The two-day window for NFL teams to contact and negotiate with the agents of potential free agents begins on Monday at noon, with the market proper opening at 4:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday. Whether the Tampa Bay Buccaneers use that opportunity to call up a couple cornerbacks may depend on what they saw last week in Indianapolis.
The workouts at the NFL Scouting Combine wrapped up on Tuesday with the defensive backs getting their turn on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf. How talent-rich the cornerback position looked to Buccaneer evaluators – and how deep it is compared to some other positions of need – will help determine how important it is to shop for that position before the draft.
A look at a few DTs who are expected to hit free agency next week.
Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht has acknowledged that addressing the defense is an offseason priority for his team, but understandably hasn't revealed whether that would occur through one avenue (free agency) or the other (the draft)…or possibly both. A year ago, Tampa Bay spent free agency loading up on defensive depth because they intended to use the first two days of the draft for much-needed help at quarterback and the offensive line. Expect a similar strategy this spring, as the Bucs plan their intended picks in the upcoming draft and use that knowledge to shape their approach to the free agent market.
There is certainly reason to believe that the Buccaneers will at least check out the free agent cornerback options. There's a decent amount of talent expected to be available, even some young players with good track records and room to grow. And that was undeniably a position at which the team got subpar results in 2015. Two more factors must be considered, however. One, how will new Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith and his assistants view holdovers such as Johnthan Banks and Alterraun Verner, who seemed to fall out of favor with the previous regime? And, two, will the team make an effort to retain Sterling Moore, who is headed for free agency himself after putting some good work on tape last season?
With the start of free agency approaching, Buccaneers.com has taken a position-by-position look at the players who may be available when the market opens, hoping to determine the ones who could be good fits for the Buccaneers. The usual caveat applies: This is not meant to reflect the opinions or strategies of Tampa Bay General Manager Jason Licht, Head Coach Dirk Koetter or any of their assistants. In fact, since the players mentioned below are still under contract until the start of the new league year, Licht and company could not comment on them specifically even if they wished to do so, lest they be guilty of tampering. They can, however, begin contacting the agents of potential free agents on Monday at noon ET, creating a two-day window for teams and players to do some preliminary negotiating.
After surveying the field at defensive end, wide receiver, guard/center, linebacker, running back, defensive tackle, tight end and offensive tackle, we now wrap up the series with a look at the market for…
A preview of a few TEs who are expected to hit free agency next week.
This field looked considerably more interesting before the Panthers and Rams used their franchise tags on Josh Norman and Trumaine Johnson, respectively. Teams never really expected Norman to make it to free agency after his outstanding breakout season in 2015, but the Rams had two starting cornerbacks slated to hit the market so there was some uncertainty about what they would do. Johnson getting the tag means that Janoris Jenkins can test the free agent waters.
The tags for Norman and Jenkins underscore how highly valued the cornerback position is in the NFL. They were two of the 10 players around the league who got either a franchise or transition tag, and the one-year salary that comes with it is nearly $14 million. That's also an indication of the type of windfall that Jenkins is probably expecting on the open market as, by some accounts, the top cornerback available on the market. At 5-10 and 191 pounds, Jenkins isn't one of the bigger corners in the league but he's been a playmaker ever since he was drafted in the second round in 2012. He has 10 interceptions in his four NFL seasons, five of them returned for touchdowns, and he has another score on a fumble return. Last year he picked off three passes, broke up 15 and forced a fumble.
A handful of other cornerbacks picked in the 2012 draft are now hitting free agency for the first time, including Pittsburgh's Brandon Boykin, Seattle's Jeremy Lane and Green Bay's Casey Hayward. Hayward was a second-round pick, like Jenkins, but he had to bide his time a little bit before becoming more of a full-time starter last year. Hayward impressed with three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and three touchdowns in 2014 while starting just one game. He started 11 games last year and showed outstanding skills. He might best be used in the slot, or perhaps as an outside starter who moves to nickel back in such packages, a la Ronde Barber.
Lane had to overcome a stomach-churning arm injury in Super Bowl XLIX, plus an early season knee injury in 2015, so he only played in six games last year. He did have two picks and eight pass break-ups in those six games and might also be a perfect fit as a nickel back, though at 6-0 he might be taller than the usual player at that spot. Boykin was traded by the Eagles to the Steelers last summer, but given the unpredictable roster moves of the Chip Kelly era in Philly, that shouldn't necessarily be considered a mark against him. The 5-9, 183-pound Boykin seems tailor-made for the nickel spot and performed very well in that role down the stretch for Pittsburgh. He also had six interceptions for Philadelphia in 2013.
The Giants' Prince Amukamara was drafted a year earlier than those above, in 2011, and in the first round, and he's clearly a talented player, with seven interceptions and 45 passes defensed in 55 career games. The problem is that the Giants have played 80 games in that five-year span and Amukamara's injury misfortune has kept him out of too many of them. He's missed 13 games over the past two years; still, given his position and his pedigree, he should get plenty of attention in free agency if he can demonstrate that he's in top shape.
In recent years, the Cincinnati Bengals have done an excellent job of stocking their cornerback position with experienced veteran talent. Now, however, they could see some of that depth depart for other teams. Both Leon Hall and Adam Jones are pending free agents and will have no trouble finding work despite being 31 and 32, respectively. Jones was the one who ended up in the Pro Bowl this past year, but Hall has had an extended run of success since the Bengals took him 18th overall in 2007.
William Gay of the Steelers and Antonio Cromartie of the Jets are similar in age and experience to Hall and Jones, but they had rougher seasons in 2015. They will still be of interest to teams trying to build that type of veteran depth the Bengals have enjoyed, and Cromartie in particular has had some very strong seasons, including his second, third and fourth Pro Bowl trips from 2012-14. Since becoming a consistent starter in 2011, Gay has put up 10 interceptions in five seasons.
In the middle of those two groups of young risers and proven veterans are late twenty-somethings like Kansas City's Sean Smith, the Chargers Patrick Robinson and the Eagles' Nolan Carroll. Smith headlines the group because he had a very good season on a strong Chiefs' defense in 2015. In fact, while he's got a few extra years on the Jenkinses and Haywards of this bunch, he'll likely draw just as much attention as them on the open market. Smith, who spent four years with the Dolphins before joining the Chiefs in 2013, has been credited with a whopping 58 passes defensed over the past four years. Oh, and at 6-2 and 218 pounds, he also has the type of size that defensive coordinators dream of when they're preparing to face the many enormous receivers who have invaded the league in recent years.
The last pick of the first round in 2010, Robinson never really impressed on a consistent basis over five seasons in New Orleans, but he had a reasonably strong season last year in San Diego. He'll get another chance to start, perhaps with a new team. Carroll has good size, too, and was an occasional bright spot in a rough Eagles secondary in 2015, but he's also recovering from a broken leg.
Again, cornerback is such a critical position, and such a difficult one to fill, that even some cornerbacks who have had up-and-down NFL careers so far will be of some interest to teams on the free agency market. The most interesting name in that group is probably Morris Claiborne, the sixth-overall pick in the 2012 draft by the Cowboys. Others include the Saints Kyle Wilson, the Titans' Coty Sensabaugh and the much-traveled Tracy Porter, who was in Chicago last year. Porter has played for five different teams over the last five years; he could easily make it a half-dozen in 2016. And speaking of former first-round picks by the Cowboys, how about Minnesota's Terence Newman. He was the fifth-overall pick in 2003, which means he's creeping up on 38 years old. He also started 16 games last year and had three picks and 12 passes defensed. If he wants to play a 14th season, he should get a shot.
READ: FREE AGENCY FOCUS - LINEBACKERSBucs' Overall Interest Level at the Position: High
Again, Tampa Bay's interest in the cornerback position is high in regards to the offseason overall. How confident the team is that it can pick up corner talent in the draft, and how much is expected from returnees like Banks and Verner will play into its specific interest in free agency. The Bucs have used free agency in recent years to add such players as Verner, Moore and Mike Jenkins, with mixed results. The position is so important, however, and depth so hard to find, that the Bucs are likely to at least do their homework on this year's available corners. A dip into the market to help the secondary would come as no surprise.