The signing of TE Dave Moore last Wednesday got the Bucs' free agency efforts off to a quick start
Over the first eight days of the NFL's 2004 free agency period, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – thought to be saddled with an unwieldy salary cap – signed or re-signed eight players, including the core of what could be a totally revamped offensive line.
General Manager Bruce Allen had suggested the Bucs would be aggressive on the open market, but gave little indication that the team would be among the most active in the league in the first week. As surprising as the early haul has been, know this: The Bucs are not done. Far from it.
"So far (the salary cap) hasn't hampered us," said Allen. "We're still in pursuit and in dialogue with some other players who are free agents.
"I think the key part of free agency is that it will go through July. There will be additions to this team. We are still looking for more players that can help this football team and the search will continue. That's our responsibility to the fans and the players on this team, to try and upgrade this team in every way possible.
"In order to acquire them, we're going to have to make some moves."
One of those moves, as was confirmed Thursday, will be the eventual trade or release of veteran safety John Lynch. Five other Buccaneer veterans were released on March 2, the day before free agency began. Others have reportedly restructured their contracts, though the team does not publicly announce such deals. Allen has made it clear that the Bucs' pursuit of new players will continue right up to and into training camp; as such, moves to create cap space could happen at any time, as well.
"We'll be in negotiations, once again, all the way through July, making sure we have the room to try and acquire the proper players," said Allen.
So far, the volume of the Bucs' pickups has been on the offensive line, where Derrick Deese, Matt O'Dwyer and Matt Stinchcomb could all be new starters…all have been starters throughout their NFL careers. Despite those additions and the fact that most of the team's linemen from last year is still under contract, the Bucs may not even be done signing players at that position.
"I think, at the end of the day, what's going to be (Offensive Line) Coach (Bill) Muir's best five players will be playing for us," said Allen. "We'll see at the end. Were still looking to acquire some more."
That so many O-linemen have gotten their deals done in Tampa already may just be a matter of where league interest as a whole was focused.
"The offensive line market seems to have matured quicker than other positions," said Allen, likening the free agency period to the stock market. "There's a couple of very large signings. I think that developed that market quicker. Right now we feel we have a good plan."
So far, that plan has included just two defensive players, linebackers Keith Burns and Jeff Gooch. Both have been primarily special teams aces during their NFL careers. If Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin is getting restless while the Bucs put out one offensive-minded press release after another, Allen wants him to know that help is on the way for him, too.
"(Kiffin) just had that same conversation with me," said Allen. "There's a board over there and he just keeps coming in and bringing up different players that are available. It's not that our concentration is on one side of the ball versus the other, it's the way the deals are falling right now. We're looking at players everywhere and we do need a punter still."
So far, the Bucs have been able to sign many of the men they targeted just before the onset of free agency. Key players like Deese and running back Charlie Garner were given the full-court press; with the intensively persuasive Jon Gruden leading the charge, the Bucs just wouldn't take no for answer.
It would seem like the Bucs' rush of signings would have to slow down at some point, but Allen points to other forces in the market that could keep things moving for some time. There may be additions to the original free agency pool that could entice the Buccaneers; for instance, tackle Todd Steussie was released by Carolina on Thursday and quickly linked to Tampa Bay by several media sources, though the Bucs have made no comment on the matter.
"(The first group of signings) were players we had contacted at midnight of free agency," said Allen. "These are players that we wanted to get so far. Once again, there's going to be a new market developing. There'll be some players waived from teams that are also very near the cap that will become available and we're keeping our eyes on those players."
Such a chain of events could eventually impact the Bucs' efforts to bolster their quarterback position, to cite another example. One free agent visitor who did leave Tampa without signing a contract was former San Francisco signal-caller Jeff Garcia, who signed with the Cleveland Browns earlier in the week. Though the Bucs were rumored to be in the running for Garcia, it would be inaccurate to say the team missed out on one of its targeted players. In fact, Garcia set up his own flight to come to Tampa in order to check out the situation, unlike most free agent visitors, who are brought in by the team.
Garcia was also told up front that Brad Johnson, the two-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion, was the Bucs' starter, according to Allen. Behind Johnson, however, the Bucs have only one other quarterback on the roster, second-year man Chris Simms. Simms did not play a single down during the 2003 regular season. Former backup Shaun King went to Arizona as a free agent last week.
The Bucs are, by sheer force of depth chart numbers, in the market for several quarterbacks. They had as many as five on the roster at one time during training camp last year.
"I think there will be some other quarterbacks available," said Allen. "Every time somebody signs someone in free agency there's usually an after effect, a ripple effect. Teams sign someone, someone's going to get cut. That money's going to come from somewhere out of the salary cap. So, we're still watching some quarterbacks that are on teams and we're having some dialogue with some guys that are free agents. We will get some good players in here to compete that we feel can help us win if need be."
At this point, there seems to be little reason to doubt that. In just over a week, the Bucs have already made good on their vow to aggressively pursue upgrades to the team during the 2004 offseason, using whatever avenues are available. Chances are, they're just getting started