The NFL's 2019 free agency period begins on Wednesday. Given that teams and player agents have been allowed to discuss contract parameters for two days, and a good number of deals are reportedly in place, it figures to be an immediately busy marketplace. Still, nothing can be officially completed, including trades, until the bell rings at 4:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers currently have 14 players who are due to become unrestricted free agents when the new league year begins. They've also tendered two players to make them exclusive rights free agents and have the option to do the same with five potential restricted free agents. Any of those five who do not receive tender offers will effectively become unrestricted free agents, as well. The team has already re-signed starting left tackle Donovan Smith and will head into the market with less room to maneuver under the salary cap than in recent offseasons.
After the first flurry of big-name signings, league-wide attention will undoubtedly return to the upcoming draft. Free agency is the game right now, though, so before the focus shifts, Buccaneers.com contributors Carmen Vitali and Scott Smith are going to take a look at the market and suggest some possible outcomes in the weeks ahead.
Question #1: What position on the depth chart do you think the Buccaneers could address in free agency?
SS: Every team prefers to build through the draft, and finding a starter in that manner obviously works better under the cap than signing a high-priced free agent. Still, a team only has so many draft picks, and players selected on the third day don't commonly win starting jobs right away. The Buccaneers may not be major players on this year's market but they still could address some depth-chart deficiencies in free agency.
One spot I believe they could target is safety, due largely to the depth of available players likely to be available. Some of the top names will be signed immediately, but there should be some options available in the second wave of free agency, where better bargains can often be found.
The Buccaneers aren't destitute at the position. They have a potential starting duo of Justin Evans and Jordan Whitehead under contract, and both are still very young players. Evans was a second-round pick in 2017 and Whitehead was a fourth-round choice last year. If those two work out, they could solidify the position for quite some time.
That said, Chris Conte and Josh Shaw are potential unrestricted free agents and Andrew Adams, who led the team in interceptions last year, will either be tendered as a restricted free agent or will hit the market. The rest of the depth chart at safety consists of Isaiah Johnson, who saw his first real regular-season action on defense last year, and second-year man M.J. Stewart, who may be converting to that position from cornerback.
As we've seen in recent seasons, it's rare to make it through the whole schedule with just two safeties accounting for 32 starts. That hasn't happened in Tampa since 2012 with Mark Barron and Ronde Barber. Additionally, Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles were very creative with their safeties in Arizona and frequently had more than two of them on the field at the same time. Thus, building depth at that position seems critical to me.
Sure, the Bucs could address their safety corps in the draft. But, as noted, they've used relatively high picks on that position in each of the last two drafts. The defense needs to be fixed, but I would rather see the team use its premium picks on the defensive line and the linebacker positions.
CV: Build through the draft, supplement through free agency. By that token, I’m actually looking toward the first level of the defense and wanting depth up front. In a more fluid and flexible scheme, as Coach Bowles’ system is going to be if we’re going off his last stop at the New York Jets as a reference, you ask a variety of things from your base three down linemen, especially the ends. The Bucs could benefit from having a big, versatile player who can penetrate the line but also come off the edge on their roster.
Interior-wise, the Bucs currently have Gerald McCoy, Vita Vea, Beau Allen, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and Jeremiah Ledbetter under contract, with Rakeem Nunez-Roches set to be a free agent on Wednesday. The thing is, those guys all have most of their experience in a base 4-3 defense. Not saying the Bucs are switching solely to a 3-4, as Coach Bowles has said both schemes will be incorporated to fit existing personnel, but it wouldn’t hurt to bring in a guy who has experience in a 3-4 scheme to balance the unit out.
This is especially where it would pay off to grab a veteran player in free agency, rather than a young player in the draft. You get a lineman who has the knowledge and can help make the transition easier for existing personnel. It wouldn’t have to be a splash signing, either. Because it’s added depth and experience is more valuable in this case, you can get a vet who’s maybe a little more up there in years who can contribute more knowledge than snaps in order to benefit the unit as a whole.
View photos of Daniel Jeremiah's top 50 prospects of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Question #2: Disregarding any concerns about the likelihood of the Buccaneers making a big splash in free agency, which one free agent would be your dream addition to the roster?
(Disclaimer: As we prepare to discuss specific players who could potentially become free agents on Wednesday, we must emphasize that this is just speculation – or in some cases, pure fantasy – by Carmen and Scott. None of what follows is meant to reflect the thoughts or strategies of Head Coach Bruce Arians, General Manager Jason Licht or any members of their football staff. Though it was permissible for the Buccaneers to contact the representatives of potential free agents after noon ET on Monday, this is not to suggest that the team actually did so with any of the players noted below.)
CV: I’m following your lead in addressing the safety position during free agency and while the Honey Badger has a history with both Coach Arians and Coach Bowles, I think Landon Collins would be my dream signing for the way he fits into the Buccaneers’ roster. Collins is a more in-the-box safety, though I don’t buy into the fact he’s only an in-the-box safety. He’s great in run support and coming down for the blitz and brings size to complement the fleet-of-foot Justin Evans.
He’s hovered around 100 tackles per year in all four seasons with the Giants, and that may have something to do with how versatile he was on the field. The Giants mixed up their defensive scheme a fair amount over the past couple seasons with Collins, having him in both single-high and two-high safety looks. This means, essentially, he was used as a cover safety, handling a deep half of the field along with the Giants’ free safety Curtis Riley, in addition to his more notorious role of occupying the box and helping in run defense. Roughly 52 of his nearly 100 tackles in 2018 came in run support, in fact.
He’s also still young. At only 25, he’s coming off his third consecutive Pro Bowl selection and was All-Pro in 2016. That same season, he tallied five interceptions including one pick-six, proving his ability to make those reads and therefore, in my opinion, further showing he’s more than a one-trick pony.
With how creative Coach Bowles and Coach Arians are with their safeties, Collins would be an ideal fit given his skillset. Of course, I know the writing is already on the wall when it comes to Collins, but his rumored salary was a pipe dream for the Bucs and their limited cap space, anyway. Which sort of makes me feel better. Sort of.
SS: I mean, I think the obvious answer is Le'Veon Bell, right? Remember, this is a dream, and in my dream the Bucs have massive amounts of cap space and are still playing a number of key players on their rookie contracts so they can afford a couple years of paying a running back way above where that position is generally valued.
I like Peyton Barber. Coach Arians likes Barber and actually thinks he might be underrated. I know that the team still believes in Ronald Jones and expects much more out of him in Year Two. Andre Ellington could help as a third-down back. I don't think the Buccaneers need a superstar running back in order to make a playoff run with their team as currently constituted.
All of that said, for the purposes of this question, all we really have to decide is, would we rather have Le'Veon Bell on the team or not on the team? The Buccaneers haven't had a particularly good rushing attack since 2015 and they haven't had a real dual-threat runner-receiver since…Warrick Dunn? The first time around? At least the last time we saw him play, Bell was the ideal back for the modern NFL.
There are more realistic targets in free agency and positions at which the Bucs have a greater need but this is my dream. Don't wake me up.
Question #3: Okay, now assume the first wave of free agency has passed and the biggest names are off the board. Teams are now in search of good value, players that can definitely help but who won't necessarily command the type of contract that will largely be handed out in the first few days of the open market. Can you suggest a player who might be a good-value addition later in the process?
SS: Again, I'm hoping that the Bucs use their premium draft picks on defensive players; the team obviously needs more help on that side of the ball at the moment. That said, there is one largely undecided position on offense: Right guard.
The Bucs have big investments at left tackle (Donovan Smith), left guard (Ali Marpet) and center (Ryan Jensen) and they just picked up the 2019 option on their right tackle (Demar Dotson). However, it does not appear that Caleb Benenoch will be retaining the right guard spot to start the 2019 offseason after Jason Licht noted at the Combine that he believed tackle was Benenoch's best position.
Other options at that spot include 2018 third-rounder Alex Cappa and versatile veteran Evan Smith. Cappa's talent and size are intriguing but it's still not certain if guard will prove to be his best spot on the line. In any case, it certainly wouldn't hurt to have some more competition.
I may be shooting a bit high on Spain given the parameters of this question. He has started 50 games over four seasons for the Tennessee Titans, so he might actually be more highly coveted than I'm giving him credit for here. But, if the interior offensive line market doesn't go crazy – I mean, maybe everyone will have spent all their money on slot receivers and safeties – perhaps Spain and a few players like him could end up being bargains. If so, that could prove to be an opportunity for the Buccaneers in the second wave of signings.
CV: I want to mix it up a little bit, too, and go offense here. I’m looking in the wide receiver category and thinking that J.J. Nelson might just be the guy to fit into the wide receiver room going into 2019. Nelson is fast. Like 4.28 40-yard dash fast. He can get downfield in a hurry and present a viable deep threat to stretch out Coach Arians’ offense vertically. I’m sure you can connect the dots here.
More dots lead to the fact that Nelson was in Arizona with Arians starting in 2015, when the Cardinals drafted him in the fifth round out of the University of Alabama- Birmingham. Coach Arians is familiar with the program, too – he was even spotted at their pro day last week. So… familiarity? Check.
I also think Nelson flies (literally with his speed) under the radar for the former part of free agency and comes at an attractive cost after his production was down in 2018 sans-Arians in Arizona. He had just seven catches for 64 yards while playing in 14 games last season. By contrast, he had back-to-back 500-yard seasons before 2018, with a 16.7 yards-per-reception average on 34 catches in 2016, followed by a 17.5 yards-per-reception average on 29 catches in 2017.
Nelson seems to be utilized primarily on deep balls, presumably because of his speed, as evidenced by those yards-per-catch averages. His longest reception in 2016 came on an 80-yard bomb from quarterback Carson Palmer for a touchdown against the division-rival Seattle Seahawks in Week 16 of that year. He finished the day with three receptions for 132 yards that day. With wide receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and pass-catching tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, the Bucs could benefit from a speedster in the room, not to mention one that already knows the new offense.