Last March, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed former San Diego wide receiver Vincent Jackson to a lucrative free agency deal expressed completely in fives. The first two fives were the important ones, of course, representing the deal's millions, but the rest were there to make a point. Tampa Bay's young quarterback, Josh Freeman, wears the number five, and the addition of Jackson was supposed to help him take his game, and the Bucs' offense, to another level.
There aren't too many offseason developments more fun for an NFL fan than to have his or her team sign a big-name wide receiver. Even with the actual games still months away, it's easy to imagine the big plays and touchdowns he will provide, the quantifiable difference he will make on the scoreboard and the excitement level of the action.
It doesn't always work out that way, of course. Perhaps the fit isn't right, or the receiver has difficulty transitioning from being the #2 option on his original team to the #1 target on his new club. Maybe the newcomer's work ethic proves disappointing, or it's simply a matter of a player being past his prime. Roy Williams never really worked out in Dallas after coming over from Detroit, and Randy Moss's tenure in Oakland wasn't too happy (those were trades instead of signings, but the dynamic is the same). Most Buc fans remember Alvin Harper, and not particularly fondly.
Oh, but it worked out for the Buccaneers last year. The signing of Vincent Jackson was an unmitigated success (more on that below), one of the best personnel decisions in team history. The 1-2 punch of Jackson and Mike Williams was the team's best since Mark Carrier and Bruce Hill, and may prove to be the best yet. Jackson was not only a hit on the stat sheet but the consummate pro and instant leader in the locker room.
Well, then: "Thank you, sir. May I have another?"
Could the Bucs be tempted to go wideout hunting in free agency again this year, looking to add depth to a position that was admittedly top-heavy in 2012? That would seem like a bold move, and there are other areas of the depth chart that seem more in need. However, while it would be a surprise to see the Bucs go after another #1 type of receiver after landing Jackson, there is always room for depth at the position. Thus, we will now examine where the team stands at wide receiver and what their might be to gain from free agency, as opposed to the draft, this coming spring.
As we do at each position in our free agency primers, 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 2012?
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
Two of the Buccaneers' 10 pending unrestricted free agents are receivers, but the pair accounted for just one catch between them in 2012. One is Sammie Stroughter, who missed most of the season due to injury, and the other is Roscoe Parrish, who was valuable as a return man but rarely used in the passing game.
Of course, that doesn't preclude the possibility of either player making an impact on offense in 2013, should he return.
Stroughter, in particular, has a history with the Bucs' offense and has shown he can be effective in the slot. He had 31 catches as a rookie in 2009, despite joining the team as a seventh-round draft pick, and another 24 in 2010. Stroughter has unfortunately been the victim of a string of injuries, however, and has played only eight game the past two years. Parrish has 134 career catches, including 33 with Buffalo as recently as 2010. Both players are also proven return men, Stroughter more so on kickoffs and Parrish more so on punts, which could make them more attractive to the Buccaneers when re-signing decisions are being made.
There are no restricted free agents to worry about in the Bucs' receiver room. Jackson just finished his first year on the aforementioned deal and is inked through 2016. Williams and Arrelious Benn, fellow 2010 draft picks, won't hit the market until 2014; the same is true of Tiquan Underwood, who emerged as the team's primary #3 receiver last fall.
- The potential free agent market
This time last year, we raved about the possibilities in free agency at the receiver position, given the list of big-name pass-catchers that could conceivably hit the market. As it turned out, a good many of those were crossed off the list before the market opened. Jackson and Brandon Lloyd (St. Louis to New England) were the two high-impact receivers who were able to switch teams; Robert Meachem (New Orleans to San Diego) and Mario Manningham (N.Y. Giants to San Francisco) did as well, but to lesser eventual results.
Meanwhile, Wes Welker, DeSean Jackson, Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe, Reggie Wayne and Stevie Johnson all stayed put with their original clubs. That was a serious talent drain from the position in free agency, but none of those individual re-signings was even remotely surprising. There were some other potential contributors at the position who did change teams with the idea of finding a better situation, but in the end the group – which included Laurent Robinson, Legedu Naanee, Jerome Simpson and Braylon Edwards – had a relatively small combined impact in 2012.
This year, the pool of receivers once again looks potentially deep, perhaps the deepest of any position in free agency…at least in mid-February. One wonders if the list will once again be sliced in half, or worse, before March 12, however.
A couple of the big names are repeats from last year: Bowe and Welker, and there is a general sense that both players are more likely to depart their current teams this time around. They are two completely different types of offensive weapons, but both potentially enormous additions to another team's offense. Bowe is the prototypical size/speed receiver, standing 6-2 and about 220 while Welker is a smaller, ultra-productive waterbug type who can work any part of the field. A year ago, Bowe got the franchise tag from the Chiefs and then signed a one-year deal, and though his numbers were down in 2012 due in part to an injury (and Kansas City's woes at quarterback), he had averaged roughly 1,000 yards and seven TDs a season before that. Welker, amazingly, has had more than 110 catches in four of the last five seasons. Last year, he finished with 1,354 yards and nine touchdowns on 118 grabs.
Even if those two don't leave their current situations, shopping teams may get a crack at Greg Jennings or Mike Wallace, two more pass-catchers who are sure to be highly coveted. Injuries cost the 29-year-old Jennings much of the 2012 campaign but he had averaged 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns per season over the previous half-decade. Wallace is one of the NFL's most dangerous deep threats, with a career average of 17.2 yards per catch and eight touchdowns per season, and his previous contract disputes with Pittsburgh might have him eager to leave town.
As usual, there are plenty of other potentially helpful receivers on the next tier, players who aren't likely to command as big of a contract as a Bowe or a Welker but could help out significantly in an expanded role. That group includes the Rams' Danny Amendola, the Dolphins' Brian Hartline, the Cowboys' Kevin Ogletree and the Patriots' Julian Edelman.
In short, there are definitely some interesting names on the current list of pending free agent receivers, but there's reason to worry that the list will be significantly shorter by March 12. The situation could be similar to last year, when one team (the Buccaneers) grabbed the cream of the crop but few other teams found much free agency help at the position.
- Is the top of the draft a better option?
It usually is, but this isn't necessarily the deepest year for the receiver position. There is time for the prospects to sort themselves out, beginning at next week's Scouting Combine, but at the moment it's hard to identify a definite top pick out of the group. That discord is easy to see on the current collection of expert mock drafts on NFL.com. For instance, analyst Daniel Jeremiah has Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson going ninth overall to the Jets while his colleague, Charles Davis, doesn't even have Patterson in the first round. The first receiver off the board for Gil Brandt is Baylor's Terrance Williams at #14, while Albert Breer has two receivers – Patterson and California's Keenan Allen – going in the top 12.
Patterson and Allen are most commonly mentioned as the top receiver prospects this year, and both have that Dwayne Bowe type of size. Patterson stands 6-3 and 205 pounds while Allen, who missed time in 2012 due to injuries, is listed as the same size. There are other big receivers in the mix for the first few rounds, including Tennessee's Justin Hunter and Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins. West Virginia's Tavon Austin could be this year's Kendall Wright, the smallish Baylor receiver who went in the first round last year (20th overall to Tennessee) in the middle of such big wideouts as Michael Floyd, Justin Blackmon and Stephen Hill.
Of course, the other half of the equation is whether or not the Buccaneers will be in position to use some high-round draft resources on the position. Tampa Bay is slated to pick 13th in Round One, which should be in range to grab one of the top two or three receivers listed above, if that was the direction the team chose. However, given the productivity of the Bucs' passing game last year compared to some other areas of potential need, few mock drafters would pair the team with a receiver in the first round. Mark Dominik and the Bucs' personnel decision-makers could conceivably feel differently, but it would definitely be a surprise selection.
The Bucs also have a relatively high pick in the second and third rounds, and two in the fourth (which, as was evident last year, can be used as resources to move around with trades in the earlier rounds). Since overall player value becomes more important as teams move down through the draft rounds – talent plus need drives a lot of early-round decision making – the Bucs could find receiver depth at some point in the first two days.
- Tampa Bay's free agent history
If the Bucs' previous forays into the receiver free agency market was a somewhat even ledger of hits and misses, last year's signing of Jackson tipped the scales towards the side of success. After just one season, it's clear that the addition of Jackson ranks among the best signings in franchise history, right up there with Hardy Nickerson, Simeon Rice, Brad Johnson, Michael Pittman and, most likely in the long run, fellow 2012 newcomer Carl Nicks.
After all, Jackson became the first receiver since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to make the Pro Bowl for one conference, switch teams and then immediately make the Pro Bowl again for the other conference. With Jackson threatening several team records and leading the NFL in yards per catch, the Bucs' offense produced franchise-record numbers in yards, passing yards and points scored.
Not every receiver signing has gone that well for Tampa Bay, however. Just three years into the current free agency system, having already made some legitimately good hits with the likes of Nickerson, Martin Mayhew, Jackie Harris and Lonnie Marts, Tampa Bay went even bolder in 1995 and swiped wide receiver Alvin Harper from the two-time Super Bowl-winning Dallas Cowboys. Harper had developed into one of the league's top deep threats playing opposite Michael Irvin (as evidenced by his NFL-leading 24.9 yards per catch in 1994), and Buccaneers brass believed he could transition to a number-one receiver in a different offense. Harper was supposed to give Trent Dilfer a go-to receiver in Dilfer's first full season as a starter.
Of course, as most Buc fans know, it didn't work out that way. Harper didn't look like a number-one receiver in Tampa and his stay was tumultuous both on and off the field. He eventually played just two seasons with the Bucs, recording 65 catches and three touchdowns. He would appear in just 14 more NFL games, with two receptions, after that.
The Bucs tried again three years later with Bert Emanuel, who was actually a restricted free agent in Atlanta. The converted college quarterback was coming off three straight 900-plus-yard seasons, but again it didn't work out in Tampa. He played just two seasons with the Bucs, like Harper, and never topped 41 catches, 636 yards or two touchdowns. Like Harper, he didn't play much after that, either.
The tide turned in 2002 with the signings of Joe Jurevicius and Keenan McCardell, both of whom were key pieces in that year's Super Bowl-winning formula. McCardell wasn't technically an unrestricted free agent – Jacksonville released him for salary reasons in June, at a time when such a maneuver made sense from a salary cap standpoint – but he was definitely one of the Bucs' most important offseason additions. McCardell and Jurevicius gave Brad Johnson two additional targets to go with Keyshawn Johnson, and it all came together in the postseason, when all three contributed huge plays. The rest of Jurevicius' Buccaneer career was hampered by injuries, but McCardell turned in a Pro Bowl 2003 before being traded away amid a salary dispute.
Johnson, for his part, was a mostly successful offseason acquisition for the Buccaneers but he doesn't really fit here as he came over from the Jets in a trade. Later, he would in turn be traded to Dallas straight-up for Joey Galloway, who is another one of the franchise's most successful offseason pick-ups, especially at wide receiver.
Until Jackson, there hadn't been much free agency action at receiver for the Buccaneers since that big 2002 haul, especially if one doesn't include David Boston and Antonio Bryant. Both Boston and Bryant had been out of football for at least a year when the Bucs signed them (in 2006 and 2008, respectively), so they weren't unrestricted free agents. Boston didn't pan out for Tampa Bay but Bryant was so good in 2008 (83-1,248-7, with several spectacularly athletic grabs) that he got the franchise tag heading into 2009. A knee injury derailed Bryant the following season, however.
Basically, the Buccaneers' free agency history at the receiver position boils down to the two early misses on Harper and Emanuel against the double-dip success in 2002, and now the scale-tipping Jackson. If the Bucs choose to try again in 2013, there are some attractive options to add on to last year's success.
- 2012 Performance
Again, Vincent Jackson was an instant hit in a Buccaneers uniform, Mike Williams rebounded from a minor sophomore slump to put up strong numbers as a #2 receiver and the team's final passing-game totals were the best in franchise history. Jackson put up the second-highest receiving yardage total in team annals (1,384) and averaged a whopping 19.2 yards per grab. Williams fell just four yards shy of joining Jackson over 1,000 and became the first player in team history with two seasons of at least nine touchdown catches. Those two, and rookie RB Doug Martin, helped turn Josh Freeman into the first 4,000-yard passer in Buc history, and the team's 248.9 net passing yards per game were a new franchise record.
Tiquan Underwood's emergence as the team's #3 receiver for much of the season was a bit of a surprise, given that he was initially released at the start of the regular season. He returned in Week Three and turned in a handful of big plays, averaging 15.2 yards per catch on the season. Arrelious Benn had some unfortunate injury luck once again but was helpful in the kick return game before he went down. No other receiver contributed more than one catch on the season.
The Bucs ended up with a significant amount of turnover behind Jackson and Williams by the end of the season. Preston Parker and Dezmon Briscoe departed while Benn and Sammie Stroughter ended up on injured reserve. Though Underwood remains under contract, it's fair to say that the Buccaneers will be searching for some more depth at the position after relying nearly exclusively on their top two wideouts last year.
Summary: The hugely successful signing of Vincent Jackson a year ago breathed life into the Bucs' passing game and also put them in a position where they would surprise many if they made a huge splash at the receiver position again this year either in free agency or the first round of the draft. However, the Bucs' receiving corps lacked depth in 2012 when it was all said and done, and that might be a more significant priority for the team in 2013 than is immediately obvious. There may not be another Jackson signing on the horizon for the Bucs this spring, but the Pro Bowl receiver will likely get some new teammates in his meeting room in 2013, one way or another.