Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Buc Mailbag: Free Agency Under Way

This week's mailbag opens with a little detour into game-day procedure before picking up the topic of the hour: free agency.

*Each week during the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from  Buccaneer fans.  This week, we open with a question as to why fans are not allowed to keep the footballs that end up in the stands. Not surprisingly, the conversation then turns to free agency, as well as our recent list of the top free agent signings in franchise history.

1. Scott, Great work for the fans! Thank you!!
In recent years, the NFL has talked about enhancing the stadium experience (for more fans).  In other sports like baseball, the balls that go into the stands (foul balls, home runs, etc.) are kept by the fans.  Why is the NFL so conservative with their footballs?  Balls for field goals are caught by a net and players are fined by throwing them into the fans.  It seems like the positives far outweigh the negatives. - Thanks, Richard

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*Richard, I have it on *very good authority that this issue has absolutely nothing to do with money. You can choose to believe me or not, but considering that we're only talking about a couple dozen balls a year, it's pretty easy to see how that wouldn't even be a blip on the financial radar for an entity as enormous as the NFL.*

The main reason, according to someone here whose job includes handling the footballs, is the kicker balls. I'll get to that in a moment.

Let's look at it this way: There are really only two ways in which the football normally goes into the stands. One is on kicks (mostly field goals that go over or wide of the net but occasionally on *really well-hit kickoffs), and the other is when a player purposely throws it in that direction. Sure, a quarterback might get a little overzealous in his throwaway on a pass in the red zone and maybe reach the first few rows, but that really doesn't happen often enough to factor into this.*

In terms of a player who has just scored a touchdown, we're talking two different acts. One is where he blindly just heaves it far up into the stands; the other is when he makes a point of giving it to a specific person in the first couple rows, usually a child. Carolina's Cam Newton is well-known for doing this. In the latter case, team officials don't try to take the ball back, for obvious reasons. In the former case, it kind of depends on how zealous the stadium security is, but there really is no mandate from the team to try to get those balls back. The player may be fined for that act, but getting the ball back isn't a priority.

However, both teams are motivated to get the ball back when it is accidentally *kicked into the crowd. That's because there are two different sets of balls that are used in the game, one for the kickers and one for the rest of the game play. The kicker ball is really a very specialized thing, and it goes through a very specific routine before being put in play.*

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Each game has six designated kicker balls, which are supplied by the home team. These balls are delivered by that team to the hotel in which the game officials are staying while they are in town. They are sealed so they cannot be tampered with, and the officials are tasked with bringing them to the stadium on game day. Once the balls are there, two equipment managers from the home team are allowed access to them about three hours before kickoff in order to work on them.*

Now, before you say anything, working on them does not mean changing the air pressure. At all. No Deflategate here. (Hate that name.) Rather, the work is on the *exterior of the ball. Virtually all kickers want the pebbly surface to be smoothed out on the bottom half of the ball, they want the seams broken in and basically they want it to be rounder. These balls are easier for both placekickers and punters to kick a greater distance, and if one of them were to go into the stands both teams are highly-motivated to get it back.*

Now, perhaps that's a bit paranoid of the kickers, since there are six balls on hand that have been modified for their purposes, but the point is that there is a finite number of these balls and it's always possible they could run out.

When comparing the game to baseball, I think it's just a matter of the decades-old (or centuries-old) customs of both sports. In baseball, it's part of the culture that the ball goes into the stands. The home run is the game's most exciting play (unless you're a triple purist) and it usually ends up in the hands of a fan. Foul balls are fun; how often do you see TV broadcasts replay a nice catch by a fan, with the announcers chiming in their thoughts? A lot, for those of you snobs who think baseball is too boring to watch. Teams come to games loaded with *dozens of balls because they know they're going to be losing so many of them. They take a baseball out of play in the major leagues if it hits the dirt on the pitch. If they did that in my son's Cal Ripken games we'd have to bring 10,000 balls to every game.*

In football, the ball going into the stands is a relatively rarity. Even if they allowed fans to keep every single football that ever went into the crowd, do you really think that would make that much of a difference, Richard? Probably 95% of the fans (unlike in baseball) are located in places that the ball will never reach. I just don't think it's that important of an issue. Great question, though.

*2. Defensive help on the way?

Nick sent his question in the day before free agency began, and I have the benefit of answering it about 40 hours after the market opened. It's a lot easier to do so now than it would have been on Monday.

Obviously, Nick probably knows by now that the Bucs have brought in some help for those two parts of the defense, with defensive tackle Henry Melton and safety Chris Conte both signing on Thursday.

There's reasons to like both of those signings, and one of the best ones is that Melton and Conte did their best work while working for Lovie Smith in Chicago. Melton in particular looked like one of the league's rising stars on the interior line in 2011-12, as noted by his Pro Bowl appearance in the latter of those two years. A knee injury in 2013 kept him from building on that promise, and his 2014 campaign in Dallas – which included five sacks while in a reserve role – was an exercise in coming back from that injury. Now he says he's fully healthy and he could pair with Gerald McCoy to give the Bucs a dominant interior pass rush on passing downs.

Conte has a lot of experience and is a hard hitter who also has nine interceptions through his first four NFL seasons. Still, I'm betting that Nick was thinking more about cornerback when he mentioned the secondary. I can't blame him; I've been pounding the drum all offseason about the importance of depth at the cornerback position, and I think there are still developments to come in that regard.

Don't just dismiss the re-signing of Mike Jenkins that occurred shortly before free agency. Since he got hurt in Game One last year, we didn't get a chance to see what he has left, but the coaching staff was definitely high on him heading into the 2014 season. The Bucs are also bringing in former Cowboy CB Sterling Moore for a visit; Moore played well when he got a chance to start for the first time last year.

And there could be more. Even with Darrelle Revis, Byron Maxwell, Brandon Flowers and Cary Williams all finding new homes, there are still quite a few viable cornerbacks left on the market. If the Bucs are taking a look at Moore, I've got to believe they're at least kicking the tires on any other available cornerback they feel is a good fit for the system.

Rest assured that there is cap space left, even after the two signings mentioned above and the greater commitment made to linebacker Bruce Carter on Wednesday. That doesn't mean the Bucs need to eat up every inch of that space – it's good to have some available to potentially address needs that arise later – but they have the flexibility to make further additions. It looks like this year the team mostly sat out the initial flurry of free agency and is now making surgical additions to flesh out the depth chart at reasonable prices.

3. Saw yourrankings of the top 20 free agent signingsthe Bucs have ever made. I notice that you didn't ask for feedback on that one, like you did with the rankings of all the first round draft picks. Were you not open to criticism on that one? Because there were a couple of things that looked a little off to me.If you ARE willing to discuss it, I would say you've got Chris Hovan and Lonnie Marts backward…Hovan played and started for five years and Marts was just here for three and he was only a stud in the last one. I also think you had Jeff Garcia too high and I don't care what you say I would never put a punter in the top 20 let alone the top 10. Just my thoughts, I liked reading about all those guys, especially the ones from the nineties.
- Thanks, Casey Willson, St. Pete, sent via email totbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com

First, I want to note that, while I normally don't really do much to edit the questions I get, I did add that hyperlink above, in case you're reading this but you missed the rankings to which Casey refers.

Second, yes I definitely welcome discussion (or criticism, if you prefer to call it that, or perhaps even ridicule) on the topic of the best free agent signings in team history. In fact, I should have made a point of saying so. I'm glad you decided to just go ahead and send that question in, Casey.

I have to be honest, I think you make a very valid point on Hovan and Marts. I had Hovan 14 and Marts 10, but I definitely struggled with the middle part of this list. Having read your thoughts and then spent a little time going back over what I originally wrote, I'm going to agree with you. If I could do it over again, I would simply swap those two, because I'm fine with Hovan also leap-frogging Garcia, Jeff Christy and John Wade.

I don't think I can agree on your Garcia point, however. As I mentioned several times in that article, there's an extra degree of difficulty built in when you're trying to find a quarterback on the open market who can legitimately take you to a playoff spot. Garcia did that in 2007 and he came extremely close to doing it again in 2008. Personally, I thought he played quite well those two years and the Bucs might have been even more formidable if he hadn't gotten hurt several times along the way. Those injuries, and the fact that he was only a Buc for two seasons kept him out of the top 10, but I remain comfortable with him at #11.

I also stand by Josh Bidwell at number eight. Yes, having a punter in your top 10 does underscore to some degree that there weren't as many great signings to choose from as you would like when undertaking this exercise. Still, it's not as if punter is an unimportant position. A good one can really make a difference in field position and the flow of the game, and Bidwell was definitely a good one. When you can sign a punter as an unrestricted free agent and he not only plays for you for five years but also turns out to be the best punter you ever had, that's worthy of a high spot on the list.

So you convinced me on #1, you at least made me think things over again on #2 and you didn't sway me at all on #3. Not a bad days' work, Casey. Thanks for the question. And if any fans would like to further pick at the rankings for either the free agents or the #1 draft picks in team history, feel free to send in those criticisms and we can keep the discussion going.

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.*

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