March 14, 2012 was a landmark day in Tampa Bay Buccaneers' franchise history.
The 2012 season was the 20th in the NFL that featured a truly open free agency market, as the first Collective Bargaining Agreement was put in place in 1993. Over the past two decades, the Buccaneers have taken occasional dives into the free agency pool, some deeper than others, and some more successful than others. Like most teams, they've had ups (Simeon Rice) and downs (Alvin Harper) with the process, and like many teams, they've come to the conclusion that the surest way to build a foundation is through the draft.
Still, on March 14 of last year, the Buccaneers made their biggest single-day free agency splash ever. By quickly inking the top available receiver in Vincent Jackson and the top available lineman in Carl Nicks, plus expected cornerback starter Eric Wright, Tampa Bay was the most active opening-day team in the NFL. That was surely a first.
It would be difficult for the Buccaneers to match that impact in free agency a year later, though they have the salary cap resources to be significant movers once again. Whether that space is eventually used more for retaining the team's own key players or bringing in new blood, the Bucs will likely be motivated to action if they see a move that will help them win now and in the future.
Basically, it's anybody's guess – outside of the offices of Mark Dominik and Greg Schiano – how active the Buccaneers will be on the 2013 open market (though a new lead-in negotiation period could provide some early clues this time around). We can, however, examine what the Buccaneers' needs might be, and what opportunities might exist in free agency. For the next month, we will do just that, taking a position-by-position look at the Bucs' roster, the potential free agent pool and other factors that could affect the team's decision-making this spring.
We begin on the defensive line, where the NFL's first enormous CBA-free agency move was made back in 1993, when the Green Bay Packers lured Reggie White away from Philadelphia. One of the Bucs' own home runs in the last two decades of free agency came at the position, as well, with the 2001 import of Simeon Rice helped complete the team's magnificent defense of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
As for the Buccaneers and the 2013 version of free agency, we will consider five questions as we work our way through the depth chart:
- 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?
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: Defensive Line
- Tampa Bay's own pending free agents
As we draw closer to the start of free agency, this portion of the positional primers will become more concrete. In early February, however, we still have to consider the strong possibility that the Buccaneers will re-sign some of the players who, at the moment, are headed towards free agency. That's a very important consideration along the defensive line, which is powered in part by three recent high draft picks – Pro Bowl DT Gerald McCoy and rising DEs Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers – and in part by a pair of pending free agents – DE Michael Bennett and DT Roy Miller.
Bennett and Miller were both full-season starters in 2012 and both had strong seasons in the defense installed by Schiano and Bill Sheridan. Bennett was the team's sack leader, with nine, and Miller was the unsung hero of the team's top-ranked rush defense, occupying blockers at the 'tilt-nose' position and clogging up the middle of the line. Both have played their entire four-year careers with the Buccaneers (Bennett started with Seattle as a rookie in 2009 but didn't get on the field until he landed in Tampa later that fall), and both are coming off their best campaigns yet.
Defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim is also scheduled to hit restricted free agency, but those types of free agents switch teams much less often.
There is some depth at the position, especially with Clayborn coming back from the injury that cost him most of 2012 and Te'o-Nesheim emerging as a productive player. Inside, the team still has experienced veteran Gary Gibson and some potential young help in the likes of Matthew Masifilo and Pep Levingston. Still, if the Bucs are going to use some of their cap space to try to retain pending free agents, defensive line might be a good place to start. If not, the team will at the very least need to replace some depth either through free agency or the draft.
- The potential free agent market
This part of the analysis will get more clear as we draw closer to March 12, as well, as teams across the league succeed or fail in re-signing their own pending free agents. What's below should be taken with a grain of salt, as the actual market for defensive linemen could be considerably slimmer by the time the Bucs get a chance to dig into it.
That said, there is potential help on the mark for both the middle of the line and the edges. The biggest names on the list of end possibilities are players fairly advanced in their careers – the Colts' Dwight Freeney and the Giants' Osi Umenyiora. However, as teams usually like to seek players still entering the primes of their careers for long-term deals, a younger group of ends may get more attention. That includes Bennett, if he's not re-signed, as well as the Lions' Cliff Avril and the Bengals' Michael Johnson. The Bears' Israel Idonije is farther along in his career but has only recently emerged as a starter and could be an intriguing option despite being 32 years old.
Avril turns 27 this spring and has 39.5 sacks in five seasons, including 29 over the last three years. He is not necessarily considered a strong run-stopper, but there may not be a better young pass-rusher on the market this year. Johnson just turned 26 last week and has impeccable timing, as he is headed towards free agency after a breakout campaign that included 11 sacks. He was undoubtedly helped out by playing next to the nearly unstoppable Geno Atkins, but he is considered a top priority for the Bengals this offseason. If he is not re-signed, or given the franchise tag, Johnson should be coveted on the free agent market.
There is another group of players that could come into play for teams like the Buccaneers that are looking for an end for a 4-3 defense: 3-4 rush linebackers. The Cowboys' Anthony Spencer, who had a very strong 2012 season, is a good example, as is the Ravens' Paul Kruger. Both might be considered a little light for a 4-3 end (Spencer more so than Kruger) but that's something a player can potentially work on. And, as mentioned above, some teams may want to take a shot with either Freeney (33 years old) or Umenyiora (31), considering how consistently productive they have been throughout their careers. Neither one appeared to be at the top of their games in 2012, but Freeney in particular could be revived if he switches back to a 4-3 team after having to adjust to the 3-4 last fall.
Idonije has been in the league since 2003 but has really only been a starter the last two seasons. He might have made himself a free agency option with his 7.5-sack season in 2012, but the defensive lineman who is probably a bigger priority for the Bears – and a potential top target in free agency – is defensive tackle Henry Melton. Melton played alongside McCoy in the 2013 Pro Bowl earlier this month and is coming off back-to-back seasons of at least six sacks. He is considered a better pass-rusher than run-stopper but is obviously a very valuable commodity as a player who can get pressure on the quarterback up the middle.
The Dolphins' Randy Starks seems like he's been around for a long time but is still just 29. He, too, is coming off a Pro Bowl season, and while he has topped five sacks just once in nine NFL seasons he's had at least three in five straight campaigns and is also considered strong against the run. The Seahawks' Jason Jones (27 years old) and Raiders' Desmond Bryant (27) are lesser-known names but both have shown an ability to get pressure up the middle. Jones will be coming back from a knee injury that cost him the end of the 2012 season. The biggest name on the entire DT market, if not necessarily the most coveted player, is another Raider, Richard Seymour. Seymour is 33 and he missed the last half of the 2012 season due to a hamstring injury, but he was still playing at a high level before he was hurt.
- Is the top of the draft a better option?
Despite the above examples of Reggie White and Simeon Rice, the draft is almost always a better option for finding star pass-rushers than free agency, simply because teams do their best to hold on to such players. When such a player does hit the market – as former Texan Mario Williams did last spring – they generally command a huge payday.
The Bucs have obviously been trying in recent years to amp up their pass rush through the draft, spending a first-round pick on McCoy in 2010 and first and second-round picks on Clayborn and Bowers in 2011. Those efforts are promising, but as yet incomplete. McCoy obviously emerged as an all-star in 2012, but Clayborn missed most of the season and Bowers had to overcome an Achilles injury before returning at midseason. Those three certainly appear to be the nucleus of an effective young D-Line moving forward, but there is always room for more pass-rushers.
Tampa Bay is slated to pick 13th in the first round, but that may not be out of range for a star lineman, because both the end and tackle positions appear to be fairly deep this year. That's particularly true on the inside; on the edges, the depth of the field may be determined somewhat by how well scouts believe the available prospects can fit in either a 4-3 or a 3-4 front.
Still, the first half of the opening round could be dominated by defensive linemen. The list of top prospects in the NFL.com draft section calls both the end and tackle positions very deep, and the Scout Inc. Top 32 list on ESPN.com puts 11 defensive linemen among the first 22 players.
Edge rushers Damontre Moore of Texas A&M, Bjoern Werner of Florida State and Barkevious Mingo of LSU all may go among the top 10 picks of the draft, but there is plenty of added depth with the likes of LSU's Sam Montgomery and BYU's Ezekiel Ansah. ESPN expert Todd McShay even linked the Bucs to Montgomery in an early mock draft in December.
Some consider Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei a good bet to live up to his first name, and perhaps to be the first player drafted overall. But that will probably be just the start of the first-round action for the position, as a half-dozen or more DTs could hear their name called on opening night of the draft. Florida's Sharrif Floyd or Missouri's Sheldon Richardson could be there for the Bucs' consideration at #13, and there is likely to be several strong prospects at the position still on the board high in the second round.
For teams hoping to upgrade along the defensive line, the draft looks like the more fertile field than free agency this spring.
- Tampa Bay's free agent history
The biggest swing the Buccaneers ever took in free agency at the defensive line position produced a home run.
The Buccaneers' defense was already dominant before the free agent arrival of Simeon Rice in 2001, but the pairing of the former Arizona Cardinal with Hall-of-Famer-to-be Warren Sapp took it to another level. Rice was an immediate hit with 11.0 sacks in his first year with the Buccaneers, but in 2002 he exploded for 15.5 sacks for what proved to be one of the best defensive units in league history. The Bucs rode that defense to the Super Bowl XXXVII title, a win in which Rice sacked league MVP Rich Gannon twice. Rice stayed on a roll for three more seasons, and over his first five years as a Buccaneer posted 67.5 sacks in 79 games.
Other than that, the franchise hasn't spent much effort trying to address the defensive line through free agency. A much lower-profile signing in 2002 worked out marvelously well when the team signed Greg Spires away from New England. Spires had started just eight games over his first four NFL seasons in Cleveland and New England, but he quickly won the starting job on the left end opposite Rice and became one of the team's steadiest defenders for the next six years. Spires had 26 sacks over that span but was also a standout against the run.
The Bucs succeeded with another under-the-radar signing with Jimmy Wilkerson in 2008. Like Spires, he was a role player for his former team (Kansas City) who became a starter in Tampa and produced well (6.0 sacks in 2009) due largely to maximum effort. The move to acquire former Viking defensive tackle Chris Hovan worked out as well in 2005. Hovan started the next five seasons for the Bucs, and while he was never much of a sack producer he was a steady force in the middle for much of that time.
The Bucs signed UFA Marques Douglas away from San Francisco in 2008, but he never played a down with the team. Of course, they were able to flip Douglas to Baltimore for a pair of draft picks before the season, so the signing wasn't a loss. Last year, the team took a couple of offseason fliers on end Wallace Gilberry and tackle Amobi Okoye but retained neither of them for the regular season.
Unless one faults the team for those attempts, or for rolling the dice on some short-lived attempted reclamation projects like Lamar King and Darrell Russell, Tampa Bay's history of shopping for defensive ends on the free agent market, while not extensive, has been marked mostly by success.
- 2012 Performance
It would be difficult to decide upon a letter grade for this group in 2012. On one hand, the Buccaneers were outstanding against the run, leading the league in both yards allowed per game and yards allowed per carry. Coming off a 2011 season in which it finished dead last in rush defense, that was a simply stunning turnaround. According to some advanced metrics on FootballOutsiders.com, the Bucs' defensive line was the best in the business against opposing ballcarriers, and the credit can be spread out among several standouts, including Bennett, McCoy and Miller.
The Bucs' pass rush, on the other hand, ranked 31st in the league in sacks produced per pass play. The coaching staff will point out, and accurately so, that sacks are not the only measure of the effectiveness of a pass rush, and that the overall results were better than that ranking. Still, it's fair to say that the Bucs are not yet satisfied with the pressure they're getting up front, which was a contributing factor to the struggles against the pass last year. The resources the team has poured into that issue – Clayborn, Bowers and McCoy – is still expected to bear fruit in the years to come but, as mentioned above, there is always room for more pass-rushing talent. It should be noted that, while Clayborn didn't personally record a sack last year, his loss to a knee injury in September had an enormous effect on the team's overall pass-rush. Clayborn will return healthy in 2012 and both Bowers and McCoy will finally be able to enjoy a full offseason of preparation.
Summary: The Bucs have a little work to do before March 12 if they want to bring back the core of their defensive line from 2012, but no matter what happens with Bennett and Miller the team has a talented foundation on which to build up front. Tampa Bay won't be the only team trying to re-sign its pending free agents over the next four weeks, so a mildly intriguing field of potential signees will probably look less inviting once the market opens. On the other hand, the draft looks quite deep in defensive line candidates, so there are definitely opportunities to improve up front. The Bucs have poured significant resources into trying to light up their pass-rush in recent years, but that likely wouldn't stop them from doing so again if the opportunity is right.