Jason Licht, General Manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, notably had a very active draft weekend in April of 2018. Using a variety of trades he dramatically increased his team's draft capital after the picks began on a Thursday night, more than any other team did that weekend. The Buccaneers came away with such valuable performers as Vita Vea, Carlton Davis, Alex Cappa and Jordan Whitehead.
The following spring, the Buccaneers mostly stayed put in their original drafting spots, with one significant exception. The team had made a couple of minor deals before the draft involving late-round picks, but the only trade Licht engineered once the picks had begun was a move down in the third round. The Buccaneers sent the 70th overall pick to the Los Angeles Rams, who were targeting running back Darrell Henderson in exchange for picks 94 and 99.
Licht then proceeded to use the first of those two picks on Auburn cornerback Jamel Dean, who we covered last week in this Free Agent Focus series. Dean steadily improved over his first four years in Tampa, culminating in his best season yet in 2022, just as he approaches his first shot at unrestricted free agency. Dean will hit the open market on March 15 if he and the Buccaneers do not agree on a new deal before then.
The Buccaneers would have been happy to come away with such a successful selection at pick number 70, but by moving down Licht multiplied the team's draft assets. With the number 99 selection picked up in the deal with the Rams, Licht selected Kentucky safety Mike Edwards. Like Dean, Edwards is also a pending unrestricted free agent as his four-year rookie deal comes to an end in March.
Edwards started seven games as a rookie and 12 this past season, but in between he saw his playing time dip due to the presence of both Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead. When he did get on the field, however, he built a well-deserved reputation as a ball hawk. Edwards' five interceptions over the 2020-21 seasons combined tied Carlton Davis for the most by any Buccaneer defender in that span, even though Edwards played roughly 800 fewer snaps than Davis.
Edwards got a chance to start in 2022 when Whitehead left in free agency for the Jets. Now it is Edwards' turn to seek out a second NFL contract, potentially with his original team or potentially elsewhere. Edwards is one of 22 pending unrestricted free agents from the Bucs' 2022 roster (not counting the retired Tom Brady) and one of eight defenders who logged at least 400 defensive snaps last year. Clearly, the Bucs have a lot to sort through between now and March 15.
Roster turnover from season to season is a given in the NFL and it's certain that the Bucs won't be able to retain all of those potential free agents, but they will surely try to retain as much talent as possible, especially homegrown talent. And so, in the weeks leading up to the start of the new league year, we are going to look at 10 players who are currently poised to become unrestricted free agents in mid-March. This is the full schedule of our 2023 Free Agent Focus rundown:
February 15: WR Julio Jones
February 17: ILB Lavonte David
February 22: OLB Anthony Nelson
February 24: CB Jamel Dean
March 1: S Mike Edwards
March 3: DL Will Gholston
March 8: CB Sean Murphy-Bunting
March 10: DL Akiem Hicks
March 14: S Logan Ryan
March 15: OLB Carl Nassib
This list is subject to change based on potential roster moves in the coming weeks. However, we start this week with a defensive back who has shown a nose for the football in the early years of his career.
Player: Mike Edwards
Age at the Start of the 2023 Season: 27
Experience: Entering fifth NFL season
How Acquired: Selected in the third round (99th overall) in the 2019 NFL Draft
Previous Contract(s): Played first four seasons on standard-length contract given to players drafted after the first round.
Rank in Pro Football Focus Top 100 NFL Free Agents for 2023: Not listed.
2022 Performance: Edwards played in 13 games with a career-high 12 starts last season, missing one game near midseason with an elbow injury and three more near the end due to a hamstring strain. When he was in the lineup, he generally stayed on the field for every defensive play, eventually getting a 94% snap share.
Edwards finished third on the team with a career-best 82 tackles, adding three tackles for loss, one sack, two quarterback hits, two interceptions and three passes defensed. His two picks tied Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting for the team lead in 2022. In the Bucs' lone postseason contest, a Wild Card round loss to Dallas, Edwards racked up 10 tackles and a pass defensed.
Edwards was the only Buccaneer to score a defensive touchdown in 2022. His 68-yard fourth-quarter pick six at New Orleans in Week Two helped turn a 3-3 contest through three periods into a runaway 20-10 Bucs win.
Career Accomplishments: Edwards has played in 58 regular season games over his first four seasons, making 23 starts. He has amassed 184 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, three quarterback hits, seven interceptions, 21 passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He is the only Buccaneer defender with multiple interceptions in each of the past three seasons.
In addition to his critical pick-six in Week Two of this past season, Edwards also had a pair of scores on two interceptions in a Week Two win over Atlanta in 2021. He joined newly-minted Hall of Famer Rondé Barber as the only players in franchise history to record two pick-sixes in a single game. (Dwight Smith also memorably did so in Super Bowl XXXVII.) He leads all NFL players in interception return touchdowns over the past two seasons.
Edwards also played in all seven of the Bucs' postseason games over the past three years, making three starts. He recorded 33 tackles, two interceptions and five passes defensed in those seven contests.
Other Potential Free Agent Safeties: Jessie Bates (Bengals), Jordan Poyer (Bills), C.J. Gardner-Johnson (Eagles), Vonn Bell (Bengals), Jimmie Ward (49ers), Taylor Rapp (Rams), Julian Love (Giants), Juan Thornhill (Chiefs), Donovan Wilson (Cowboys), Adrian Amos (Packers), Rodney McLeod (Colts), Devin McCourty (Patriots), Marcus Epps (Eagles), Duron Harmon (Raiders), Eric Row (Dolphins), LaMarcus Joyner (Jets), Terrell Edmunds (Steelers), Nassir Adderley (Chargers)
Top Safety Prospects in 2023 NFL Draft: Brian Branch (Alabama), Antonio Johnson (Texas A&M), Jammie Robinson (Florida State), J.L. Skinner (Boise State), Sydney Brown (Illinois), Jordan Battle (Alabama), Ji'Ayir Brown (Penn State), Christopher Smith (Georgia), Brandon Joseph (Notre Dame), Jartavius Martin (Illinois), Ronnie Hickman (Ohio State), Rashad Torrence (Florida)