This time around, the Bucs were able to get QB Jeff Garcia to Tampa, and that made a huge difference in the 2007 season
For a good part of this decade, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' strategy in free agency was influenced by a lack of flexibility under the salary cap. Particularly following the team's Super Bowl XXXVII victory in 2002, the Buccaneers commonly focused on players who weren't necessarily the most coveted free agents available – "bargains," if you will.
Last offseason, however, the Bucs' front office enjoyed a level of freedom it hadn't had in recent years, the result of a concerted effort to get the cap under control. The team finally had the ability to target some of the more coveted players on the open market and the cap room to bring them to Tampa, if necessary.
Freed from their cap shackles, the Bucs didn't go on a wild spending spree. Instead, they targeted several key players that fit their existing needs and paid enough to get them to Tampa.
Looking back, it was definitely money well spent.
Below, we'll review Tampa Bay's free agency efforts in 2007. There are a handful of players the Bucs were able to add through other means that won't bear mention in this story. That includes 2007 sack leader Greg White, who wasn't in the NFL the year prior; linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, added just before the start of the regular season after being released by the Eagles in training camp; and defensive tackle Ryan Sims and running back Michael Bennett, both added via trade.
Instead, we'll be focusing on the five unrestricted free agents the Bucs signed during the 2007 offseason, as well as three other free agents who were released by their 2006 teams last February.
At the top of the list has to be quarterback Jeff Garcia, signed on the first day of free agency this past spring.
Seeking consistency and veteran experience at the signal-caller position, the Bucs found all that and more in Garcia. The ninth-year man played the 2006 season with the Philadelphia Eagles, taking over for injured starter Donovan McNabb in November and leading the team to a playoff berth. After very nearly luring him to Tampa in 2004, the Bucs finally got their man in 2007. Garcia started 13 games in his first year as a Buccaneer, throwing for nearly 2,500 yards and 13 touchdowns against only four interceptions, and his 94.6 passer rating ranked seventh in the NFL.
Garcia displayed the playmaking ability and knack for limiting mistakes the team was looking for, and he could easily be called the MVP of the Bucs' 2007 season. General Manager Bruce Allen said Garcia fulfilled everything the Bucs could have asked of him when he signed with the team last offseason.
"[Improving the quarterback play] was the primary goal last year, and Jeff Garcia's play really lifted this team," Allen said. "Jeff, as you all saw, is a tremendous competitor, which is what we were looking for when we brought him in, and he delivered. "
The Bucs also picked up an impact unrestricted free agent on the defensive side of the ball in linebacker Cato June. Signed away from the 2006 Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts after spending his first four seasons there, June came to Tampa and immediately stepped in as a full-time starter at strongside linebacker. June played in all 16 games in 2007, with 14 starts, and notched 120 tackles on the year. June thrived in his first year as a Buc, also adding an interception, a forced fumble and two passes defensed, and looks to be a key cog in the linebacking corps for years to come.
Allen mentioned June's ability to play within the Bucs' defensive scheme as a key component in his decision to join the team.
"I'm sure Cato June could have received more money to go somewhere else," Allen said. "The fact that he wanted to come here and play alongside the linebackers we have in our system, made him a perfect fit for us."
Fullback B.J. Askew joined the Bucs after spending his first four years in the NFL with the New York Jets, and immediately brought a blend of toughness and athleticism to Tampa Bay's backfield. Filling in for the iconic Mike Alstott couldn't have been easy, but Askew showed a remarkable amount of grit. An ankle injury bothered Askew late in the season, an ailment that often confined him to a walking cast during the week, but he still suited up and played in 13 games, setting career highs in receptions (18) and receiving yards (175). More importantly, he drew raves from the coaching staff for his hard-nosed lead blocking.
The Bucs also picked up another offensive weapon in tight end Jerramy Stevens, who played his first five NFL seasons in Seattle. Stevens was not significantly involved in the Bucs' offense for the first few months of 2007, but he came on strong over his last four games, picking up 10 of his 18 receptions on the year, 111 of his 189 receiving yards and all four of his touchdowns. That included a memorable game-winner in the closing seconds against New Orleans in Week 13. Stevens' showing down the stretch is a promising sign for what he can accomplish over a full season in 2008.
The last unrestricted free agents the Bucs signed in 2007 was defensive end Patrick Chukwurah. Inactive for seven games, Chukwurah still managed to post 16 tackles on the year, including a sack and a fumble recovery. A sixth-year player who joined the Bucs after spending the previous two seasons as a Denver Bronco, Chukwurah was also a valuable special teams contributor, picking up 10 kick coverage tackles in 2007.
Three other players joined the Bucs during the 2007 offseason after being released by their previous employers. Tackle Luke Petitgout was cut by the New York Giants in February, then signed with the Bucs on March 6th. Expected to anchor the offensive line from the left tackle position, Petitgout started four games before suffering a season-ending knee injury at Carolina. Although Petitgout's 2007 season ended in a disappointingly premature fashion, Head Coach Jon Gruden still holds the nine-year veteran in high regard and expects him to contribute in 2008.
Veteran defensive end Kevin Carter came to Tampa Bay after being released by the Miami Dolphins, and he continued to show the durability that has marked his 13-year career. Carter played in all 16 games, starting 14, and picked up 73 tackles and three sacks on the year to go along with a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass defensed. Aside from his play on the field, Carter also brought additional veteran leadership to the Bucs' locker room and said he hopes to return for at least one more season in 2008.
Finally, cornerback Sammy Davis joined the Bucs in March after being released by the 49ers and added depth to the secondary. Davis tallied 20 tackles and two passes defensed on the year.
In hindsight, the players the Buccaneers were able to add in free agency turned out to be overwhelmingly successful. With even more salary cap flexibility available this offseason, Allen is looking for more success in the free agent market this time around, saying it is an exciting time to be the man tasked with constructing the Bucs.
"I'm looking forward to the 2008 season," Allen said. "We have the ability to acquire more players. First and foremost, we can play better. We can execute better on the field and we can train better. But the best way to improve the team is to increase the talent level on this team. We have the ability, whether it's a trade or in free agency, or having another good draft, that we can improve this football team."