The Tampa Bay Buccaneers future looked bright as they entered the 2011 season. In 2010 the team went 10-6 lead by second year head coach Raheem Morris and second year quarterback Josh Freeman (who threw for 3,451 yards, completing 61.4% of his throws, 25 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions in 2010). They were loaded with young depth and looked to be turning into one of the most impressive young cores in the league, as they started the 2011 season with a 4-0 record. They followed this up by losing their next 12 games, finishing with a 4-12 record, and head coach Raheem Morris got his ass fired. The Buccaneers now have a new coaching staff in place led by highly touted former Rutgers University head coach Greg Schiano, a more disciplined, throwback style football coach.
Cap Room – Tampa Bay also has $60.496 million in salary cap space, the second most in the NFL, behind only the Kansas City Chiefs (who have $62.995 million in available cap space, but it will be less, because they franchised wide receiver Dwayne Bowe). With a new regime in place and all of this cap space available, I expect the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to be very aggressive in the free agent market and make major strides towards improvement. Here are a list of some of the ways the Buccaneers can improve this off season:
Wide Receiver – The Buccaneers have some promising young talent on the roster at important positions, such as wide receiver, where Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn and Dezmon Briscoe (all members of the 2010 draft class, Briscoe drafted by the Bengals) have shown flashes of the potential that they possess. All of them look as though they can make an impact in the league, however none of them look like they will ever be a true number one receiving option, and they would benefit from having a true top tier wideout on the roster. Tampa Bay will have interest in wide receivers such as Vincent Jackson (San Diego), Marques Colston (Saints), Mario Manningham (Giants), Laurent Robinson (Cowboys) and Pierre Garcon (Colts) in the free agent market. While Vincent Jackson would give Tampa Bay a true number one receiving threat, players like Robinson, Manningham or Garcon have the ability to stretch the field and adding a deep threat would really open up the offense for quarterback Josh Freeman.
Offensive Line – The team is also interested in Saints Pro Bowl offensive guard Carl Nicks, the top offensive lineman in the free agent pool. Nicks is expected to bolt New Orleans, as once he hits the market he will get offers way out of their price range, and would be a huge addition to the Buccaneers offensive front. Taking Nicks from the Saints would also weaken a divisional opponent and the reigning NFC South Champion. Tampa Bay made a huge push for Dallas left tackle Doug Free last offseason (Free opted to stay with the Cowboys), and Greg Schiano loves to run the ball and likely wants to upgrade the offensive line, so I could see them giving Nicks a huge contract offer. They could use a right tackle more than a guard, but the massive and athletic Nicks would be an upgrade to any offensive line, and would be a welcomed addition to Tampa Bay. The team also resigned Jeremy Zuttah, who is versatile and can play multiple positions along the line, so Nicks in addition to the return of Zuttah would give Tampa flexibility.
Cornerback – Longtime cornerback and five time Pro Bowler Ronde Barber is now 36 years old and is likely to retire, while Tampa’s other starting cornerback Aquib Talib is very talented but cannot stay out of trouble with the law. They desperately need to add a cornerback, and with all of their available cap room, and likely will add at least one more in the draft. Ideally standout LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne will be on the board with the fifth pick in the draft for Tampa Bay to select, however he may already be gone. There is a plentiful crop of free agent cornerbacks, and Tampa has to make sure they use some of their cap space to sign one of them. This group includes – Ladarius Webb (Ravens, restricted FA, Baltimore expected to match any offer), Brandon Carr (Chiefs), Cortland Finnegan (Titans), Carlos Rogers (49ers), Richard Marshall (Cardinals) and Tracy Porter (Saints). Expect the Bucs to sign at least one of these players during free agency.
UPDATE: Since I posted this, I have heard that free agent cornerback Cortland Finnegan has decided he wants to join the Buccaneers, and as long as the Bucs make a solid offer he’ll sign. I need to verify this and there is still plenty of interest in Finnegan in Dallas and St Louis, so we will see how this plays out.
Veteran Defensive Linemen – The Buccaneers have invested a lot of high draft picks on defensive linemen over the past few seasons, and while these players have shown promise, none of them have become elite yet. (The team drafted DEs Adrian Clayborn (round 1) and Da’Quan Bowers (round 2) in the 2011 draft and DTs Gerald McCoy (round 1) and Brian Price (round 2) of the 2010 draft), they also made a smart move by locking up would be free agent defensive end Michael Bennett. The Bucs could really use a veteran presence to mentor these young players, and while I do not expect them to invest in a top tier veteran defensive lineman like Mario Williams, I think that the team could use an experienced veteran who could take their youthful defensive front under his wing.
Linebacker – The Buccaneers have a major weakness at outside linebacker. Although the free agent market is not strong, they should pursue players like Rocky McIntosh (Redskins), Philip Wheeler (Colts) or Erin Henderson (Vikings) who should not require huge contracts, but would upgrade the position. The team also has to look to upgrade this position on draft day and a dream scenario would be North Carolina Outside Linebacker Zach Brown available with their second round pick.
Thoughts on the Draft: Tampa Bay holds the fifth pick on Draft Day, which is a tough spot to be in, because it sits right between the first and second tier of prospects. We know that the first three picks will likely be 1) Andrew Luck – QB 2) Robert Griffin III – QB 3) Matt Kalil – OT and then things get dicey. We do not know if Cleveland will trade up to the second pick and draft RGIII or if the Redskins will do this, so we do not know who will be picking directly ahead of Tampa Bay. Likely Cleveland or St. Louis will be making that pick, barring another trade. With the fifth pick, ideally LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne is the selection for Tampa, because he fills a huge need position. However, what does the team do if he is selected fourth overall? Tampa then could turn to Alabama running back Trent Richardson, who would give them a huge upgrade (and nice one-two punch) with current tailback LeGarrette Blount. The team could select an offensive lineman, like right tackle Riley Rieff from Iowa or Stanford guard David DeCastro, but they could also trade down a few picks and select these guys later. They could opt for Oklahoma State wide out Justin Blackmon, however, he is fairly similar to the receivers they already have on the roster.
Ideal Offseason for Tampa Bay:
Sign New Orleans Saints Guard Carl Nicks, Sign New York Giants Wide Receiver Mario Manningham (he wants to get paid like a number one receiver, nobody will pay him that much, wait till the price comes down), Sign Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Brandon Carr, Sign Washington Redskins strong side linebacker Rocky McIntosh (will be cheap after poor performance in the 3-4, nuch better suited for 4-3 defense), sign veteran defensive tackle.
Round 1 – Draft Trent Richardson, Running Back, Alabama (I think Claiborne is selected fourth), Round 2 – Draft Zach Brown, Weakside Linebacker, North Carolina – Rest of Draft – Look for a developmental right tackle with potential, depth with potential in defensive backfield.