The Tampa Bay Buccaneers paid over $100 million for a 4-12 record in 2013. With the hire of head coach Lovie Smith, the Bucs have a chance to make better use of their investments.
Former Bucs general manager Mark Dominik may have enjoyed only mixed results with his personnel decisions, but he left the team in a great position with regard to its salary cap. According to Spotrac.com, the Bucs currently owe $116.6 million against the 2014 salary cap.
With the 2014 cap likely to be set at $126.3 million, the Bucs should have just under $9 million in cap space. Though $9 million gives the Bucs a wide berth, there are moves the Bucs need to make to maximize the roster's cap efficiency.
The biggest need for the Bucs is at defensive end. With only 9.5 sacks, Tampa Bay's defensive ends collected the same number of sacks as defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Even with Lovie Smith's coaching likely to bring out the best of the Bucs' current edge-rushers, an upgrade is needed.
2014's free agent-class features both long-term investments and potential bargains. Defensive ends Michael Bennett and Michael Johnson are just now entering their primes and are among the best pass-rushers in the league. They represent the most expensive defensive ends on the market, likely commanding $9 to $12 million a year in a long-term contract.
Less pricey options include veteran defensive end Jared Allen. While he is on the downside of his career, Allen is still an effective pass-rusher, notching 11.5 sacks in 2013. The Bucs could acquire Allen for no more than $6 million per year for two or three years.
A short-term option may be preferable as Smith is likely to draft and develop an edge-rusher. Allen also has ties to Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who was Allen's head coach with the Vikings.
The Bucs must also evaluate the future of their offensive line. While it was assembled to be a point of strength for the team, injuries turned the offensive line into the weak link on offense.
Guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks each have missed at least a season's worth of games over the past two years. Since recovering from knee surgery, Joseph looked like a shell of his former self in 2013.
Nicks dealt with a lingering toe problem that shortened his 2012 season and fell victim to the bout of MRSA that struck the Bucs this season. According to National Football Post's Jason Cole, Nicks' injuries may even end his career.
According to Spotrac.com, Nicks' salary will count for $9.3 million against the cap and Joseph's will count for $6 million. The difference is, Nicks' salary is guaranteed. Joseph's salary is not.
If the Bucs determine that Nicks' career is indeed over, they may have no choice but to keep Joseph. It is possible that another offseason will help Joseph, a team captain, to build back more of his lost strength and explosion.
Looking toward the future, the Bucs need to ensure they have the cap room for extending their best players like McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David. As two of the top players at their positions, McCoy and David will undoubtedly command massive contracts.
Fortunately, Dominik's salary-cap management left the Bucs some back doors to more cap room. Dominik's long-term contract extensions for players like wide receiver Mike Williams, punter Michael Koenen and safety Dashon Goldson eschewed salary bonuses and front-loaded guaranteed money, making them easier to cut later in their contracts.
Koenen is owed no more guaranteed money, and Williams is only owed another $1.2 million. Goldson's guaranteed money runs out after 2015.
Though the Bucs have yet to find a new general manager, the incoming administration should note Dominik's cap management techniques to not only manage players already on the roster but also when acquiring future free agents.
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