Last year, the NFL's free agency period was a madly compressed fortnight of activity, falling at roughly the same time 32 teams were opening their training camps. This was due, obviously, to the labor discord that lasted until late July and turned the spring and much of the summer into a long and dreary void of non-CBA news.
Not so in 2012. This year's free agent market will open in March, as usual, specifically at 4:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday, the 13th. If it resembles most any offseason since the first CBA created unrestricted free agency in 1993 – other than 2011, of course – there will be major player movement within a few hours. A rush of big-contract signings in the first few days will be followed by a steady stream of additional deals, slowing to a trickle in April as teams turn their attention to the draft.
For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the question is, will this offseason resemble those of the past few years, when the team has largely sat out free agency while deliberately focusing on the draft to rebuild the team's core, or will it include the type of activity in earlier years that brought in the likes of Jeff Faine, Jeff Garcia, Michael Pittman, Brad Johnson and Simeon Rice?
The arrival of new Head Coach Greg Schiano will almost certainly impact the Bucs' decision-making on the free agency front. In addition, General Manager Mark Dominik has indicated that the team will actively address the free agent market this year. The draft still remains of critical importance to the Buccaneers, but Dominik won't hesitate to utilize free agency if it offers the best avenue to fill a roster need.
So this spring will bring the very welcome return of free agency news, and potentially some that involves the Buccaneers. As such, Buccaneers.com will use the remaining month before free agency to look at each position on the depth chart and how it might be affected by free agency. The analysis will include five categories:
- 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?
For the first position primer, we start at the back of the defense with the safeties. Up next in the coming week: wide receivers, linebackers and tight ends. As always, player evaluations and other conjecture is not meant to reflect the opinion of the Buccaneers' coaches or player personnel staff.
Positional Free Agency Primer: Safeties
- Tampa Bay's own pending free agents
The Buccaneers finished the 2011 season with five safeties on the active depth chart, and two of them are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March.
One of those two is Sean Jones, who has started every game at strong safety for the Buccaneers since he was signed as an unrestricted free agent during the 2010 offseason. The other is back-up Corey Lynch, who is one of the team's better special teams players and has also logged eight spot starts when other players were unavailable due to injury or suspension.
However, the situation is not quite as dire as the possibility of losing 40% of the depth chart sounds. That's because the team expects to get back two other safeties from injured reserve, and they profile much like Jones and Lynch: one starter and one special teams standout. Cody Grimm, heading into his third NFL season, played just three games in 2011 before suffering a season-ending knee injury, but he looked to be building on a very impressive rookie campaign before he went down. Devin Holland came to Bucs camp as a little-known undrafted free agent last summer but quickly emerged as an impact player on special teams, earning him a surprise spot on the 53-man roster. Holland's season was cut quite short due to injury, too, however, as he was lost to I.R. after just four games.
Whether actively working the free agent market or staying mostly out of it in years past, the Buccaneers have always put a premium on re-signing their own core players, particularly starters. Tampa Bay also places a larger emphasis than some clubs on special teams, and it generally shows on the field. Thus, there are reasons to believe the Bucs could be planning to try to bring Jones and/or Lynch back. However, one must also consider the depth at the position; in addition to the return of possible 2012 starters Grimm and Tanard Jackson, the Bucs also got a late-season look at 2011 fifth-round pick Ahmad Black last fall and seemed to like what they see.
- The potential free agent market
The list of possible unrestricted free agents as it stands in early February could look quite a bit different on March 13 as teams make an effort in the interim to re-sign their own valued players. In addition, some of the bigger names on the pending list may find themselves under a franchise or transition tag if they don't work out a deal in the next month.
However, it does appear as if safety will be one of the deepest positions on the market, even if today's list loses a player or two before March. Consider this: The initial list of potential free agent safeties in 2012 includes a whopping 18 players who were primary starters for their teams last season. In addition, there are another dozen or so men on the list who made a handful of starts for their teams in 2011 and might be considered full-time starter material by another club.
Topping that list are some established standouts and other stars on the rise, including Washington's LaRon Landry, Oakland's Tyvon Branch, San Francisco's Dashon Goldson and Tennessee's Michael Griffin. Goldson, in fact, is coming off his first Pro Bowl selection after aiding San Francisco's outstanding defensive effort with 69 tackles and six interceptions. Landry is a fierce hitter and was emerging as one of the NFL's best safeties in 2010 before an Achilles tendon injury ended that campaign and remained a problem last year.
Branch is just turning 25 and is coming off his best season yet, with 107 tackles, an interception and a sack, and thus is likely to be a coveted player on the open market. Griffin is a former Pro Bowler who has taken some criticism for his play in recent years but had 75 tackles and two picks in 2011. He is still only 27 and could easily be expected to rebound in a big way.
Other potentially intriguing names on the list of safety starters who could find new homes: Jacksonville's Dwight Lowery, Atlanta's Thomas DeCoud, Cincinnati's Reggie Nelson and Cleveland's Mike Adams. Lowery, who was traded by the Jets to Jacksonville last year, had played cornerback in New York but took well to the safety position for the Jaguars, especially in coverage. If Jacksonville can't keep him, there are likely to be some teams interested in the converted DB.
In its recently-posted list of the top 100 potential free agents in 2012, SportingNews.com had no safeties among the its top 25 but Goldson, Branch and Griffin all came in between 30 and 50, while Landry and DeCoud were on the latter half of the list.
Players who started a smaller number of games in 2011 and might like an opportunity to carve out a bigger role elsewhere include Chicago's Brandon Meriweather, Atlanta's James Sanders and the Jets' Brodney Pool. Even Bob Sanders, the long-time Indianapolis standout with the unfortunate injury history, is available again, though he once again saw his 2011 season cut short in San Diego.
- Is the top of the draft a better option?
Tampa Bay owns the fifth overall pick in the 2012 draft, and will also pick fourth in the second round (#36 overall) and fifth in the third round (#69 overall). Is it possible that, despite the deep crop of safeties available, the Bucs could skip that segment of free agents and build quality depth through the draft instead? For the purposes of these primers, we will be considering only the team's first three scheduled picks, where it is more likely that a player who could move quickly into a starting role will be found.
There certainly may be a number of teams looking for young help at that position after a 2011 draft that was particularly weak at the safety spot. No safeties went in the first round a year ago, with UCLA's Rahim Moore coming off the board first at #45 overall. It is essentially true that the safety position has been less-targeted, overall, than many other positions in the first round, but there have been a handful of very high picks at that spot in recent years, including Landry, Eric Berry, Michael Huff, Donte Whitner and Sean Taylor.
This year's draft probably will not see a repeat of that, as there are no players currently being touted as highly as Berry and Landry were. The only safety consistently showing up in the first round of the expert mock drafts at this time is Alabama's Mark Barron, and usually in the second half of that round. Others who could come off the board in the first three rounds include Oklahoma State's Markelle Martin, Notre Dame's Harrison Smith and USC's T.J. McDonald. Barron is big and strong in run-support, Martin is instinctive and a big-hitter for his size, Harrison is considered more polished against the run than the pass and McDonald, the son of former NFL star Tim McDonald, has the right bloodlines.
With or without Jones, the Buccaneers have at least two established starters at the safety position heading into 2012 in Grimm and Jackson. However, given the team's history of injuries at the position, it usually tries to employ at least three starting-caliber safeties on the depth chart. Could the team target that spot in the draft? Almost certainly not with the fifth overall pick; Tampa Bay has never drafted a safety in the first round in team history. Given that the team's new leader is considered a defensive-minded coach, it's possible he will want to shore up the secondary after spending four high picks on defensive linemen over the last two years.
- Tampa Bay's free agent history
Actually, safety is one position the Buccaneers did address during the last few years of infrequent free agency shopping. Jones, formerly of the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles, came aboard in March of 2010 and, as mentioned above, has been a solid starter throughout the last two years.
Otherwise, that position has mostly been homegrown for Tampa Bay. Of all the primary starters of the past 15 years other than Jones, only Charles Mincy was not a Buccaneer draft pick. The team hit quite frequently on the position through the past decade and a half, beginning with John Lynch and passing through the likes of Dwight Smith (though he began as a cornerback), Dexter Jackson, Will Allen, Tanard Jackson, Jermaine Phillips and Cody Grimm.
The Bucs did find themselves with a need at the position in the very first few years of free agency. The Bucs appeared to draft their safety tandem of the future in 1991 with Tony Covington and Marty Carter, but injuries shortened Covington's career and Carter faded out after four seasons. John Lynch was established by that point, but the team delved into free agency to try to find him a complement with the likes of Joe King, Barney Bussey, Jerry Gray and Thomas Everett. The results were mixed.
Tampa Bay also imported former Cowboys safety Kenny Gant in the mid-90s, but that was primarily due to his special teams prowess. Gant, known as "The Shark," was a popular figure in Tampa for several years as he continued to excel in the kicking game. That type of consideration could play a part in the Bucs' free agency evaluation at safety if they take a look at the second and third tiers of players at the position.
- 2011 Performance
The early-season injury to Grimm and the ongoing suspension that kept Jackson out of the mix for the first five weeks affected the overall productivity of the Bucs' safety group. Jones was the one constant, and he did finish the season as the team's second leading tackler with 92 stops, but he did not record an interception and contributed just two passes defensed.
Injuries contributed to the problems in another way, as well, as a defensive line that was expected to put more pressure on the quarterback in 2011 had difficulty jelling into a consistent unit. That gave opposing quarterbacks more time to find holes in the defense and produced fewer broken-play turnover opportunities. Overall, Tampa Bay's safeties combined for just four picks in 2011.
There were some optimistic signs, however. Jackson came back from his suspension and immediately intercepted a pass in each of the first two games that he played. The Buccaneers view the converted cornerback as one of the top big-playmakers in their secondary and will be expecting more after a full offseason of work and conditioning in 2012. Jackson hadn't played in over a year when he returned to the team last fall, and after that fast start struggled with injuries for the balance of the campaign. Meanwhile, Grimm appeared to be a hidden strength in the Bucs' defense before his season-ending injury. He rarely made mental mistakes or was caught out of position and his sure tackling frequently prevented big plays in the open field. He, too, could be a difference-maker in 2012 with, hopefully, a full season of health.
And, as mentioned above, the Bucs still hope Black can develop into an impact player in the NFL, as he was at the University of Florida before being drafted in the fifth round in 2011. Black is undersized for an NFL safety, but he did nothing but make plays for the Gators, and he got his late-season promotion to the active roster after impressing coaches on the practice field for several weeks in a row.
Summary: The Bucs could see significant turnover at the safety position if they do not bring back Jones or Lynch, their two pending free agents at the spot. If so, they will could become part of a league-wide re-shuffling of the position, considering the sheer volume of established safeties likely to hit the open market this spring. That volume suggests that some bargains will be found at the position, and that a team motivated to do so would be able to build very solid safety depth through free agency this year. Tampa Bay hasn't commonly addressed the position through free agency, nor in the early rounds of the NFL Draft, and the anticipated return of several injured players means it may not have to do so again. However, the opportunity exists for the Buccaneers, who have indicated an intention to make greater use of the open market this year, to find help for their secondary through free agency.