The Bucs don't have to wait for free agency to add players to their active roster, as T Luke Petitgout and others on injured reserve are on the way back
Nothing provides more offseason excitement than making a huge splash when the March free agency period begins, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may indeed add some big-time contributors in that manner. However, General Manager Bruce Allen already has his eye on a group of players that he believes will bolster the Bucs' roster just as significantly – the 14 Buccaneers who landed on injured reserve in 2007.
The injury bug bit the Bucs especially hard in 2007, and that added a significant level of difficulty to what the team was trying to accomplish. The silver lining, however, is that the 2008 team can improve simply by getting some key contributors healthy again.
"The best way we can improve our team is to get those 14 guys from the injured reserve list healthy again, because that would be the greatest increase in talent," Allen said. "We finished the season with 53 men on our roster, but we also had the 14 injured reserve players who we're looking at as a new group of free agents. We've got to get them back into the system, healthy again, competing for starting playing time and special teams playing time, in order to improve this team. If you add that type of quality to a 53-man roster, that's a great leg up on free agency."
Aside from the big-name offensive players the Bucs lost in fullback Mike Alstott, running back Cadillac Williams and left tackle Luke Petitgout, some key contributors on special teams also missed significant time, including linebacker Antoine Cash, defensive back Torrie Cox and wide receivers Mark Jones and Maurice Stovall. There is no guarantee that all 14 of those men will be back in uniform for the Buccaneers next season, but those who do return are sure to make a difference.
From that starting point, the Bucs are well positioned to then dip into the free agency pool if it will make the team better.
"We're in good shape," Allen said. "I think it's about $23 million under the cap, and $45 or $50 million the next year. We have the leeway where that will be a non-issue."
Allen cautioned, however, that simply because there is cap space available does not mean the team will be any less prudent in how that money is spent.
"We have the opportunity to go after anybody that is available," Allen said. "We look at things a little differently. There are values we put on someone where other teams might put a different value on that player. The amount of money that you receive does not make you a better player. Circumstances sometimes dictate [success]; if you line up next to someone, than you could be a better player in that system.
"I'm sure Cato June could have received more money to go somewhere else. 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. There's no limit to who we can go after, which is a nice feeling going into free agency."
When cap space is tight, a team can be limited in its options, hoping the right players match up with its needs at the right value. Now that the Bucs have room to maneuver, they can legitimately look at any player that is available, and they don't plan to limit themselves to one or two pressing needs.
"Everything is a priority, everything," said Allen. "It's the entire team and as you all got to witness, there are so many great stories for guys, the Earnest Grahams and people like that, the Donald Penn's this year. We want to go into training camp with 80 players all capable of starting for us in case they have to, so wherever we can get dominant players, we absolutely will."
With the free agency strategy in place, Allen said he's most excited about the depth and talent the Bucs displayed in 2007 and will have returning in 2008. While the injuries that hampered the club were a pain at the time, they gave many players a chance to gain experience and step up when called upon.
As players return from their injuries and the backups and reserves who played in their absence continue to build on the experience they gained this year, Allen said it all adds up to a solid group returning in 2008.
"A lot of people got a chance this year, for one reason or another," Allen said. "I think the best way we can improve this team is by addition. Let's get those guys healthy and competing. Would I like to sign a Tiger Woods at every position? Absolutely. We did not have a Pro Bowl player this year. We can talk about why and were we not on national TV and those things, but we need some players to come in and help this football team and dominate. Everybody inside that locker room is going to be given an opportunity. We put a great emphasis on our offseason program and the teachings of our coaches, and the time they commit to our players is unparalleled in this league. If somebody wants an opportunity to be a great player, they will have that this March, April, May and June."
While clearly pleased to have the cap under control after years of being limited, Allen declined to place too much emphasis on free agency in the act of building a franchise.
"It depends on if those Tiger Woods players are available," he said. "We have the infrastructure set. It starts with the best facility in the country, without a doubt. It starts with the leadership at coaching, and it starts with a core of players that have tasted victory. We still have some champions on this team that can lead this team. There is no reason that we can't compete in the future."
Would adding a big-name free agent or two be a great move to bolster the Bucs' roster? Possibly. But clearly Allen's plan for the future includes building consistency and depth from within, and getting those players lost to injury in 2007 back on the field is of the utmost importance.