QB Eric Zeier is an unrestricted free agent, but the Buccaneers remain interested in his services
Considering the departure of five-year starter Trent Dilfer and the emergence of 1999 rookie Shaun King, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' quarterback position has undergone a major overhaul in the last 12 months. One aspect of the position, however is the same this February as it was a year ago.
The Buccaneers have only one quarterback under contract as free agency begins. Last year it was Dilfer; this year it is King. Like all NFL teams, the Buccaneers are tight-lipped about who they're after in free agency; however, there's no point in denying that the quarterback position is a priority. It is an unavoidable fact that the team must add at least two passers.
When free agency began on Friday, February 11, a list of what quarterbacks are available began to take focus. That roster includes Eric Zeier, a primary Buccaneer backup in 1999. Zeier played in just two games with one start, but had been anointed the new starter in October before a ribcage injury at Detroit forced him to the sideline for a month.
Before Zeier could return, Dilfer suffered his own season-ending shoulder injury and King emerged as a reliable starter. Tampa Bay heads into the 2000 season with King slated to remain in the starting position, but knowing that the sophomore has just seven starts under his belt, including the postseason. That makes a quick survey of the free agent scene more important this year than last.
"Yes, we've looked at who's available," said General Rich McKay on Friday, "and I think there are some guys we're comfortable with, including Eric Zeier, in that market. We will move quicker on that position this year than we did last year. That way, he'll have a chance to come in and learn the position, instead of waiting until June. I wouldn't call it panic, but we do want to get it done sooner."
In 1999, the Buccaneers were mostly bystanders during free agency, as dictated by the team's lack of salary-cap room. Without getting specific, McKay has admitted that the team has significantly more breathing room under the cap this spring and hopes that will allow the team to address the quarterback position sooner. In 1999, McKay was prepared to wait until June to find a veteran backup but instead made a draft-day deal to acquire Zeier. On that same afternoon, the Bucs landed King in the second round of the draft and the position was virtually set.
Zeier was seen as an upgrade at the backup passer spot for the Buccaneers, an experienced but still relatively youthful veteran who would be capable of stepping into the starting role. Zeier then impressed the Bucs' coaching staff in minicamp and the pre-season and was relatively sharp in his lone start, at Detroit on October 31. However, the Bucs acquired Zeier in the last year of his contract and must now re-sign him if they wish to retain his services. Whether the final answer is Zeier or another available passer, the Bucs are taking the position very seriously.
"As durable as Trent was," said McKay, "our theory was, let's not got crazy with the backup. If you put a lot of money into that position, the money there can't go elsewhere. Given Shaun's youth, we may need to put more emphasis on that position."
As of Friday, there is a long list of passers for the Buccaneers to ponder, as 23 quarterbacks became unrestricted free agents on that day. That includes Cincinnati's Jeff Blake, who then immediately signed with the New Orleans Saints. The remainder of the list includes Dilfer and Zeier and such familiar names as Jeff George, Tony Banks, Neil O'Donnell, Jim Miller and Gus Frerotte. Legendary Miami QB Dan Marino also joined that list when he voided the end of his Dolphins contract.
Almost as quickly, Marino was linked to the Buccaneers in the press, though there was no substance to the reports that a meeting was planned between him and Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy. "That wasn't somebody we prepared for," said McKay on Friday. "We weren't even aware that he was going to become a free agent until about 24 hours ago. We need to do the work...he's a sure Hall-of-Famer...but what's been said in the last 24 hours simply isn't true."
What is certain, however, is that the Buccaneers are paying close attention to that list and to the waiver wire as team's continue to adapt to the salary cap. There are quarterbacks available for hire, and the Bucs can't afford to take a pass.