The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were expected to make a big splash in free agency in 2012 for the first time in years. It doesn't get much bigger than Carl Nicks.
In fact, the only thing more substantial may be the team's overall haul during the first 24 hours of the open market.
The 6-5, 345-pound Nicks is big in both physical stature and expected impact. Perhaps the most coveted unrestricted free agent on the market, the former New Orleans guard signed a five-year, $47.5 million deal with the Buccaneers on Wednesday morning, less than a day after the start of the 2012 free agency period began. That followed earlier deals for wide receiver Vincent Jackson (five years, $55.5 million) and cornerback Eric Wright (five years, $37.5 million).
Nicks comes to the Buccaneers after his second straight Pro Bowl appearance and second straight selection as an Associated Press first-team All-Pro. One of three guards on the 2011 NFC Pro Bowl squad along with new teammate Davin Joseph, Nicks was widely considered the best in the NFL at his position in 2011. The acquisition also creates the sort of two-pronged benefit only available on the free agent market, as it fills an obvious need for Tampa Bay while also taking a valuable asset away from a division rival.
Even before their aggressive dive into this year's free agent market, the Buccaneers have been pouring considerable assets into building a powerful offensive line. The team re-signed left tackle Donald Penn just prior to the 2010 season and watched him turn that campaign into his first Pro Bowl selection. Similarly, Joseph inked a new deal just before the 2011 season and finished that year in the Pro Bowl for the second time. The Bucs also re-signed starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood prior to last season and came to agreement with 2011 left guard starter Jeremy Zuttah last week before he could hit free agency.
Nicks is a dramatic addition to that group. According to one statistical service, Nicks has personally allowed only 8.5 sacks in his four NFL seasons, and he has been part of a Saints front line that provided Drew Brees with incredibly good protection. Over the last four years, Brees has been sacked only 82 times despite attempting 2,464 passes, by far the highest total in the NFL in that same span. Due to his size and agile feet, Nicks is often compared to the elite O-Line talents playing left tackle in the NFL.
Even with those outstanding results, Nicks may be even more dominant as a run-blocker. He combines his size with a quick burst off the line and very strong hands. During his four years with the Saints, the offense averaged 4.4 yards per carry and 114.8 yards per game on the ground despite putting the ball in the air more than any other team.
Simply put, Nicks is an elite talent and one of the most coveted free agent linemen to hit the market in years. For the Buccaneers, the chance to add the rising-star blocker to their offense was too good to pass up. The team believes fourth-year quarterback Josh Freeman is the key to their immediate and future success, so it is obviously critical to provide him with the best possible blanket of protection. In addition, new Head Coach Greg Schiano has made it clear that he wants his offense to feature a power rushing attack, an area in which the team was lacking in 2011.
In addition, the quick signings of Nicks, Jackson and Wright fulfill the Buccaneers' pledge to make the most of their favorable free agency position this year. After spending several years focusing on the draft as the primary source for building a new, young core of talent, the Bucs have chosen to turn a significant amount of cap space and one of the biggest free agency classes in years into a stronger and deeper roster. In order to ensure that they would be able to stand out as major players in free agency in 2012, the team even moved all of its unused cap space from 2011 over into this year, as allowed by the collective bargaining agreement.
The result is perhaps the most important series of free agency moves in franchise history, rivaled only by the 2001 additions of Brad Johnson and Simeon Rice, which were instrumental in producing the Bucs' first Super Bowl championship. The Bucs shot straight for the top of the free agent list when the market opened on Tuesday afternoon, and quickly got their men.
Originally a fifth-round pick out of Nebraska in 2008, Nicks stepped immediately into the starting lineup as a rookie. He opened 13 of the 16 games in which he played that year and has since started all 48 contests over the past three seasons. During that time he has helped the Saints produce the NFL's best offense, with an average of 413.5 yards and 29.8 points per game, both NFL highs from 2008-11. New Orleans is the only team that has averaged more than 400 yards per game in that span.