The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Vincent Jackson to a five-year, $55 million deal as an unrestricted free agent in 2012 but they probably didn't expect him to play all five years of that contract. Veteran contracts of that length rarely go the distance, but Jackson, one of the best free agent signees in franchise history, was indeed a Buccaneer through 2016.
That same 2012 free agency class brought Carl Nicks to town, and at the time that signing was considered a major coup. Not only did the Buccaneers get one of the NFL's best guards in his prime, but they stole him from a division rival after the New Orleans Saints were forced to use their franchise tag on Drew Brees. No one could have predicted that a toe injury would essentially render this pick-up moot.
The point is, the Bucs had high hopes for their two biggest free agent signings in 2012, but couldn't have foreseen, that March, how much those two paths would diverge. The same is true for this March; we won't be able to truly judge how well Tampa Bay's 2018 free agent class turns out for a few years, much as it takes some time to fairly evaluate every draft class. That said, the Buccaneers have been active in free agency – and, in one big case, on the trade market – and the results look promising on paper.
Free agency began just a little over a week ago, and the Buccaneers have used it to make five additions, four of which play on the front lines. The aforementioned trade, which brought in Jason Pierre-Paul for a third-round pick on Thursday, added yet another newcomer to the defensive front. Prior to the opening bell, the team also wrapped up some very important business by re-signing two key offensive pieces in Mike Evans and Cameron Brate. The Evans deal doesn't technically fit into the free agency picture as he was already under contract for 2018, but Brate was set to become a restricted free agent. Tampa Bay also used the days just before and after the start of free agency to re-sign the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brent Grimes and Keith Tandy.
Have the Bucs improved in free agency? Again, only time will tell, but they are certainly putting in the effort. Let's take a look at what the team has done so far, and what might still be accomplished, both in terms of the overall free agency market and Tampa Bay's own unsigned players.
- DT Beau Allen (Philadelphia)
- K Chandler Catanzaro (N.Y. Jets)
- DE Vinny Curry (Philadelphia)*
- C Ryan Jensen (Baltimore)
- LB Cameron Lynch (L.A. Rams)*
- DE Jason Pierre-Paul (via trade with the N.Y. Giants)
- DT Mitch Unrein (Chicago)
( Curry was released by the Eagles and was thus not technically an unrestricted free agent like the other four on the list. Lynch was not tendered as a restricted free agent by the Rams and thus was simply a free agent able to sign with any team.)
There's a definite in-the-trenches theme to the Bucs' initial run through free agency, but let's first discuss the big exception to that trend in kicker Chandler Catanzaro.
It was apparent at the end of the 2017 season that the Buccaneers would be looking for a new kicker despite the good work put in by October replacement Patrick Murray. In his second stint with the team, Murray proved once again to be a reliable field goal kicker in the short to medium range. It was an admirable season for Murray, but the Buccaneers wanted to have a better weapon on kickoffs as well as a potential long-range threat on field goals. Catanzaro has made five of eight 50+-yard field goals over the past two years and was the league's seventh-best touchback-producer on kickoffs in 2017. Given the Bucs' troubles in nailing down a long-term answer at the placekicker spot in the 2010s, it's fair to reserve judgment on their latest signing, but Catanzaro looks like a solid, low-risk bet at the position.
View photos of the newest Buccaneer DT Beau Allen. Photos by AP Images.
The Bucs now have two members of Philadelphia's very effective defensive line rotation, one of the key elements to their Super Bowl championship run. Allen was considered a key cog in the Eagles' league-best run defense; that's a little tough to quantify for an individual player, although there are sources that agree with that assessment, and Allen himself considers it to be accurate.*
The Bucs' run defense clearly needed help after a rough 2017, and the defensive tackle position had been thinned by free agency and the release of Chris Baker. In addition to Allen, the Bucs also signed former Chicago Bear Mitch Unrein, who is also coming off a fine 2017 performance. With Allen, Unrein, Gerald McCoy and possibly 2017 draftee Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, the DT rotation suddenly looks a lot better, particularly since Curry is capable of moving to an interior spot on passing downs.
That said, a toothless edge rush was arguably an even bigger issue that needed to be addressed this offseason, and that made the Eagles' cap-related release of Curry a real boon for the Buccaneers. Curry's release wasn't a big surprise, given Philly's cap issues and their depth on the line, and it's a virtual certainly that the Buccaneers' personnel department was monitoring that situation ever since the Eagles' trade for Michael Bennett. When Curry was released last Friday, the Bucs swooped in as quickly as possible.
View photos of the newest Buccaneer, DE Vinny Curry. Pictures from AP Images.
Curry has a nine-sack season on his resume, and that came in 2014 when he didn't start a single game. He had "only" three sacks last year (that still would have been best among defensive ends if he was a Buccaneer) but he also had 18 QB pressures, tying for most on the Eagles' line. That's something that Curry has done consistently through his five years as a regular rotation guy, and it's particularly impressive given that he mostly only played on first and second downs last year. He'll almost surely get more opportunities in passing downs as a Buccaneer, which will hopefully spike his production.
The trade for Pierre-Paul was arguably even bigger, given his long track record as one of the NFL's best pass-rushers. Pierre-Paul came over from the Giants in exchange for Tampa Bay's third-rounder, number 69 overall, and the deal also included a fourth-round swap that saw the Bucs move up from #108 to #102. Pierre-Paul had 8.5 sacks last year, which led New York's defense and topped any total put up by a Buccaneer pass-rusher. He is still just 29 years old, he has 58.5 career sacks on his resume and he's twice topped double digits in a season. A line that now boasts Pierre-Paul and Curry on the ends on most downs, with Noah Spence as the top pass-rush specialists, looks a lot more dangerous to opposing passers and should also be more stout against the run.*
On the other side of the line, the signing of Jensen was a power move given that he drew a ton of interest around the league. Despite the fact that Head Coach Dirk Koetter has said on multiple occasions that the team is internally higher on its offensive line talent than are outside analysts, the Jensen move is a clear indicator that there was room for improvement. This is particularly true in the ground game, where the Bucs have struggled for the past two years. The run-pass play percentage numbers make it clear that Koetter places a premium on establishing a ground game, even when the results aren't there. The "nasty" Jensen should help in that regard. It's also an interesting signing in that it obviously pushes budding star Ali Marpet back to guard after a one-year experiment at center.
Lynch is a depth signing who should continue to contribute on special teams. He spent most of the 2017 season with the Bucs before being released in early December when injuries forced the team to add several offensive linemen. It's a good bet that Lynch would have eventually returned to the Bucs if he hadn't been snapped up by the Rams, his first NFL team. It took a bit longer, but the Bucs eventually got him back.
- RB Peyton Barber
- TE Cameron Brate
- DE Will Clarke
- QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
- LB Adarius Glanton
- CB Brent Grimes
- S Keith Tandy
That's a long list, though it's spiked by three players who could have also been retained by qualifying offers. Barber was due to become an exclusive rights free agent while Brate and Glanton were potential restricted free agents. The Brate deal stands out from the other two in that it is a long-term and higher-dollar commitment, an indication of how highly the Buccaneers value the former undrafted free agent.
View some of the top photos of CB Brent Grimes from the 2017 season.
Other than Brate, the best news on that list is probably the return of Brent Grimes, who has been the team's best cornerback the last two seasons. Grimes briefly became an unrestricted free agent, but the Buccaneers were always more likely to lose him to retirement than another team. He came back on a pretty big one-year deal, but the team would have been fairly thin at cornerback without him.
Barber will have a shot to win the starting job in the backfield in 2018 after a good finish to the 2017 season, though it wouldn't be a surprise to see the team add to the position in the draft. Fitzpatrick comes back to reprise his 2017 competition with Ryan Griffin and potentially his role as Jameis Winston's primary backup. That wasn't a surprise move, as General Manager Jason Licht made it clear at the NFL Scouting Combine that the team was significantly interested in bringing Fitzpatrick back.
Clarke, Glanton and Tandy all give the Buccaneers familiar depth on defense. Clarke was fairly productive as a rotational end, Glanton filled in admirably when Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander were hurt and Tandy has plenty of productive experience as a starter. Glanton and Tandy were also valuable special-teamers last year.
Remaining Unrestricted Free Agents
- G Adam Gettis
- C Joe Hawley
- CB Robert McClain
- K Patrick Murray
- LS Garrison Sanborn
- DT Sealver Siliga
- RB Charles Sims
- G Evan Smith
- DE Justin Trattou
- S T.J. Ward
This list only includes players who became unrestricted free agents on March 14 by virtue of their contracts running out. It does not include three players who would have remained under contract in 2018 if not for their respective releases: defensive end Robert Ayers, defensive tackle Chris Baker and running back Doug Martin. Baker and Martin have already signed with new teams; Ayers was only let go on Saturday.
As noted above, the Bucs have already brought back Clarke, Fitzpatrick, Grimes and Tandy, all of whom were briefly UFAs. That would seem to define the team's priorities when it came to its own list of potential departures. That said, the addition of Jensen doesn't necessarily preclude the team from bringing back Smith. He has extensive starting experience with the Buccaneers and could, at the least, provide depth and competition at the guard spot opposite Marpet.
In the same vein, McClain and Sims have been productive players for the Buccaneers and one can't rule out a return for any of them. Obviously, the team has invested heavily in free agency in the DT spot, where McDonald has provided good depth in recent years, and McDonald has moved on to the Denver Broncos. He is the only Buccaneer UFA who has signed elsewhere at this point. Catanzaro clearly seems to be the replacement for Murray and the Bucs have also signed a long-snapper (Drew Farris) so that cupboard isn't bare if Sanborn doesn't return.
Remaining Restricted Free Agent
- Adam Humphries
View some of the top photos of WR Adam Humphries from the 2017 season.
The Bucs' productive slot receiver gets a category all to himself here. Fewer players are hitting restricted free agency these days because all draft picks get four-year contracts so most of them skip right past restricted into unrestricted free agency. Humphries, notably, was an undrafted free agent, which is why his contract is up before Year Four. The Bucs re-signed potential RFAs Cam Brate and Adarius Glanton and did not tender either Jude Adjei-Barimah or Ryan Russell.
Thus, this is a short task list and one the Bucs should have little trouble wrapping up before the draft. Humphries merely has to sign his tender, which he can do at any time up until a week before the draft, and that will become his one-year contract for 2018. Alternately, the team can still sign him to a longer deal, as it already did with Brate.
As an RFA, Humphries can talk to other teams. However, the Bucs would have the right to match any outside offer he gets or receive draft-pick compensation instead. The tender offer the Bucs gave Humphries means another team would have to give up a second-round pick to take him away.
The Bucs are obviously motivated to keep Humphries around as he has developed into one of the more productive slot receivers in the league. The team has some incredible weapons in the passing game with the likes of Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Cam Brate, O.J. Howard and promising 2017 rookie Chris Godwin, but Humphries fills a very specific role, and fills it well.