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)
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: Quarterbacks.
(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.)
1997: Steve Walsh
The Bucs' first QB signee in the free agency era was basically brought in to be Trent Dilfer's backup, which is what he did for his two years in Tampa. Walsh had originally come into the league though the 1989 supplemental draft, as his former college coach at Miami, Jimmy Johnson, used a first-round pick to get him even though Johnson's Cowboys had also just taken Troy Aikman with the first pick of the regular draft.
Aikman obviously became the long-term starter in Dallas, so Walsh was traded to the Saints in 1990 and he started 19 games over the next four years in New Orleans. He also opened 11 games with the Chicago Bears in 1993, but that was pretty much the end of his starting days. By the time he got to Tampa, there were some questions about his remaining arm strength, and he threw only 36 passes during his time with the Buccaneers.
2001: Brad Johnson
In January of 2000, after the Bucs won the 1999 NFC Central Division title, the Buccaneers knocked the Washington Redskins out of the playoffs with a come-from-behind 14-13 win at Raymond James Stadium. That put an end to a Pro Bowl season for Washington quarterback Brad Johnson, who had thrown for 4,005 yards during the regular season. It also extended a heady run for Bucs rookie passer Shaun King, who had led the team through a successful playoff stretch run after an injury to Dilfer. The Bucs would lose a close one in St. Louis to just miss their first Super Bowl berth, but King had bought himself the opportunity to start in 2000.
The Bucs even gave King a shiny new weapon by trading two first-round picks to the Jets for wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. However, Tampa Bay's passing attack was still relatively toothless, ranking 26th in the league, so the Bucs went shopping in free agency the next offseason and came up with…Brad Johnson. That would prove to be one of the best free agent signings in franchise history, as Johnson helped lead the Bucs to their first Super Bowl championship in his second season at the helm. Johnson made his second Pro Bowl that year after throwing 22 touchdowns against just six interceptions. He would have another strong season in 2003, although the team as a whole struggled, then cede the job to Chris Simms and Brian Griese in 2004.
2007: Jeff Garcia
As our list continues to alternate between passers signed for depth and signees earmarked for a starting spot, we land on Jeff Garcia, who would spend two fairly productive years in Tampa as the last primary starter under Jon Gruden.
Garcia suffered a handful of injuries during his two seasons with the Bucs but was able to start a total of 24 games in that span, winning 14 of them. Tampa Bay was definitely a team in need of a quarterback after the 2006 season, in which Simms had been lost early to a frightening spleen injury and sixth-round rookie Bruce Gradkowski had inherited most of the starts. The Bucs limped to a 4-12 finish after winning the 2005 NFC South division title, but still felt as if they had the core to make another playoff run.
They were right, and Garcia was a big part of it, putting together his fourth Pro Bowl season and his first in five years. His 94.6 passer rating was based largely on a 63.9% completion rate and a 13-4 TD-INT ratio. The Buccaneers won 10 games and a Wild Card berth, though their playoff run lasted just one game. Garcia was good again in 2008, but limited to 11 starts, and the Bucs lost their last four games to miss out on what seemed like a sure playoff berth.
2009: Byron Leftwich
When the Buccaneers drafted Josh Freeman in the first round in 2009, they intended to let him watch and learn from the sidelines for his entire rookie season. The team had 2008 draftee Josh Johnson on hand, but he had little experience at that point. So the Bucs signed veteran Byron Leftwich, the four-year starter for Jacksonville who had served as a valued backup in Atlanta and Pittsburgh the previous two seasons.
It was little surprise when Leftwich got the job to start the season, but a disappointing 0-3 start prompted Head Coach Raheem Morris to make the switch to Johnson. When the losing streak stretched to seven games, the Bucs decided to accelerate the timetable for Freeman, giving him his first start in Week Nine. Leftwich became the third-string quarterback and eventually landed on injured reserve with an elbow issue. The Bucs would trade him back to Pittsburgh the following offseason.
2012: Dan Orlovsky
Once again, this was a depth signing, as the Buccaneers were looking for an experienced veteran hand to back up and help develop Freeman, their promising starter heading into his fourth season. Freeman had taken a bit of a step back in 2013 after a very good 2012 campaign, but the Bucs were still committed to him in Head Coach Greg Schiano's first season.
Orlovsky was highly respected in Tampa and a steadying presence in the quarterback room, but he saw almost no playing time over two seasons as a Buccaneer. He played in three total games and threw seven passes before heading back to his original NFL home, Detroit, last year.
2004: Jason Garrett
The current Cowboys head coach was already thought of as a big asset on the sideline when the Buccaneers brought him to town in 2004 as part of a huge but ill-fated free agency class. But the Bucs also signed quarterback Brian Griese after he was released by the Dolphins in March and had Johnson and Simms on board, as well. Garrett was released during the final cuts, but then re-signed after Simms was injured in his first start.
After close to two months with the team, Garrett was released again and then signed by the Dolphins. He would finish up that season and his playing career in Miami and go immediately into coaching with the same team. There weren't particularly high expectations for Garrett when he signed with the Buccaneers in March of 2004, so the end result was no disaster.