Ranking the 2014 Impact of Tampa Bay's Free-Agent Signings so Far
The 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have a hard time recognizing themselves today.
Head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht completely retooled the Bucs from bow to stern. Their moves in free agency gave both the offense and the defense new looks.
Offensively, the Bucs tore down their offensive line, cutting veteran left tackle Donald Penn and guard Davin Joseph and trading center Jeremy Zuttah to the Baltimore Ravens for a 2015 draft pick, per Fox Sports' Peter Schrager:
The offensive line is just the beginning. Change is brewing under center with the Bucs' acquisition of quarterback Josh McCown and the possibility of drafting a signal-caller with the seventh overall pick in this year's draft.
On defense, the Bucs made some drastic changes to mold the roster to better fit Smith's scheme. The Bucs released cornerback Darrelle Revis when he refused to take a pay cut.
This move helped make room for many of Smith and Licht's additions to the roster.
While it is not 100 percent clear what role each player will fill once the season starts, there are enough clues between the pages of their freshly signed contracts to glean their importance to the organization.
Here are the rankings of the impact of each of the Bucs' free-agent signings thus far in 2014.
8. Tight End Brandon Myers
Of all the Bucs' free-agent signings, the Brandon Myers deal is the least significant.
The tight end position has not been an area of strength for the Buccaneers since early in Kellen Winslow's stint in Tampa. Tim Wright looked to make something of it midway through last season, but behind him lies a train of ineffective receivers and training-room heroes.
Myers is coming off a solid, if unremarkable, season as the Giants' starting tight end. He caught 47 passes for 522 yards and four touchdowns. That's not bad but also not great—and not as good as his 2012 campaign with the Raiders.
He brings nothing unique to the Bucs offense, save for a big body. He's not an exceptionally gifted receiver, although his hands are nice and big.
His blocking is mediocre, which is disappointing for such a large guy. He throws half-hearted blocks and lacks ferocity.
He may not be much of an upgrade over Wright. Both look to factor only as pass-catchers, but Wright proved to be dangerous on third-down and in the end zone.
Myers' size makes him better at fighting for yards after the catch, but again his lack of force leaves something to be desired.
The Bucs signed him to a two-year, $4 million contract, indicating that they think he will play a significant role in the offense but are nonetheless prepared to part ways if he cannot add any real value.
7. Defensive Tackle Clinton McDonald
Since the Bucs drafted defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, they have had little success in finding a reserve tackle to complement his ability to rush the passer. In Clinton McDonald, the Bucs hope that search is at an end.
The Bucs signed him to a four-year, $12 million deal. That's not too shabby for a guy who will likely be a rotational player.
Of course, pass-rushers are second in value only to the passers themselves. McDonald will be key for not only putting heat on opposing quarterbacks but spelling McCoy, who played a high number of snaps for a defensive tackle.
McDonald was an effective tackle in Seattle, splitting time with former Buccaneer Michael Bennett.
6. Cornerback Mike Jenkins
In today's pass-happy league, it has become paramount for every team to possess no less than three quality cornerbacks. This was likely the prevailing thought in signing CB Mike Jenkins.
He never developed into the cover corner he was envisioned to be, and his run support tends to be uneven. However, he is athletically gifted and brings six years of experience with him.
Jenkins' chief competition for the second cornerback spot is former second-round pick Johnthan Banks. Neither had great 2013 campaigns, but Banks had the benefit of being a rookie.
It's not unusual for rookie cornerbacks to struggle, so there's still hope for Banks. Jenkins could benefit from the tutelage of Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, but he seems unlikely to beat Banks for the starting spot.
5. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith
The loss of Jeremy Zuttah makes the addition of center Evan Dietrich-Smith even more vital to the future of the Bucs offensive line.
The former Packer is a clear upgrade from Zuttah, who was likely out of position at center. Dietrich-Smith plays with more power and better technique than Zuttah, who was plagued by inconsistency.
He also comes at a better price. He signed a four-year, $14.25 million deal, which made him nearly $500,000 per year cheaper than Zuttah.
The Bucs signed him with the clear intent of playing him at center. Otherwise, they would not have shipped Zuttah to Baltimore.
As the starting center, Dietrich-Smith brings the ability to persevere despite the chaos around him, as he did with the multitude of injuries that hit the Packers offensive line in 2013. His consistency may be key with an offensive line in the midst of a massive rebuild.
4. CB Alterraun Verner
It won't be easy to fill in the shoes of Darrelle Revis. Fortunately, cornerback Alterraun Verner comes at a far more reasonable price.
The release of Revis was a sordid final chapter from the Greg Schiano/Mark Dominik era. The Bucs traded a first-round and a fourth-round pick to the New York Jets to acquire Revis only to cut him a year later.
His contract was scheduled to eat $16 million of the Bucs' cap space per year through 2018. Lovie Smith and Jason Licht must have felt the team's money would be better invested by addressing multiple positions with the cap space that Revis' release would ultimately provide.
Losing arguably the best cornerback in the NFL puts a lot of weight on Verner's shoulders. It would be a stretch to say he is actually replacing Revis.
The Bucs signed the former Tennessee Titan to a comparative bargain of $26.5 million over four years.
In truth, his game makes him the more ideal fit for Smith's defense. Whereas Revis' ability to play press-man coverage essentially puts his assignment on an island, Verner actively plays the ball and is best suited for zone coverage.
Though Smith will play a mix of coverages, he values generating pass rush with four linemen, which diminishes the value of his cornerbacks.
That said, Verner will be a key piece to Smith's defense. He will likely be the most reliable player in pass coverage and therefore be vital to Smith's defensive game-planning.
3. T Anthony Collins
The Anthony Collins signing was an obvious indication that former Bucs left tackle Donald Penn's time in Tampa had come to an end.
Penn was surprised by his release, as he told Alex Marvez and Gil Brandt on SiriusXM Sport's Late Hits. Though he had one of his worst years at left tackle in 2013, he was still a solid starter with real value in the run game.
Collins comes to Tampa with only some starting experience at left tackle. He has started only eight games in his career, all in 2013.
However, when he was on the field, he displayed superb pass-protection skills. He plays with excellent hand placement and knows how to leverage.
He will be a downgrade from Penn in terms of run blocking. However, he will not have the same responsibilities as Penn in the run game, given the influx of athletic linemen, which indicates a switch from a man-power scheme to a more zone-centric run-blocking strategy.
At $30 million over five years, Collins comes at a discount over Penn, who was to be paid $7 million in 2014. At 28 years old, Collins is also a younger player.
The Bucs will count on him to keep his development on track and lock down their quarterback's blind side. He is not entirely unproven, but the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the Bucs offensive line will require Collins to get a fast start right out of the gate.
2. Quarterback Josh McCown
It might be expected for the Bucs' new starting quarterback to be the most impactful free-agent signing of 2014. Given the role QB Josh McCown will likely play during his Bucs career, this is not the case.
The Bucs signed him to a two-year, $10 million contract. Lovie Smith was quick to anoint McCown "his quarterback":
Bucs' Lovie Smith, asked if Josh McCown is his quarterback: "Yes, he is."— Greg Auman (@gregauman) March 12, 2014
On that same note, Smith did not say the Bucs would not take a quarterback in the 2014 draft:
Asked if signing McCown precludes Bucs from drafting a QB, Lovie Smith said: "Not at all."— Greg Auman (@gregauman) March 12, 2014
The Bucs may have an opportunity to draft one of the top passers in this year's draft. It would be unlikely they would pass on the likes of Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater or UCF's Blake Bortles.
McCown's contract is telling. Averaging $5 million per year for only two years says he will have a significant role to play and will likely start the season, but he is not the long-term answer.
Until his resurgence in Chicago last season, he was a journeyman backup whose most significant playing time had been with Oakland in 2009.
McCown's fantastic play with the Bears should translate to offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford's system, but expect McCown to be pushed and eventually supplanted by a long-term option that the Bucs pick up in the draft.
1. Defensive End Michael Johnson
It's taken the better part of a decade, but the Bucs have finally signed a legitimate edge-rusher to a long-term deal.
The Buccaneers have not had a legitimate threat at defensive end since Simeon Rice left Tampa after the 2006 season. DE Michael Johnson is a long overdue addition to a defense that has struggled to generate heat on quarterbacks for years.
Johnson was one of the only complete free-agent defensive ends on the market this year. The other was Seattle Seahawk Michael Bennett, whom the Bucs let slip through their fingers after 2012.
Bennett is one example of how the Bucs have almost gone out of their way to keep talent out of the defensive end position. Adding Johnson is the biggest step in remedying a decade of neglect.
They signed the former Cincinnati Bengal to a five-year, $43.75 million contract. Now paid among the best in the league, Johnson must prove he is worth such an investment.
Though his sack numbers were down in 2013, he was nonetheless a very effective pass-rusher. He does tend to be a bit streaky but not more than most starting defensive ends.
Johnson is one of the best 4-3 defensive ends in run defense. His ability to set the edge makes him a true three-down player.
No free-agent signing is ever guaranteed to make a difference come game time. Nonetheless, the Johnson signing was far and away the most impactful deal that the Bucs made in free agency thus far.