Former Chargers G Toniu Fonoti was a Sports Illustrated first-team all-pro pick in 2004
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first free agent signing from outside their own team in 2006 is a big one. A really big one.
Massive guard Toniu Fonoti, an unrestricted free agent who split the 2005 season between San Diego and Minnesota, is the newest Buccaneer. He visited with Buccaneers brass on Friday and had a deal done before the day was over. One of the largest players at the league at well over 350 pounds, Fonoti was a Sports Illustrated first-team all-pro selection in 2004.
As is team policy, details of Fonoti's contract were not released.
The Buccaneers are always on the lookout for offensive line help, and Fonoti could provide a lot of that, particularly as a powerful run-blocker. Before injuries derailed his 2005 season – and, separately, led to his midseason trade to the Vikings – Fonoti was one of the league's best guards in 2004, when he helped produce the league's sixth-ranked rushing attack in San Diego. The Chargers also allowed the fourth-lowest sack total in the NFL in 2004, with 21, but the line's most important job was opening holes for Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
Officially listed at 6-4 and 350 pounds, Fonoti entered the league as a second-round draft choice in 2002, taking 39th overall. He stepped immediately into a starting role at right guard and opened 14 games, helping Tomlinson gain 1,683 rushing yards. Fonoti lost the following season to a foot injury suffered in the preseason, however, spending the whole year on injured reserve.
He came back from that bad break extremely well, starting all 16 games at left guard in 2004 and helping the Chargers post a 12-4 record. He started the first two games of 2005, too, but was then sidelined by a hand injury.
Meanwhile, the Vikings were hit by a rash of injuries to their interior linemen, leading them to pursue a recovered Fonoti in trade. The Chargers and Vikings pulled off a swap just before the trade deadline and, after giving Fonoti four weeks to learn the system, the Vikings installed him at left guard against Green Bay on November 21. Unfortunately, though Minnesota's revamped line provided strong run-blocking in that game, Fonoti suffered a groin injury and didn't play the rest of the year.
Overall, Fonoti has played in 34 games and started 33, getting extensive playing time at both guard spots. He could battle for one or both spots with the Buccaneers this summer. The team started rookie Dan Buenning at left guard and third-year man Sean Mahan at right guard in every game last season and improved its rushing attack from 29th in the league in 2004 to 14th last year. At the moment, Mahan is a restricted free agent.
Fonoti's signing comes one week into the league's free agency period, which was delayed eight days from its originally-planned starting date of March 3 due to protracted CBA negotiations. The Bucs were busy on the first day of free agency, re-signing three of their own players who had become unrestricted free agents on March 11: fullback Mike Alstott, kicker Matt Bryant and defensive tackle Chris Hovan. Fonoti's signing, however, is the Bucs' first move since that day and the first one that involves a player from another team.
Despite his four seasons in the league, Fonoti is still only 24 years old. He was born in American Samoa and played high school football in both California and Hawaii. At Nebraska, he was a consensus first-team All-America selection at Nebraska.