Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
It's time to get some new players in those new Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniforms.
The real action of the 2014 NFL offseason is set to begin as free agency opens on March 11. It will be the first opportunity for Bucs fans to see what kind of team new head coach Lovie Smith intends to build.
"Winning" free agency is something of a misnomer. A team might sign the most coveted free agents in the offseason but then lose games during the actual season. This used to be an annual tradition for Dan Snyder and the Washington Redskins.
Some might claim the Bucs "won" free agency during the 2012 offseason, signing wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright. After years of frugality, the Bucs splurged on some of the biggest names on the market.
As Bucs fans now know, "winning" free agency is a fleeting notion. Jackson turned out to be a great signing and fulfilled his promise as the team's premier receiver.
Nicks caught the injury bug and too rarely saw game action. Eric Wright was a tremendous bust almost from the start. His play was mediocre and his suspension for using performance-enhancing substances put the team in a serious bind.
The 2012 offseason should serve as a warning to the Bucs and their fans. Truly "winning" free agency means filling the roster's round holes with round pegs, with players who fit the team philosophy.
It means retaining the team's own free agents, the guys who are peaking in their development and elevate the team's overall play. It means signing smart contracts that attract the right talent and don't jeopardize the salary cap in the coming years.
It also means staging the team for an ideal draft by meeting the roster's needs so as to take advantage of the draft's talent for the right value.
Here is the blueprint for the Buccaneers to truly "win" free agency and set the team up for success for both the remaining offseason and the regular season.
Sign Defensive End Michael Bennett
It's time for Mr. Bennett to come home.
Developing a top-tier pass-rusher is no easy feat. The Buccaneers defied the odds and helped turn defensive end Michael Bennett into one of the most coveted players on the 2014 free-agent market.
The problem is, they let him leave in 2013, possibly on account of a torn rotator cuff. It must not have been a very bad injury, because Bennett became a key player for the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks, who somehow signed Bennett to a mere one-year, $5 million contract.
Bennett might be one of the most complete 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL. He is a left defensive end who can reach the quarterback with speed and technique while also keying in on running plays.
No matter who is holding the ball, Bennett has a knack for bringing players down before they cross the line of scrimmage.
While the Seahawks often kicked Bennett inside on a lot of snaps, he is a natural edge defender. His versatility only makes him a more desirable addition.
Of all the targets on this list, Bennett will be the most difficult to sign. As he did in 2013, Bennett will spurn his team and test the free-agency waters, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. Don't expect him to sign another low-cost, one-year deal.
There's already a rumor linking Bennett to the Chicago Bears, according to the Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs. He would join his brother Martellus, who signed a four-year contract extension with Chicago in 2013.
The Bucs may opt for a less familiar target in Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, who has already been connected to the Bucs by Brad Biggs:
Johnson is certainly a prize himself, but there's something to be said for benefiting from one's own handiwork. Bennett was developed by the Bucs. They should reap the rewards of their investment.
Michael Bennett already refused the Bucs once. It may take a huge payday to get him to come around again.
Sign Cornerback Charles Tillman
Wait, wasn't signing cornerback Charles Tillman a pipe dream? A fiction Bucs fans were ready to accept as fact?
Actually, the Bucs absolutely should pursue Tillman. He would be a tremendous asset to the Buccaneers organization.
But only for the right price.
Tillman is 33 years old, an old man playing a young man's game. Old men have experience, but they are also more prone to breaking down, as Tillman experienced in 2013 when he was lost halfway through the season to a triceps injury.
While Tillman's injury-shortened season may not be indicative of systemic fragility, the Bucs would be taking a risk by signing him. At his age, Tillman is at greater risk for both injury and deterioration of his athletic prowess.
It's a risk the Bucs still need to take.
Tillman is a product of Lovie Smith's coaching. He spent a decade under Smith's tutelage and became one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
Tillman is also a turnover machine. He is a master of the forced fumble, notching at least three every year since 2007.
The Bucs are a little thin at cornerback. Obviously, Darrelle Revis will lock down his assignments in 2014. However, second-year corner Johnthan Banks had a rough rookie year, and Leonard Johnson looked out of his depth as the nickel corner.
Tillman's arrival would make the Bucs secondary instantly credible to opposing quarterbacks. By signing Tillman to a two- to three-year contract with more incentives than guarantees, the Bucs would lubricate the transition into Lovie Smith's defense and scare the other quarterbacks in the NFC South.
Extend Defensive Tackle Gerald McCoy
Gerald McCoy must be a Buccaneer for life.
He is one of the best defensive tackles in football. He is a one-man wrecking machine, capable of consistently tearing down a play single-handedly.
The All-Pro leads the Bucs defense by example. Unlike his rival Detroit Lions defensive tackle, Ndamukong Suh, McCoy plays the game clean but is no less dominant.
The Buccaneers will offer Gerald McCoy a long-term deal. They really have no choice. The only real question is when.
That may actually depend on Suh.
According to the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett, Suh recently changed agents and is therefore unlikely to negotiate a new contract before free agency begins. Birkett says the Lions and Suh are likely to get a deal done this offseason.
McCoy might wait to see what kind of deal Suh gets before re-signing with the Buccaneers. By letting Suh set the market, McCoy could potentially get a larger contract or more guaranteed money.
While its debatable who the better player is, McCoy arguably emerged as the more reliable player. Though he finished 2010 and 2011 on injured reserve, he isn't nearly the problem child Suh is. Suh was already suspended for stomping a player in 2011 and could be again, given his history.
The Bucs may simply want to wait until after free agency to begin negotiations with McCoy in earnest. Once they fill the holes in the roster, they may be in a better position to give McCoy the contract he deserves.
Do Not Cut Left Tackle Donald Penn
An offensive line can only withstand so much change.
Just days away from the start of free agency, the Buccaneers released veteran guard Davin Joseph, according to the Tampa Bay Times' Rick Stroud:
#Bucs have released G Davin Joseph, the Times has learned.— Rick Stroud (@NFLSTROUD) March 8, 2014
Joseph was a rock on the offensive line in many senses. He was a leader for the entire offense, but he was also slow and ineffective as a blocker after coming off knee surgery in 2013.
Left tackle Donald Penn endured his share of struggles in 2013. According to Pro Football Focus, Penn allowed 11 sacks (subscription required), second most in the league for a left tackle.
However, sacks alone don't tell the whole story. Pro Football Focus also found only 10 left tackles allowed fewer quarterback hurries than Penn (given 75 percent of the snaps taken at that position).
Penn is also a very durable starter. Since becoming a Buc in 2007, he has never missed a game.
For all the grief Bucs fans throw Penn's way, he is actually one of the more reliable left tackles in the NFL. He is by no means elite or spectacular, but he gets the job done every year.
Penn's contract expires after the 2015 season. His contract will count $7.5 million against the cap in each of the next two seasons.
The end is nigh for Penn's career as a Buc, but it should not be imminent. The loss of Joseph makes Penn the leader of the Bucs offensive line. Given his consistency and locker-room status, the Bucs can ill afford to lose their now-most senior offensive lineman.
Sign QB Josh McCown
Can the Buccaneers answer the Mike Glennon question?
It's a tough egg to crack. Glennon's performance in 2013 was met with mixed reactions, depending at what point of the season reactions were being gauged.
His play, good and bad, came in alternating stretches, but inevitably the bad prevailed. In all fairness, the entire offense played poorly, which proved harrowing for the rookie Glennon.
Glennon's uneven play must account for Bucs head coach Lovie Smith's uncertainty with the Bucs' quarterback situation. While Smith praised Glennon after he was hired as head coach, he offered no vote of confidence in him.
Instead, Smith expressed a willingness to draft a quarterback with the Bucs' first-round pick this year. The Bucs also picked up journeyman quarterback Mike Kafka, though he is unlikely to compete for the starting job.
Smith is right to bring in competition for Glennon. He simply did not do enough in 2013 to prove he is the Bucs' franchise quarterback.
While the availability of quarterbacks in this year's draft is hotly debated, the Bucs can find Band-Aids for the quarterback position in free agency. Their main target should be, and likely is, Josh McCown.
NFL.com's Ian Rapoport reported that the Bucs will pursue McCown and Lions QB Shaun Hill:
McCown may have a slight edge, as he joined the Bears while Lovie Smith was still head coach. Regardless of whom the Bucs sign, neither McCown nor Hill is guaranteed to be the Bucs' starter in 2014, much less the long-term answer at quarterback for the team.
Signing McCown may not fix the Bucs' offensive woes, but it will definitely bring Tampa Bay closer to solving the Mike Glennon puzzle.