The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as piloted by Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter, will always see the draft as the primary source for building a roster. This year in particular, however, the Buccaneers have used a quick but impactful run through free agency to put themselves in a better position to utilize that primary source.
On Saturday, Licht and Koetter sat a press conference table with DeSean Jackson and Chris Baker, the two former Washington players who agreed to become Buccaneers in the first hour of free agency. As soon as that presser was over, the team also announced the signing of unrestricted free agent safety J.J. Wilcox, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, and the re-signing of veteran defensive tackle Sealver Siliga.
Bucs WR DeSean Jackson, DT Chris Baker, GM Jason Licht, and HC Dirk Koetter spoke to the media on Saturday.
Earlier in the week, the Buccaneers had re-upped with defensive end Will Gholston, running back Jacquizz Rodgers and safety Chris Conte. The result of all this maneuvering is a team that can be just about as nimble as it wants to on draft weekend, beholden to no single overwhelming need or needs.
"To get two big needs that we have [was big]," said Koetter on Saturday. "We still believe in building through the draft, and that helps you solidify how you're going to draft. This is a deep draft, and free agency isn't over yet. Not only are we gaining some guys in free agency, we're also losing some guys, too. So it's a process."
One of the items adorning the walls of the Draft Room at One Buccaneer Place is a "120 Board," on which Licht's staff has ranked the top 120 players available in the draft, regardless of position. Or, this year, maybe a little more than 120. After their work in free agency, the Buccaneers can now afford to stay truer to that list.
For instance, without the addition of Jackson the Buccaneers might have felt nearly compelled to use their first-round pick, #19 overall, on a speedy weapon for rising-star quarterback Jameis Winston. The Bucs' safety position could have been radically depleted, but the team brought back Conte and nabbed Wilcox, setting up plenty of competition and reducing the need to reach on draft weekend. The addition of Baker and the retention of Gholston, both via significant contracts, means there's a relatively deep D-Line rotation in place for 2017.
Which is not to say the Buccaneers want to be big players in free agency every spring. They were relatively active last year, with some well-targeted moves that paid off on defense and on special teams. Meanwhile, three straight effective drafts have lengthened the roster. If Licht and Koetter succeed in building a winning core to the team – and all seems have the Bucs pointed in that direction – then free agency will become less of a necessity.
"I can foresee this happening in the future," said Licht. "My goal would be to not have to allocate a lot of funds in free agency; it would be more so rewarding our own players."
If things are going well, the process feeds on itself. Had the Buccaneers missed on more draft picks the last three years or not seen good returns from their 2016 free agency haul, the team probably would not have climbed from two to six to nine wins over the past two seasons. Instead, they are viewed as a team on the rise, and a desirable location for even the most coveted free agents.
"This year more than ever, guys really wanted to be here," said Licht of the free agency recruitment process. "It makes it a lot easier when this is their top choice. When you're on a team where it's not their top choice but they would go if the money was right, then you find yourself bidding against a lot of suitors and having to play that game. Now, they were both rewarded, they both got very good deals, but they wanted to be here so it makes it a lot easier."
As Koetter mentioned, the free agency system has also taken some players away from last year's roster. Quarterback Mike Glennon is going to start for the Bears this year, while defensive tackle Akeem Spence and wide receiver/special teams ace Russell Shepard have departed for the Lions and Panthers, respectively. The Bucs might have liked to have all three back, but this kind of movement is another indication of the growing strength of the team's roster.
"Luckily we were able to keep Will [Gholston]," said Licht. "Russell Shepard was one of my favorite players on this team; it just didn't work out for us. It worked out for him, I'm happy for him. Akeem Spence, another player that was coveted around the league. We had to make a decision, we had to make a tough football decision about what was best for the Bucs."
Most roster decisions are tough, but the Buccaneers have made enough good ones in recent years that the team is now in position to succeed for a long time. And thanks to its most recent moves in free agency, it is also in position to make the most out of this year's draft.