseem Greene, but he looks like a WLB; don’t need one of those. If the Bucs don’t sign Wheeler in free agent, a potential R3 target that intrigues me is Sean Porter. He was asked to do a lot of different things at Texas A&M and did them well. He’s already a strong blitzer and showed impressive cover skills as a college linebacker. My main question is whether or not he can gain more bulk without losing his speed and quickness. I didn’t mention Arthur Brown because I think he could go late R1 or very early R2, but I love his make up. My final linebacker list will probably be pretty short because I’m not interested in another late round flier.
Free Agent Targets
Here’s where it gets ugly. I’ve already mentioned Wright’s putridity. The best thing he did was gets busted for PEDs which nullified the remaining guaranteed money on his deal. I don’t care who else is or isn’t on the roster. There’s no reason for him to return next year, even at a reduced rate.
I liked Leonard Johnson being brought in as an undrafted free agent, and he ended up bring the Bucs most productive corner last season. He had a heck of a year, but in an ideal world he’s your #3 guy. I’m not a huge EJ Biggers fan, but I think they’ll bring him back. I’d like to see him backing up two new starting boundary corners. I still like Anthony Gaitor, but he tops out as a nickel or dime guy. Everyone else need not report to training camp. Where will the Bucs turn for help?
Fortunately, there are quite a few options in free agency this year, and if what I’ve been reading is true, that’s where the Bucs will look to solve their coverage woes. Sean Smith, Brent Grimes, Cary Williams, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and former Buccaneer Aqib Talib headline a deep corner class. Of that bunch, Smith is the clear corner to target based on performance and fit. When you go up against physical receivers like Roddy, Julio, Colston, Graham, and Smith twice a year, the former Dolphin is exactly the type of cover man you need – big, athletic, physical.
I don’t want to frown at an obvious upgrade of a shoddy situation, but I’d hate to throw a lot of dollars at Smith if that’s going to preclude the Bucs from acquiring other necessary upgrades; kind of like the Bennett situation. Grimes will be had for less, but that’s because he’s coming off the Achilles injury and the fact that he’s four years older than Smith. Given the severity of the situation, even if the Bucs do land Smith or Grimes, they’ve got to pursue a second tier corner as well, especially if they aren’t eyeing one at #13.
As I mentioned recently on BucsChat.com, there are a few lesser known corners I’d like the Bucs to go after this offseason. That list starts with Greg Toler and Keenan Lewis. Toler has starting experience and would be a fine fit for Schiano’s press man coverage. He’s the guy that could end up being the best value signing in all of free agency in my opinion. I targeted Lewis for the Bucs back in the ’09 draft. He got his chance to start this season in
and didn’t disappoint. Brice McCain is
my other under-the-radar free agent worth pursuing and would give the Bucs a
solid nickel corner. Toler and Lewis
alone would be significant upgrades, but if they could snag Smith or Grimes to
go along with one of those two, then last year’s pass defense futility should quickly
become a distant memory.
If the Bucs do find their starters in free agency, then it will be very unlikely for them to spend the 13th overall pick on another corner. That would likely mean that rather than Xavier Rhodes and Desmond Trufant in round one, the Bucs could focus on guys like Logan Ryan, Darius Slay, Dwayne Gratz, and Will Davis later in the draft. Even if the Bucs do sign a couple of veterans, I’d still like to take a corner at some point in the draft. Should free agency not work out as expected, I’d think Rhodes or Trufant would be in their crosshairs at #13. I see
as an ideal fit, giving the Bucs a big, physical corner with the speed and
cover skills to be a #1 guy and effective counter to the big, physical
receivers within the division.
Ok, how about safety? Strong safety Mark Barron’s rookie year wasn’t quite as impactful as most had hoped when the Bucs took him with the 7th overall pick, but I believe that had more to do with the talent around him than his own performance. If the Bucs can get it together at corner, Barron’s impact will be more evident.
Ronde Barber had a heck of a season in his first at free safety and is once again deciding whether or not to continue his career. If you believe Tiki, Ronde wants to keep playing. I hope he chooses to return because, even at almost 37 years of age, he ended up being one of the more productive players at the position. He also helped out at corner when the situation got really bad.
Ahmad Black shined when called upon and would return as nice depth behind Barber. As I said when they drafted him, I like Keith Tandy at free safety more than corner, and I’d like to see him step up as a contributor this season. Having another year for both Black and Tandy to learn from Barber would be a plus. If Barber doesn’t return, I don’t believe the Bucs will be active suitors of Dashon Goldson or Louis Delmas and will instead go with what they have.
Free Agent Targets
As I mentioned earlier, the Bucs will have over $30 million in cap room at the start of free agency; more if/when they clear Black’s and Wright’s commitments. I expect them to put that money to use early, with two corners and tight end signed quickly. Explore signing Abraham or Hayes over retaining Bennett. Re-up Barber, Biggers, and Teo-Nesheim, and then look for a strong side linebacker and #2 running back. Here’s a summary of my free agency preferences:
DL – John Abraham or William Hayes, Vance Walker, Daniel Teo-Nesheim
TE – Martellus Bennett or Dustin Keller
CB – Sean Smith or Brent Grimes and Greg Toler or Keenan Lewis
S – Ronde Barber
LB – Philip Wheeler
RB – Danny Woodhead or Chris Ivory
QB – David Carr
After plugging as many holes as possible in free agency, look for the Bucs to build upon the foundation with a draft focusing on the defensive line, secondary, and offensive skill position depth. I’m not entirely done evaluating this year’s class (especially linebacker), but here’s my Buccaneer mock draft with my preferred pick listed first.
Star Lotulelei (DT,
Xavier Rhodes (CB, FSU)
Tank Carradine (DE, FSU)
Brandon Williams (DT,
Southern State) Missouri
Ryan Swope (WR,
Dwayne Gratz (CB,
Sean Porter (LB,
Will Davis (CB, Utah St)
Stedman Bailey (WR,
Christine Michael (RB,
Dion Sims (TE,
Zac Dysert (QB,
Terry Hawthorne (CB,
Kenjon Barner (RB,
Armonty Bryant (DE, E
Melvin White (CB/FS, Louisiana-Lafayette)
If I can assume the Bucs at least add two corners and a tight end in free agency, I think this draft would compliment that activity well. They’d get two defensive linemen with the potential to dominate, a receiver who brings something to the team that’s missing entirely, another corner with the starting potential, a strong tight end with pass catching upside, an explosive change of pace back, and a developmental corner/safety.
The Bucs should be in good shape if this offseason’s activities resemble the flurry and success of last year’s. The draft is still more than a month away, but free agents will begin changing teams in less than a week. Hopefully a few of those guys will be wearing the red and pewter this coming season.