Now that Drew Brees and 20 of his fellow NFL standouts have received franchise tags – and Brees' teammate Carl Nicks has not – we can identify the man who is likely to rule free agency when it begins in less than a week.
Unless the Saints and their massive Pro Bowl guard find a way to get a deal done before next Tuesday, Nicks will hit the open market and, by most accounts, be the most coveted player in the field. The 26-year-old Nicks was widely considered the best guard in football in 2011, and players fitting that description don't often show up in the free agency aisles. When they do, they can count on at least one team viewing them as the final piece to their puzzle and digging deep into the coffers.
There is likely to be plenty of competition for such pending free agents as Matt Flynn, Michael Bush, Vincent Jackson and Mario Williams – again, assuming they are still unsigned on March 13 – but Nicks looks like the top prize, and that's true even if he goes back to the Saints.
Last year, that honor went to Nnamdi Asomugha, the Pro Bowl cornerback for the Oakland Raiders who had an unusual clause in his contract that made him a free agent in 2011 and prevented his team from employing the franchise tag. Asomugha's free agency was unusual in that it consisted of five months of speculation and one very quick flurry of activity in July thanks to the labor impasse. But when the Philadelphia Eagles surprised everyone by swooping in to sign him, it was considered a major coup. Top prize goes to Philly, though at the cost of an enormous contract.
As it turned out, Asomugha was considered something of a disappointment in his first year in Philadelphia, though the season as a whole for the uncomfortably-dubbed "Dream Team" could definitely be called the same. The prevailing opinion is that the Eagles' zone defense didn't play well to Asomugha's greatest strengths, but there is obviously plenty of time left on his contract for the former Raider to make it seem worth it.
On the other hand, the Houston Texans signed the second free agent cornerback on most lists, former Cincinnati Bengal Jonathan Joseph, and reaped some very good benefits. Joseph played very well – he was, in fact, a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro selection for the first time in his career – and the Texans' defense was the most improved group in the NFL last year. Houston's secondary was nothing short of awful in 2010; in 2011, it ranked third in the league in pass defense.
Asomugha is about to pass on his king-of-free-agency crown, likely to Nicks or Williams or Flynn. A cornerback won't be the most coveted player in the entire market in 2012, but it was certainly clear in 2011 that a young and well-regarded free agent at that position will have no problem attracting a big contract from someone.
Is there a player in that category in 2012, perhaps Cortland Finnegan or Brandon Carr? Will the Tampa Bay Buccaneers be among the teams intent on locating one and locking him up? The answers to those questions may be known quite soon, but this much is already evident: The cornerback position is clearly one of the most intriguing for the Buccaneers as the season of player movement gets set to begin.
The 2012 free agency period begins at 4:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday, March 13. Buccaneer decision-makers obviously do not plan on sharing their free agency strategies beforehand, but we can still survey the landscape, in regards to both team needs and the possible pool of free agents, before the opening bell. This is the sixth in a series of position-by-position primers prior to the start of free agency on Buccaneers.com. Once again, we will be discussing five categories of information in each article:
- How might the Buccaneers' own list of pending free agents affect the position?
- What level of talent will potentially be available at that position on the open market?
- How effectively could a need at that position be addressed in the early rounds of the draft instead?
- What is the Buccaneers history in free agency at that position?
- How did that position perform for the Buccaneers in 2011?
We looked at the offensive line and defensive line in our last two primers, and now come back out of the trenches to finish the secondary. Previous entries have looked at safeties, wide receivers, linebackers and tight ends. Coming up next: running back. As always, player evaluations and other points of conjecture are not meant to reflect the opinion of the Buccaneers' coaches or player personnel staff.
Positional Free Agency Primer: Cornerback
- Tampa Bay's own pending free agents
This, of course, is part of the reason the Buccaneers are widely considered, by outside analysts, to be one of the prime teams in search of cornerbacks this offseason.
Ronde Barber, the best cornerback in team history and one of the best of his generation, is a pending unrestricted free agent after finishing his 15th NFL season in 2011. This is less a matter of what he could find on the market but more of whether or not he wishes to keep playing. It's likely the team would welcome him back with open arms should he choose to play another season. His fellow 2011 starter, Aqib Talib, is still one year away from free agency, but what happens on and off the field over the next 10 months is likely to determine if he has a long-term future in Tampa. Either way, the Buccaneers would seem to be in a position to begin restocking at the cornerback spot.
Cornerback Elbert Mack is also due to become an unrestricted free agent next week. Mack has never been a long-term starter in his four seasons with the team, after arriving as an undrafted free agent in 2008, but he has certainly been a useful member of the secondary and special teams units. If Mack were to move on, that would create further depth concerns at cornerback.
- The potential free agent market
It was no surprise that the Atlanta Falcons used their franchise tag on cornerback Brent Grimes, who surely would have been an attractive target for the Buccaneers (and other teams). In Tampa Bay's case, luring Grimes to Florida would have had the multiplying effect of removing a player from a division opponent who had been a thorn in its side.
Grimes would probably have been considered the top available cornerback had he been allowed to hit the market, though Finnegan and Carr could have made a competing case. Finnegan has publicly stated that he believes the Tennessee Titans will not try to bring him back, and many believe Carr will exit Kansas City after the Chiefs signed former Raiders cornerback Stanford Routt.
A Pro Bowler in 2008, Finnegan brings with him a particularly feisty attitude that might help a squad trying to develop on-field leadership, like the Buccaneers. He's filled up the stat lines in his six seasons, as well, with nearly 500 tackles to go with 14 interceptions, six sacks and three touchdowns. A fifth-round pick in 2008, Carr has steadily developed into one of Kansas City's best defenders and he seems to be picking at just the right time, with a career-high four interceptions in 2011. The Chiefs have made it clear they're still interested in Carr despite the acquisition of Routt, but they used their franchise tag on WR Dwayne Bowe, which at least gives Carr a chance to find out if any other teams are more interested. It's likely he'll like what he finds on the open market.
Carlos Rogers' timing is even better than Carr's. A former first-round pick by the Redskins, Rogers never established himself as a star-caliber player in Washington and he wasn't re-signed when his contract expired following the 2011 season. He got only a one-year deal from San Francisco but made the most of it, suddenly looking like the ball-hawking corner he was expected to be amid the 49ers' outstanding defense. Rogers racked up six interceptions, the same number he had from 2006-10 combined. One would imagine that he would want to stay in the place that helped him emerge so suddenly, but he definitely has increased his bargaining power.
Even without Grimes, and with Jacksonville's Rashean Mathis recently re-signing with the Jaguars, the depth of the cornerback position in free agency should be pretty good. Aaron Ross (Giants), Eric Wright (Lions), Tracy Porter (Saints) and Richard Marshall (Cardinals) have all established themselves as at least starting-caliber cornerbacks in the league and are likely to be available. The Giants may re-sign Terrell Thomas, who missed all of last year with a knee injury, but he would be an interesting and still-young target if he hits the market. And if shopping teams are looking for non-starters on other teams that might be able to step up in a new situation, there are the likes of William Gay, Dmitri Patterson and Tim Jennings to choose from.
There is no Asomugha-level cornerback to set free agency atwitter this year, but there very well could be several young players who can make an impact similar to Johnathan Joseph this past year. The cornerback section of the free agent market should be quite busy this offseason.
- Is the top of the draft a better option?
As a matter of fact, cornerback is the position that most mock drafts have the Buccaneers targeting in the first round this year. That doesn't necessarily reflect the actual line of thinking taking place inside Buc headquarters, but the logic is easy to follow. This particular draft has at least one cornerback prospect who is widely considered among the top overall talents (LSU's Morris Claiborne) as well as several others who are almost certain to go in the first round or not long after. Amusingly, the depth of the top corner prospects this year would seem to make it possible for the Buccaneers to double-dip in the first two rounds if they wanted to, just as they did at defensive tackle in 2010 and defensive end in 2011.
Two cornerbacks in the early rounds would be a surprising draft decision by the Bucs, but no one would be shocked if one of those first two picks went into shoring up the secondary. Top-notch cornerbacks are one of the most coveted assets in the NFL, and getting one in free agency is both expensive and risky, as the Asomugha signing emphasized (so far, at least). When a corner universally expected to be a star at the NFL level is available on draft weekend, he usually doesn't last long.
And they don't necessarily come along that often, either. Over the last 20 drafts, there have been only 17 cornerbacks selected with top-10 picks. Some have been stars, like Charles Woodson or Champ Bailey, or budding stars like 2011's Patrick Peterson, but others haven't really returned on their top-10-like investments, such as Tommy Knight and Quentin Jammer. Almost all, Jammer included, have at least enjoyed long and relatively solid NFL careers.
Claiborne brings that sort of reputation into this year's draft. He is considered an elite cover man who can play in either zone or man schemes and a big-play producer who can change games. He did nothing to hurt his stock at the Combine, running well in the 40-yard dash and looking exactly as advertised in coverage drills. It would be a surprise to see him drop out of the top 10 in the draft, and most expect him to go in the top five, which is why he has commonly been linked to the Buccaneers in mock draft efforts.
After Claiborne, this deep group of near-elite prospects has been jockeying for position on the presumed draft board. Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick has spent the most time right behind Claiborne in mock drafts, but he's getting competition from North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins and the fast-rising Stephen Gilmore of South Carolina. There are character concerns with Jenkins, who started his career at Florida State, and he gives up size to Claiborne and Kirkpatrick, but he put his elite skills on display at both the Senior Bowl and the Combine and could go in the top half of the opening round. Kirkpatrick is big and physical, and while he didn't nail his Combine workouts as thoroughly as Claiborne or Kirkpatrick, he is still likely to be coveted early in the draft. Gilmore is another big cornerback who helped his draft stock considerably by running very well at the Combine.
The Buccaneers have a strong history of finding valuable cornerbacks in the second and third rounds (Barber, Brian Kelly, Donnie Abraham, Dwight Smith, Ricky Reynolds), and this draft looks deep enough to make that a possibility once again. Cornerbacks who are likely to come off the board on the second day of the three-day draft, if they don't sneak into the first round, include Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard, Virginia's Chase Minnifield, Iowa State's Leonard Johnson, Virginia Tech's Jayron Hosley (another Combine riser), Vanderbilt's Casey Hayward, Central Florida's Josh Robinson (a Combine star) and Georgia's Brandon Boykin. A couple of those prospects, such as Hosley and Boykin, could also be coveted for their kick-return skills.
The talent continues even beyond that group. Many consider cornerback to be the deepest position in this year's draft, just as defensive ends were the jewels of last year's draft. For a team looking to significantly upgrade that position, the top of this year's draft looks like a great way to do so. In fact, given the talent available at that position and in free agency, a team like the Buccaneers could conceivably make good use of both options this year.
- Tampa Bay's free agent history
The Buccaneers' efforts in free agency as they pertain to the cornerback position started out pretty strong but haven't produced much help in years.
In 1993, the first year of free agency as the NFL now knows it, the Buccaneers executed one of their best signings ever with Pittsburgh linebacker Hardy Nickerson. However, that first free agency foray also brought in Martin Mayhew, the former Washington Redskins cornerback, and that also worked out very well. Mayhew, who is now the Detroit Lions' general manager, spent four seasons with the Buccaneers and was a starter throughout that tenure, opening 59 of the 60 games in which he played. He had eight interceptions in that span and was also a solid tackler despite being a somewhat undersized corner.
Tampa Bay signed a lot of cornerbacks in the first few years of free agency, before eventually reworking the position through the draft with the likes of Abraham, Barber and Kelly. They had a decent success rate with those early signings, which included Charles Dimry, Mike McGruder and Tony Stargell in 1994 and Tyrone Legette and Jay Taylor in 1996. Dimry was the only one of the group to become a starter for any length of time (most of three seasons) but McGruder, Stargell and Legette all stuck around for two seasons each and provided good depth.
By hitting repeatedly in the draft during the last half of the 1990s and the early 2000s, the Bucs didn't have to spend much free agency resources on the cornerback position for awhile. They tried again in 2004 with Tommy Knight and Mario Edwards but didn't get much out of that. In 2008, the team signed Patriots safety Eugene Wilson with the thought of moving him back to cornerback, but that move didn't pan out, either.
Phillip Buchanon, a former first-round pick by Oakland, was signed midway through 2006 after being released by Houston. He doesn't technically count as an unrestricted free agent, but he would be a moderately successful pick-up if included here. Buchanon started 31 games for Tampa Bay in two-and-a-half seasons and was solid if not spectacular.
The Bucs have never signed what one would consider a star-caliber cornerback on the free agency market and, again, that's not an asset that commonly becomes available, as the feeding frenzy over Asomugha indicated. Their success rate at the position has been decent, though not of late. Given the caliber of player that looks to be available later this week, the team could be in position to make its most important cornerback signing ever.
- 2011 Performance
Barber quietly had a very good season in his 15th NFL year, which is why the team has made it clear they would like to have him back if he chooses to play a 16th season. He led the team with three interceptions and added 77 tackles, 11 passes defensed and the 29th sack of his incredible career.
Talib had two interceptions and two of the team's three defensive touchdowns, adding two forced fumbles and a team-leading 13 passes defensed. He finished the year on injured reserve for the second year in a row but still looked like one of the league's better young talents at the critical left cornerback position.
E.J. Biggers once again stepped up as the starter opposite Barber when Talib was out, and while his 2011 season might not have been quite as impactful as his 2010 breakout, he was also put in a difficult position frequently due to the lack of a pass-rush. A former seventh-round pick, Biggers should at the very least provide the Buccaneers with good depth and an experienced nickel back in 2012. Mack, another nickel back candidate, is a pending free agent and was more of an asset on special teams in 2011.
Tampa Bay's pass defense, like their defense as a whole, wasn't up to its usual standards in 2011. Too many big plays were surrendered, but as new Defensive Coordinator Bill Sheridan noted during his introductory press conference, most of those came on downs in which there was very little pressure on the opposing quarterback. The raw numbers don't look particularly good for Tampa Bay's cornerbacks in 2011, but their play was probably better overall than the numbers indicate.
Summary: The Buccaneers badly needed defensive tackles in 2010, and found the draft loaded up just right for them to address that position. Last year, the obvious desire for defensive end also matched up with the draft's strength. In 2012, the Bucs appear to be in need of help at cornerback – or at least in need of a long-term boost – and this time both the draft and free agency are attractive options. The Buccaneers have talent but serious question marks at cornerback as the market sets to open on Tuesday, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see the team browsing in that aisle. However, the presence of a deep pool of cornerback prospects in this year's draft has to at least factor into the Buccaneers' overall offseason strategy at the position.