T Jason Odom signed a three-year contract to remain with the Bucs and in his home state
Jason Odom had a lost 1999 season, but he found a way to start 2000 on a better note. Odom missed all but the first three games of last season due to a back injury but will be back in a Buccaneer uniform next year after signing a three-year contract on Tuesday. The team does not disclose financial information on contract signings.
Odom, who has played four seasons for the Buccaneers since being drafted with the first pick in the fourth round in 1996, became an unrestricted free agent on February 15. Since that time, he has been free to negotiate and sign with any NFL team, but both Odom and the Bucs concentrated on keeping him in Tampa. A former Florida Gator standout and a prep star in Bartow High School, Odom wanted to remain close to home.
"In my mind, that was the main thing in this whole deal, to stay where it feels like home for me and my family," said Odom. "(Tampa) is almost literally my home – I grew up in Polk County and played high school ball in Bartow – and it was important to me to be here. And that's not to mention all the good things that are going on around here and where we think we're headed."
Head Coach Tony Dungy was pleased that Odom would be able to help the team achieve those goals. "It's very important, because we know that Jason can play winning football for us, and has," said Dungy. "That's one more piece of the puzzle that we've got in the barn. Having Jason back, we know that we have two guys for us that have started and won (at right tackle), and we feel pretty good about that."
The former Florida Gator standout began 1999 in his third season as the team's starting right tackle. He had missed only one game the previous two campaigns, sitting out the 1998 opener with a sudden case of the flu but starting the other 31 contests at right tackle. After also starting the first three games in '99, he was shelved by an ailing back that did not respond well to treatments. After seven frustrating weeks on the inactive list, Odom opted for surgery and was placed on injured reserve on November 24. He has progressed well in his recovery since and will be at full strength before training camp.
"My hope is that I'll be even better," said Odom, "because I've kind of dealt with a back problem ever since my sophomore year in college but just never had any kind of surgical procedure. My feeling is, and I've even told our trainers, that there have been times that my leg strength has felt even better than it was before. That's all speculation. I don't know if that's really the case, but I did feel like (surgery) was something that had to be done and I think it has helped me tremendously."
Exactly what he'll be focusing on in camp is still up in the air. As a rookie in 1996, Odom started seven games, including two at left tackle. Those were two of only nine games stalwart left tackle Paul Gruber has missed since 1988; however, Gruber may be considering retirement after ending the 1999 season, his 12th, with a broken leg. Odom has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Gruber on the left side when and if the latter hangs up his cleats. While Odom was sidelined, 1997 second-round draftee Jerry Wunsch stepped in at right tackle and played well in that role for the remainder of the season. Thus, Odom's eventual role in 2000 is not necessarily defined.
"It's probably too early to know what will happen there," said Odom. "There are still some things up in the air. I know that Jerry did a good job playing right tackle last year, so the coaches may think they can afford the opportunity to move me to left tackle. You never know what's going to happen down the road, but I feel comfortable playing on either side. Of course, I would like to know as soon as possible, as I'm sure (the Bucs) would, so that I can prepare for it."
Before his mostly inactive '99, Odom was part of an outstanding Buccaneer offensive line in 1998. That year, the Buccaneers ranked second in the NFC in rushing with an average of 134.3 yards per game and also provided some of the best pass protection in team history. Tampa Bay's quarterbacks were sacked just 28 times in 1998, the lowest total allowed by the Buccaneers since 1982.
By re-signing Odom, the Buccaneers also continued two team-building trends, one old and one new.
Since the arrival of Head Coach Tony Dungy in 1996, General Manager Rich McKay has concentrated on keeping the team's young, talented core intact by re-signing its own standout players. This off-season, the Buccaneers also pledged to pay particular attention to improving the team's offensive line. Center Jeff Christy was signed away from the Minnesota Vikings just days after free agency began and the Bucs have hinted at further upgrades to come. In keeping with that goal, Odom was one of the Bucs' top priorities among the 11 Tampa Bay players that became unrestricted free agents on the 15th.
Odom likes what appears to be taking shape. "It will definitely be a different group," he said. "I'm anxious to get to know those guys and get to work for them. There's a bright future ahead of us, and I can only say good things about where this team is headed. I think it's very obvious to everyone that we're thoroughly committed to winning and winning championships."
Odom's signing could also affect the Bucs' offseason priorities from this point forward. In addition to the possible signing of G Randall McDaniel, who will arrive in Tampa Tuesday evening to meet with the team, the Bucs have also had a visit from New York Giants free agent tackle Roman Oben and have two picks in the first round of April's draft. Odom's versatility leaves the Bucs in a position to consider a wide variety of options.
"(Odom's signing) certainly doesn't preclude the signing of Paul Gruber," said McKay, "and it does not preclude the signing of Roman Oben, either. It has some effect on it, potentially, but does not preclude it, because the nice thing that Jason brings is that he can play left or he can play right. Coming out of college, most people would have said that his natural position was left (tackle). He's an athletic guy with good feet, and he played left the last two years (in college). He got bigger – we made him get bigger – and he played right and played it very well for us. But this could be an opportunity where he flips back to left, so he gives us some flexibility. The nicest thing it does for us is that, draft-wise, it gets us out of that mindset that 'I've got to have a player that plays left tackle.' You don't want to be in that position when you enter the draft."
"It depends on what else we're able to do, depends on the draft and what else happens," added Dungy in reference to Odom's eventual role. "As Jason said, he really doesn't care. We think he can play winning left tackle; we know he can play winning right tackle. It gives us a little flexibility, and our goal is to put the best group we can put out there, and that all depends on who you end up getting."
There was at least one less question mark on Tuesday as Odom reconfirmed his commitment to the team. In his view, that was at least partially because the team remained obviously committed to him.
"The biggest thing that I could say is that everybody in this whole organization gave me time," said Odom, referring to both last year's situation and this year's free agency period. "Five, six weeks into my back injury during the season, they were giving me time to come back and contribute. I was grateful for that. It didn't work out, it didn't get better and it was inevitable that I would have to get surgery. But it worked out well in the end and there's no reason to believe that I won't be 100 percent."