Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Buc Mailbag: Free Agency and the Draft

With the free agent market about to open and the 2017 NFL Draft looming just ahead, Bucs fans have player acquisition on their minds.

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Pictures of the Top 101 players expected to hit free agency, according to NFL.com

Each week during the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from  Buccaneer fans. This week, we discuss the best way to approach the need at wide receiver, the possibility of a late-round D-Line addition and the team's best-ever foray into free agency.*

Fans can submit questions for upcoming mailbags via Twitter to @ScottSBucs (#BucsMailbag), through a message on the Buccaneers Official Facebook Page or via email at *tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.  The One Buc Mailbag runs every Thursday and is not necessarily meant to reflect the opinions of the team's management or coaching staff.

*1. First-Round Priority?

@TBBuccaneers @ScottSBucs @FloridaHospital I like Ross, but isn't WR a position where we could get a playmaker in FA? McCaffrey @ 19 plz. 

— ISH (@ISH_205) March 4, 2017

I like Ross, too, Ish. Question: Do you like him even more now after he ran the fastest 40-yard dash time in Combine history? Your tweet came the day before he blazed to a 4.22, and possibly to an even higher spot in the first round of the upcoming draft.

It's okay if your answer to that question is "no," by the way. I mean, NFL scouts already knew that John Ross was really, really fast. He'd run a 4.30 40 during his preparations for the Combine (which obviously went well). I'm not so sure that it matters too much whether you run a 4.22 or a 4.30; you're probably going to be the fastest player on whichever team drafts you. And remember, of the previous top eight 40 times in Combine history, only one was turned in by a player who became an NFL star. That would be running back Chris Johnson, whose record Ross just broke.

Of course, none of that is addressing your actual question, Ish. I believe your point is that the Buccaneers should fill their need at wide receiver in free agency and then use the #19 pick on another position. It looks like you're thinking running back, or running back/wide receiver/return man, as Stanford's Christian McCaffrey thinks of himself.

And, sure, wide receiver is a position that the Buccaneers could try to address in free agency. In fact, that would not be a surprising development at all. Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling ranked the top 101 pending unrestricted free agents and four of their top 22 are wideouts, including number-one Alshon Jeffery. We can't really discuss the merits of, or the Bucs' interest in, these under-contract players until Thursday, but the next three names on that list are Terrelle Pryor, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. Some receiver-needy teams are going to find what they need; that could include the Buccaneers.

But I'd ask you to keep two things in mind:

  1. This doesn't have to be an either-or proposition. I think we can all agree that the Buccaneers' top perceived depth chart needs a year ago, as the 2016 league year began, were cornerback and pass-rusher. Right? The Buccaneers hit both spots during the first 72 hours of free agency, signing Brent Grimes and Robert Ayers. That certainly gave them some added flexibility when the draft rolled around, but it did not take those two positions completely off the board in terms of need. The Bucs also needed to think long-term, for one thing, and so it was no surprise when their first two picks were Vernon Hargreaves and Noah Spence. All four players contributed in a big way to the team's turnaround on defense. A year later, you could still make the case for additions at either cornerback or defensive end, but it's certainly not a glaring need.

Personally, I would love to see the Bucs approach their receiver position in the same way this offseason. If they can add a pass-catcher of consequence in free agency, that would take off some of the pressure in the early rounds of the draft. If a receiver the team liked then happened to be available at one of their picks on the first two days of the draft, hit that spot again and prepare yourself both for this fall and the future.

  1. The Bucs' need at running back isn't quite as cut-and-dried. What is going to happen with Doug Martin? Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter have made it clear that they have plenty of time to let that play out. Will the team re-sign Jacquizz Rodgers? Maybe we'll know more about those things by the time the draft rolls around, but right now that position is a little difficult to pin down.

Also, this is widely considered to be a very deep running back draft class. That might be the deepest position in the whole field this year. There are obviously some headliners, and McCaffrey is indeed an intriguing prospect, but there's probably enough depth for teams RB-needy teams to address the position on the second day of the draft.

2. Late DL Addition?

The re-signing of Will Gholston kept the Bucs from losing an important piece to their defensive line puzzle, that's for sure. There are still three other defensive linemen from the team's 2016 end-of-season roster who are set to become unrestricted free agents: Akeem Spence, John Hughes and Sealver Siliga. Of those three, only Spence has been a significant part of the Bucs' D-Line rotation for the last few years. That's no offense to Hughes or Siliga, each of whom has plenty of NFL experience, but they were both in-season additions who played around 15% of the team's defensive snaps.

So if the Buccaneers re-sign any one of those three before (or after) the beginning of free agency, they will have pretty much all of their 2016 front-line rotation intact. And even if they do not sign any of those three, the depth is still pretty solid. That includes the expected return of Jacquies Smith, a proven pass-rusher who missed almost all of last season with a knee injury. One could also hope to get incrementally more out of Noah Spence in his second year, and hopefully a full season of Robert Ayers with better injury luck.

And yet, despite all of that, I do believe it would make a lot of sense to add to the defensive line in the draft, if the right player is available at the right spot. This is considered a deep draft for defensive linemen, and I think you could find help either on the edge or in the middle. And I include the Buccaneers' first-round pick in that equation: If a dynamic pass-rusher or a force to put next to Gerald McCoy is available at #19, that would be wildly tempting. As noted above, if you're focused on such positions as wide receiver and running back, the depth of this draft very may well provide answers at those spots on Day Two.

Here's the thing, though, Dentarius. Your question specifically was about adding a "late-round" lineman for depth. I may not be able to get onboard with that specific idea. I have long been of the opinion that it's hard to hit on a valuable defensive lineman in the later rounds. In a way, that's counter-intuitive, because the Buccaneers have found some useful D-Line help among the undrafted free agents, most recently DaVonte Lambert and Channing Ward last year. The Bucs got Jacquies Smith as a waiver claim, but he entered the league as an undrafted free agent.

So if you can find helpful lineman after the draft, you should be able to do so in the later rounds, right? Well, maybe I'm biased by the Bucs own history in that regard, at least since I got here in 1992. Fast forward to 1994, when the draft was shortened to its current length of seven rounds. Since then, the Buccaneers have taken the following defensive linemen in the fifth round or later: Jeffrey Rodgers, Jason Maniecki, Anthony DeGrate, James Cannida, Chance McCarty, John McLaughlin, Ellis Wyms, Joe Tafoya, John Stamper, Anthony Bryant, Charles Bennett, Greg Peterson, Erik Lorig and Steven Means.

Ellis Wyms is the most recognizable name in that bunch, a sixth-round pick in 2001 who slowly developed into a good piece in the Bucs' D-Line rotation. You're forgiven if most of those other names don't ring a bell. Lorig was a successful seventh-round pick, but only because he converted to fullback. McLaughlin proved to be a good special teams player. I tend to think of Maniecki and Cannida as successful late picks but they combined for a total of two starts.

Remember, of course, that this is just my (probably biased) opinion. I'm sure Jason Licht and his crew do not doubt their ability to uncover useful D-Line talent in the later rounds. So it's likely coincidence, but the Buccaneers have not used a fifth-round or later pick on a defensive linemen in Licht's three drafts. While that was a common thing for the Buccaneers to do in the '90s and early '00s, they've only done so twice since 2008 (Lorig and Means).

To be fair, I looked at the last five drafts and all the D-Linemen taken in Rounds 5-7. It's not exactly the barren wasteland I'm making it out to be, though in my defense most of the players who have made some impact from that group were fifth-rounders. Malik Jackson, a Denver fifth-round pick in 2012 jumps out, as does Aaron Lynch, a San Francisco fifth in 2014. There were only nine down linemen taken in the last three rounds a year ago (out of 114 total selections), and I wouldn't call any of them household names yet, but there have been some hits. Ronald Blair had three sacks for the 49ers; Matt Judon four for the Ravens. Nose tackle D.J. Reader started seven games and played in 16 for Houston, so that's a nice late-fifth value.

I throw that in there as an admission that I'm biased on the subject. Well, I'm owning it: I like the idea of the Buccaneers adding D-Line depth in this year's draft, but I'd rather see it come in the early rounds than the late ones.

3. Best FA Class?

Scott,
I know that last year's Buccs free agents have worked out pretty well, better than in some other recent years I think. Do you think it's the best the team has done in free agency in a while, or maybe even ever. I can't say I remember the free agent groups from 15 or 20 years ago, but I don't feel like there were a lot of great ones. Thanks for taking my question if you do.

Tyler (via email totbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Well, we've definitely tried to make the case here on Buccaneers.com that last year's haul in free agency made a big impact on both special teams and the defense. Bryan Anger and Josh Robinson helped turn the Bucs' punting unit from one of the league's worst in 2015 to one of its best in 2016 while Robert Ayers and Brent Grimes were key parts of a massive in-season turnaround on defense. I have to blur the lines a little bit to include Grimes, since he was released by Miami at the start of free agency and not technically a UFA, but it was a very similar type of investment by the Buccaneers.

The only signing that didn't work out for the Buccaneers, at least in Year One, was guard J.R. Sweezy, since he never got on the field due to a back issue. However, Sweezy has recently been cleared to play, will likely battle for a starting spot on the Bucs' line in 2017 and could still pay off in a big way.

Photos of the 2017 Buccaneers Free Agents.

So, yeah, I'd have to say that was the Bucs' best effort on the free agent market in some time. The Bucs found some good players in the 2014-15 free agency periods but weren't nearly as close to 100% as in 2016, and there were some notable misses. Vincent Jackson was a huge hit in the 2012 class but Carl Nicks' toe injury and Eric Wright's quick departure kept that year from being a home run. The last time the Buccaneers pretty much hit on all their UFAs was in 2005, and there were only two of them: Chris Hovan and Anthony Becht. Probably the last class that was better than 2016 was 2002, because Jon Gruden and Rich McKay found a bunch of glue pieces to turn a talented roster into a Super Bowl team. That included the likes of Joe Jurevicius, Michael Pittman, Greg Spires and Kerry Jenkins (and some other pieces like Roman Oben and Ken Dilger that were not technically UFAs).

Which brings me to the Buccaneers' best class of UFAs ever: 2001. Again, this was just a two-person crew. However, when those two people happen to be the starting quarterback for the Super Bowl-winning team (Brad Johnson) and the final piece to a legendarily dominant defense (Simeon Rice), that's about as good as it's going to get. The Bucs only swung twice in 2001, but they hit two tape-measure home runs.

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