Photos of NFL.com's 101 best free agents expected to hit the market on March 10. (Note: this list includes players that were franchise tagged on Monday, March 2)
NFL's TOP 5 LINEBACKER FREE AGENTS](/news/article-1/NFLs-Top-5-Free-Agent-Linebackers/a87a3523-b394-47c5-9064-81b8acbe5d56)
In the two-plus decades since the advent of unrestricted free agency in 1993, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have tried their hand at important players at every position on the depth chart, with varying levels of success. With the 2015 free agency period set to begin on Tuesday, March 10, Buccaneers.com is taking a look at the team's free agency history, position by position. Today: Linebackers.
(Note: This list contains only players who were unrestricted or restricted free agents, and thus does not include players who were available because they had been released by their previous teams prior to free agency.)
1993: Hardy Nickerson and Van Waiters
And just like that, the free agency era started off with a homer run for the Buccaneers.
In the first year of the open market, Tampa Bay actually went after two Pittsburgh Steelers, and the higher-profile target was starting quarterback Neil O'Donnell, who was coming off a Pro Bowl season. O'Donnell was a restricted free agent, so the Buccaneers signed him to an offer sheet but could do nothing about it when Pittsburgh choose to match. On the other hand, linebacker Hardy Nickerson was an unrestricted free agent, and when he got a chance to become a cornerstone player with another team he jumped at it.
Nickerson had been with Pittsburgh for six seasons, and was a starter for most of the previous three in their 3-4 front. The Buccaneers wanted Nickerson to be their MIKE in a 4-3 base, and they couldn't have chosen better. Nickerson stepped right in 2013, set a Buccaneer record with 213 tackles and became the team's first Pro Bowler in three years. That was the beginning of a brilliant seven-year run in Tampa during which he racked up 1,028 tackles (third in team history) and was just as important to the team for his leadership skills. When the players who would form the core of the team's legendary defense began to arrive – John Lynch, Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, et al – it was Nickerson who served as their mentor and helped pull the whole unit together.
If not for the Packers' wise pick-up of DE Reggie White, the signing of Nickerson might have been the best move in the NFL's first year of free agency. As for Waiters, he was released in August and never signed again in the NFL.
1994: Lonnie Marts
Originally an undrafted free agent with the Chiefs in 1990, Marts had shown enough during three seasons in Kansas City (after a rookie year on IR) to merit a decent amount of interest on the free agent market. He made six visits to other teams before finally deciding on the Buccaneers, and that proved fortunate for Tampa Bay.
Marts spent three seasons with the team, all of them as the starter at left outside linebacker. He was actually a better fit as the SAM 'backer in the scheme imported by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin in his third season, as it unleashed his pass-rush skills and led to a seven-sack campaign. Of course, that also made Marts more interesting in his next trip to the open market, and he jumped to Tennessee in 1997, putting up three more good seasons with the Titans and a final two in Jacksonville.
2004: Keith Burns, Ian Gold and Jeff Gooch
Of the three, Gold was the biggest target in this group, as he was ticketed for the starting strongside spot and was coming off four good years in Denver, including one Pro Bowl berth. Gold did indeed step into the starting lineup, but he didn't end up fitting as well as many predecessors at that spot; after Marts, the team had cycled through Rufus Porter, Gooch, Shelton Quarles, Alshermond Singleton and Ryan Nece, with mostly good results. Tampa Bay was hoping for some big plays but got just one interception and half a sack and decided to part ways with Gold after the season.
Burns and Gooch were both long-time special teams contributors in the NFL, and of course Gooch had spent his first six seasons in Tampa. They both made the team and played in all 16 games, but neither was a Buccaneer beyond that season.
2006: Jamie Winborn
A second-round pick by San Francisco in 2001, Winborn had shown signs of his talent but had consistently struggled with injuries. When he got the chance to start 10 games in 2004 he contributed 4.5 sacks and eight passes defensed. After a year spent playing mostly on special teams in Jacksonville, he signed with Tampa and had the chance to compete with Nece for the starting strongside job. However, he would end up playing in just 14 games with no starts. He renegotiated his deal before the next season but was still released in early September. Winborn would play four more seasons in the league, however, with Denver and Tennessee.
2007: Cato June
Yet again, the Buccaneers signed a veteran linebacker to plug into the strong side of the defense opposite Derrick Brooks. In this case, it was the undersized June, who had been a dynamic playmaker the previous three seasons in Indianapolis. The Bucs wanted some more of the 10 interceptions he had snared from 2004-06, and gave him two seasons in the starting lineup to make it happen. June's impact in Tampa didn't measure up to that Indy precursor, however, and the Bucs moved on after the '08 campaign.
2008: Leon Joe, Teddy Lehman and Matt McCoy
Not much to see here, really. The Bucs made mostly mid-level free agency signings in '08, and with these three they hoped to find some depth and special teams help. Neither Joe nor Lehman made it to training camp that year (though both did officially get chances elsewhere), while McCoy managed to stick for two years, mostly as a reserve. McCoy did get two spot starts in 2009, but the former second-round pick in Philly never got back to the starter status he had in 2006.
2009: Angelo Crowell
Crowell came to Tampa in 2008 trying to rebound from a knee injury that had interrupted a strong run in Buffalo. From 2005-07, Crowell started for the Bills and produced 360 tackles, five interceptions and seven sacks, emerging as a team captain. However, he suffered a knee injury in training camp in 2008 and missed the entire season. He worked his way back to full strength with the Buccaneers during the 2009 offseason but then suffered a torn biceps during the preseason. Crowell would re-sign with the Buccaneers again the following season, but he never made it back onto the field.
2013: Jonathan Casillas
Casillas came to town with a reputation as a strong special teamer, and he did nothing in one-and-a-half seasons to dispel that idea. He also had a chance to compete for the starting strongside spot in both of his Buccaneer campaigns, logging a total of seven starts over that span. The Buccaneers traded Casillas to the New England Patriots at the deadline last fall.
2014: Dane Fletcher
Like Casillas, Fletcher was a proven special-teamer who came to Tampa with the hopes of possibly carving out a larger role. A defensive end in college, Fletcher had shown some pass-rushing talents for the Patriots at outside linebacker, and the Bucs thought he could be a good fit in the middle. Fletcher was not able to upend Mason Foster for the starting job, but he did open four games while Foster was hurt. He was also second on the team with 10 kick-coverage stops.