Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6 Biggest Offseason Decisions
At 6-9 and in the midst of a five-game losing streak, we know that the Buccaneers will be one of 20 teams that will miss postseason action this season. It will be their fifth consecutive season of missing the playoffs, after qualifying seven times in an 11-year stretch from 1997-2007.
While the team improved from their disastrous 4-12 mark of 2011, Bucs fans are no less disappointed with how this season has unfolded and have already begun the process of looking ahead to the offseason.
The organization has several important decisions to make regarding the immediate and long term direction of the franchise. Everything from free agency and the draft, to contract extensions and personnel decisions has left their itinerary jam-packed with critical choices.
With that in mind, here are the six biggest offseason decisions the Bucs will have to make in 2013.
6. Re-Sign or Release Defensive End Michael Bennett
At just 27 years of age, defensive end Michael Bennett leads the Bucs with nine sacks this season and is scheduled to become a free agent this spring.
During his time with Tampa Bay, Bennett has 15 sacks in 27 career starts over four seasons. While the Bucs have notoriously struggled in getting to opposing quarterbacks of late, Bennett has accounted for 13 of the teams 58 sacks over the last two seasons, or roughly 22 percent.
In other words, his play has been pivotal to the limited success the Bucs have had at getting after quarterbacks.
Working against his chances of staying is the fact that the Bucs are relatively loaded at the position, as Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers are both still near the beginning of long-term deals and are several years younger than Bennett.
If Bennett were to hit the open market, there would likely be heavy competition for his services, so the Bucs have a big decision to make in the coming weeks regarding their most-consistent pass rusher.
5. Keep or Cut Cornerback Eric Wright
As you may recall, Wright came to the Bucs on the opening night of free agency in March after reaching an agreement on a deal that totaled $37.5 million over five years.
Of that, $15 million was guaranteed and was to be paid out over the first two years of the deal. In essence, the Bucs could essentially cut Wright after the second season without having to pay a cap penalty.
However, that all changed as soon as Wright was suspended last month after testing positive for Adderall. According to language in his contract, the Bucs no longer have to honor the remaining guarantees in his contract.
Meaning, if the team wanted to part ways with the under-performing defensive back this spring, they could do so without any financial penalty.
Obviously the Bucs have glaring needs in the secondary and could use all the help they can get, but you have to at least wonder if the $7.75 million they would pay Wright by bringing him back is money well-spent, or if they'd be better off allocating said money to draft picks and/or free agency.
Let the debate begin.
4. Keep or Change Bill Sheridan/Defensive Philosophy
First-year defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan has seen his young defense struggle this year with everything from pressuring the quarterback to defending passes, so it should come as little surprise that there are some that have called for a change at the position already.
The Bucs will likely end the season with the NFL's worst pass defense, surrendering more than 300 passing yards per game. The 29 touchdown passes and 68 passing plays of 20-plus yards both rank as the second-most allowed this season.
In short, their passing defense has been downright awful.
Which begs the question: is it the scheme or the personnel? Could it be a combination of both? And perhaps most important of all, if head coach Greg Schiano determines Sheridan has some responsibility for the historically poor pass defense, would the second-year head coach be willing to make a change to either the philosophy or coaching staff?
In Sheridan's defense, the lack of pass rush by the defensive line has put him in a position where he feels he has to blitz to supplement the lack of a natural rush, thus leaving his young and inexperienced defensive backs alone in the secondary.
That said, Sheridan has made some questionable choices during critical moments of the game that ultimately have appeared to cost the Bucs.
For example, the constant barrage of blitzes he sent after Eli Manning in Week 2 allowed the Giants QB to throw for more than 500 yards and put up 25 fourth quarter points on their way to a late-comeback win.
All told, the Bucs blew fourth quarter leads on three occasions this season: New York, Washington and Philadelphia, which when looking back, could easily be the difference between their 6-9 record and a 9-6 record.
Coulda, shoulda, woulda.
3. Extend Quarterback Josh Freeman's Contract
For a quarterback about to close out the single-greatest statistical season in franchise history, they should be the toast of the town, not the lightning rod of anger and scrutiny.
But such is the case with Josh Freeman, the 24-year old former K-State signal caller, who despite breaking single-season and all-time franchise marks this year, finds himself drawing the ire of countless fans.
He's "too inconsistent" and not "fiery enough," they say (among many other things). And while the masses are entitled to like and dislike whomever they choose, the fact remains that Freeman has positioned himself nicely for a potential contract extension with the Bucs.
With just one season remaining on his original rookie deal, Freeman will count nearly $10.5 million towards the salary cap in 2013.
The franchise will be looking to shore up its defensive secondary via free agency and the draft, so it is quite possible they could extend Freeman in an effort to drive down his overall cap number, thus freeing up additional money to use elsewhere.
And while a portion of the fanbase is likely to disagree, locking up Freeman to a long-term deal is a no-brainer and something that should get done by training camp next summer.
2. Free Agency: To Spend or Not to Spend
The Bucs were the talk of the NFL last March when they did the unexpected: spent in excess of $140 million on three free agents.
By signing guard Carl Nicks, receiver Vincent Jackson and cornerback Eric Wright, the Bucs signaled to the league and their fans that they were serious about turning around this once-productive franchise after several disappointing seasons.
They'll enter this offseason with roughly $115 million already "spent" towards the expected $120 million cap in 2013 and will have several needs to fill, notably in the defensive secondary.
The wild card is CB Eric Wright and the nearly $8 million he's due if brought back. The Bucs could conceivably be much-more aggressive in free agency if they decide to cut Wright, as they would find themselves nearly $13 million under by doing so.
And that's without even factoring in the possibility of restructuring the contracts of Josh Freeman and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, both of whom will combine to count roughly $21.5 million towards the cap next season.
1. NFL Draft
Last season, the Bucs were able to land three starters in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft in safety Mark Barron, running back Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David.
As it stands heading into Week 17, the Bucs have the 11th overall selection of the draft and a total of eight picks, including two fourth-round selections.
The consensus is that the Bucs will invest heavily on defense, particularly in their beleaguered secondary given the possible retirement of safety Ronde Barber and the razor-thin depth and experience at cornerback.
They could also look to add depth along the offensive and defensive lines and, dare I say, draft a young quarterback in the mid-to-late rounds to push Freeman heading into camp next year.
Suffice it to say, the Bucs have no shortage of needs.
And the fans have no shortage of wants.