It should come as no surprise that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sought a new head coach after finishing the 2013 season with a 4-12 record.
What may be lost in the coaching staff furor is the problems with a Buccaneers roster that is in part responsible for another losing season in Tampa Bay. While the roster is certainly talented, boasting two All-Pros in linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, no team that finishes 4-12 expects to have everyone back the following August.
The Bucs have glaring holes on both sides of the ball, some requiring an new starters and others needing additional depth. At defensive end, questions surround the duo of Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, as neither have developed into consistent players.
On offense, whoever ends up under center for Tampa could use more weapons in the pass game. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson was the only reliable pass-catcher. Tight end Tim Wright emerged as a legitimate threat for quarterback Mike Glennon but to say the 220-pound Wright is actually a tight end is subject to debate.
With final say on the makeup of the Buccaneers roster, Lovie Smith no doubt will be looking toward free agency to fill some of the holes and insure against personnel shortfalls down the road.
Here are five key players Smith and the Buccaneers need to seriously consider signing to bring the Bucs back to relevance.
The Bucs made no bigger mistake last offseason than letting DE Michael Bennett walk away in free agency.
Bennett led the Bucs with nine sacks in 2012 and contributed significantly to the Bucs' top-ranked run defense. Nevertheless, former head coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik allowed Bennett to walk, possibly due to concern over Bennett's lingering shoulder injury.
That mistake came back to haunt Schiano and Dominik in 2013.
There is no more fitting example of Bennett's prowess than the Seahawks' win over the New Orleans Saints in last weekend's NFC divisional playoff game. Bennett was all over the field, collecting six tackles, half a sack and forcing two fumbles.
Bennett is one of the most well-rounded defensive linemen in the league. His speed makes him a dangerous pass-rusher and his ability to set the edge and play the run is criminally undersold.
Any team would be better for signing Bennett, and it's a sure thing a lot of teams will try. That could pose the biggest obstacles for the Buccaneers as demand for Bennett's services will likely drive up his final price and lead to some poor team overpaying for him.
As good as Bennett is, it would not be worth it for the Bucs to put themselves in a dangerous cap situation just to acquire a single player. The Bucs need to explore the Bennett option, but they should only pay the right price to acquire him.
Cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman is one of the stalwarts from Lovie Smith's days as the head coach of the Chicago Bears. Entering his 12th season, Tillman may want to follow his former head coach and possibly close out his career on a high note.
Over the span of his career, Tillman has collected 36 interceptions. While those aren't Hall-of-Fame numbers, the veteran defensive back can certainly hold his own in coverage.
When the Buccaneers shrewdly traded for CB Darrelle Revis last year, they believed his mere addition would turn the Bucs' dismal secondary into a top-flight unit. However, while Revis played like the best cornerback in the league, the other corners simply did not measure up, and the secondary's improvement was modest at best.
Second-year corner Leonard Johnson did little to justify his spot on the roster, and rookie Johnthan Banks played to his experience level. Neither took advantage of the opportunities made available by Revis Island's migration to Florida.
Tillman played in only two games in 2013 before a torn triceps ended his season. The 32-year-old cornerback is entering the downslide of his career and likely won't be getting big payday from the Bears or any other team.
Playing for a longtime coach and opposite Darrelle Revis could be an irresistible opportunity for Tillman, who may have trouble finding a lucrative deal this offseason. If he could be signed for a two- or three-year deal at $4 million or less per season, then the Bucs must absolutely bring the veteran aboard.
The biggest move the Bucs could make this offseason is hogtying Minnesota Vikings DE Jared Allen.
The future Hall-of-Famer may not be the dominant player he once was, but he is still one of the top sack masters in the NFL.
Allen has collected 128.5 sacks over his 10-year career, getting to opposing QBs at least 10 times each season since 2007. In 2011, Allen recorded 22 sacks, just missing the NFL single-season sack record.
Clearly, the guy knows how to rush the passer.
Allen will likely draw interest from several teams; fortunately, the Bucs have several advantages.
First, they hired former Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier to be their defensive coordinator. Frazier coached Allen through his entire tenure with the Vikings both as defensive coordinator and head coach. As Allen enjoyed his greatest success with the Vikings, reuniting with Frazier in Tampa would be a smoother transition and offer a sense of continuity for Allen.
As one of the best pass-rushing defensive ends in NFL history, Allen will not come cheap. His 11.5 sacks in 2013 may not match his best seasons, but he hasn't given up on his goal of breaking the single-season sack record.
He may want another five- to six-year deal, but the Bucs shouldn't offer more than four years. He's worth a lucrative contract but only for a year's worth of guaranteed money.
Adding Allen would give the Bucs the pass rush on the edge they've missed since the team cut DE Simeon Rice. Next to DT Gerald McCoy, Allen would be able to finish his career terrorizing quarterbacks.
This could be an absolutely insane free-agent signing. It could also be a brilliant move.
Not so long ago, Redskins TE Fred Davis was the future at the position for Washington. A slew of injuries and some disappointing seasons later, Davis has been cast aside, replaced by rising star Jordan Reed.
Davis is a dangerous prospect to consider signing—in six seasons, he has never played all 16 games.
However, when he is on the field, Davis is a beast. Through his career, he has averaged 12.6 yards per reception. His best year came in 2011 when he started in 12 games while catching 59 passes for 796 passes and three touchdowns.
The Bucs offense lacks a big-bodied receiver between the hash marks. TE Tim Wright was a nice surprise, hauling in 54 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns during the 2013 season. However, at 220 pounds, he is a tight end in name only.
Davis would join a unit already plagued by injuries. However, neither TE Tom Crabtree nor TE Luke Stocker is the receiver Fred Davis can be. As Davis will likely come cheap, the Bucs need to seriously consider bringing him into the fold.
There may be a pattern here. Another receiver?
The Bucs awful 2013 offense demands it.
Lack of depth at wide receiver crippled the Bucs' passing offense in 2013. After Mike Williams was lost for the season with a hamstring injury, the Bucs had to rely on untested rookies and journeymen to fill the void.
Kevin Ogletree was an absolute disaster and was quickly booted off the team after the season started. And while Tiquan Underwood had his moments, he was not a consistent threat opposite star WR Vincent Jackson.
What the Bucs need is a reliable wideout who can be counted on to hang onto the football and keep drives alive. Enter Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery.
Cotchery is by no means the fastest or flashiest wideout in the NFL. Injuries and the development of young talent above him on the depth chart kept Cotchery got him far fewer targets in Pittsburgh than when he was a productive member of the New York Jets.
Seeing his first significant action since 2010, Cotchery caught 46 passes for 602 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Steelers in 2013. Just given the opportunity, Cotchery can still produce.
The most important reason why the Bucs should go after him? His price tag. He signed a very modest two-year, $3 million contract with the Steelers in 2012. At age 31, that is the absolute best Cotchery is going to get going forward.
Not every free-agent signing is going to be flashy or expensive. The most important criterion for a good free agent signing like Cotchery is the player's ability to produce at game time.