Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Buc Mailbag: Free Agency ups & downs

This week, Buc fans took the mailbag in the direction of past free agency classes, unfortunate play-calls and potential trade partners.

Each week during the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from Buccaneer fans. This week, we take a look at the Bucs' most and least successful runs through free agency over the last 22 years. We also try to find a moment in Bucs playoff history like the Seahawks' final play in Super Bowl XLIX and see which teams might be interested if the #1 pick was on the block.


1. Scott, The Buccs did a lot in free agency last year and some of it worked out (Alterraun Verner) and some of it didn't (Anthony Collins. I guess you can't hit them all out but I heard Lovie say that the team had wanted more out of that gropu. Got me to thinking-what do you think are the best and worst free agency classes in team history?

- Will Carey, via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com

Good question. I assume you're referring to the list of unrestricted free agents (UFAs) the team has signed each year since the arrival of true free agency in 1993. I mean, I hope that's what you are referring to, because that's what I'm going to answer. As such, you must remember that UFAs are a specific category – they're players with at least four seasons of NFL experience (putting it simply) whose contracts expired at the end of the previous league year. This group does NOT include players who were terminated by their teams prior to free agency. A good example: In the spring of 2000, the Buccaneers signed a pair of former Vikings offensive linemen, Jeff Christy and future Hall of Famer Randall McDaniel. Christy counts, but McDaniel does not because he became available via being released by Minnesota.

If you asked me the best UFAs in team history, the list would be pretty obvious: Hardy Nickerson, Brad Johnson, Simeon Rice and Vincent Jackson would be the headliners, with another group just below that includes Martin Mayhew, Lonnie Marts, Alvin Harper (ha!...just seeing if you're paying attention), Joe Jurevicius, Michael Pittman, Greg Spires, John Wade, Chris Hovan, Anthony Becht, Jeff Garcia and Josh Bidwell. We might eventually be able to add Verner, Clinton McDonald and hopefully Michael Johnson to that group, as well.

But you asked for the best class, and for that I believe we have to look at both the hits and misses. For instance, the 1995 class brought in a popular special teams ace in Kenny Gant and a decent punter in Reggie Roby but also introduced Buccaneer fans to Mr. Harper. Effective quarterbacks are not easy to find in free agency, so even though he had injury issues and wasn't quite the superstar he was from his San Francisco days, I personally consider the 2007 signing of Jeff Garcia a good one. The rest of that class, however, was FB B.J. Askew, DE Patrick Chukwurah, LB Cato June and TE Jerramy Stevens, and I don't think the Bucs would do any one of those moves again.

One that jumps out right away is the '02 class, which was primarily an effort by new Head Coach Jon Gruden to spice up his offensive personnel to go with a ready-to-dominate defense. It worked out for the most part, as Pittman and Jurevicius were key performers in the 2002 attack and Kerry Jenkins stepped right in as a starter at guard. (T Roman Oben was added that year, too, but wasn't a UFA). The defense even got one more above-average piece in DE Greg Spires, a pleasant surprise who unseated incumbent Marcus Jones.

Still, you may notice that I singled out four UFAs as the best of the best over the first 22 years of Buccaneer free agency. Two of those – Johnson and Rice – arrived in the same year, 2001. And they were the Bucs' only UFAs that year, so there were no misses to counter the gains. And what gains they were! Do the Buccaneers win Super Bowl XXXVII if they are missing either of those two players? I strongly believe that they do not. Johnson gave the Bucs' offense the steady hand it needed and Rice was the final piece to a dominant defensive puzzle.

Worst class? Well, there are some strong candidates for this one, too, because free agency isn't easy. Does anybody remember the trio of WR David Boston, G Toniu Fonoti and LB Jamie Winborn? Boston was the supposed catch in that group but never played for the Bucs after getting in some legal trouble. Fonoti didn't suit up for Tampa Bay, either, and Winborn played just 14 games with no starts as a Buc.

The 1996 group of T Scott Adams, CB Tyrone Legette, CB Jay Taylor and RB LeRoy Thompson was largely forgettable as well. However, thanks to sheer volume, the award has to go to the ill-fated influx of 2004.

After winning the Super Bowl at the end of the 2002 season and seeing a promising 2003 fall apart due to key injuries and some painfully crazy losses, the Bucs wanted to chase another title with their championship core. To bolster that core, they signed no fewer than 14 UFAs, the largest class in team history (last year's group, at 13, was close). Almost none of those signings worked out, and that didn't even include at-the-end-of-his line T Derrick Deese, who was not technically a UFA.

RB Charlie Garner lasted three games before succumbing to injury. CBs Mario Edwards and Tommy Knight didn't work out. Offensive linemen Matt O'Dwyer and Matt Stinchcomb did not prove to be upgrades. LB Ian Gold, the latest in a long line of signees to play strongside linebacker, failed to duplicate earlier hits like Lonnie Marts. Reclamation project DE Lamar King wasn't reclaimed.

The Bucs did get a very good punter out of that mix in former Packer Josh Bidwell, but he was the only player from the 2004 class to make a long-term impact in Tampa. The following year, the Buccaneers just made two UFA moves, surgically hitting a couple depth chart needs with Becht and Hovan, and managed to win another NFC South division title. At that point in team history, at least, less proved to be more.


2. For the mailbag: The best thing about that call by Seattle at the end of the Super Bowl is that nobody is calling it Call-gate or something like that. So tired of the whole –gate thing. Anyway Seattle deciding to throw there at the end from the one is the msot talked about thing about this year's Super Bowl…I don't know, I can see both sides. My question is, What's the worst call the Buccaneers have made in the playoffs?

- Jeff Dyson, via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com

You know, in general I'm not a big fan of second-guessing play-calling. It's kind of hard to avoid it with that Super Bowl play, though; if my experience was typical, that moment caused a very immediate and visceral reaction. I actually think I had jumped off the couch as soon as I saw it was a pass, even before it was intercepted. That's my recollection, at least. I could be remembering it the way I want to remember it to make it seem more dramatic.

In any case, I believe I'm like the majority of people in that I immediately thought it was a bad decision to throw in that spot – second-and-goal from the one yard line with about 25 seconds left in the game and the Seahawks down by four – rather than run Marshawn Lynch for a second straight time. I have read quite a few arguments since Sunday offering at least a partial defense of the Seahawks' decision, and I'll admit that one of them has softened my opinion a bit. If Seattle truly was looking at the situation as a possible sequence of three downs, then it makes sense that one of the three plays would need to be a pass, since the Seahawks only had one timeout remaining. If second down is a run and it doesn't score, then the team almost certainly has to pass on third down. If second down is an incompletion that stops the clock without need of that last timeout, then third down could be a run or a pass.

Anyway, chances are you've already run across that argument. If you're like me, you can see the truth in it without quite letting go of the gut feeling that, to put it simply, a run by Lynch is the best bet to score right there. Not on three downs but on the next down. I'll say this: Pete Carroll and his coaches know A LOT more about calling plays than I do, as does Bill Belichick who has defended the Seahawks' choice.

That's also why, as I said, I'm not fond in most cases of questioning play calls. I think we tend to use the result of a play to determine whether or not the choice was a good one or not. Sure, a play can go bad because it was a poor call; I'm not saying offensive coordinators never make bad decisions. They do, just like players occasionally make poor plays. That said, I'm of the opinion that many plays fail not because the call was bad but because either the execution was poor or the opponent's execution was superior. That, in fact, is what a lot of people are arguing in regard to the Seahawks' last offensive play on Sunday, that New England CB Malcolm Butler simply made a superior play at the best possible moment, both through his recognition of what was coming and his very quick break on the ball.

Bad calls in Bucs playoff history? Well, there's nothing that sets off an alarm in my mind like that Seattle play. I'll have to plead relative ignorance on the playoff games of 1979, '80 and '81, which were before my time in Tampa. I certainly know who the Bucs played and what the outcomes were, but I didn't witness those games and have no recollection of specific play calls. So we're talking only about the postseason contests in 1997, '99, '00, '01, '02, '05 and '07…and I assume we're going to focus on the losses in those years and not the wins. I mean, who cares about one bad call in a playoff game that you win?

Honestly, there's only one thing that comes right to mind, and I don't even think I'd classify it as a "bad call." It actually occurred on defense and was more like an unfortunate decision.

Tampa Bay's defense turned in an incredible performance in the 1999 NFC Championship Game in St. Louis, shutting down Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and the Greatest Show on Turf for most of the game. Facing a team that had averaged more than 30 points per game during the regular season, the Buccaneers went into the fourth quarter with a 6-5 lead. They still had that one-point advantage when Dre Bly intercepted a Shaun King pass at midfield with eight minutes left, and when the Rams faced a third-and-four at the Bucs' 30 with five minutes to play.

As most Buc fans recall, however, that was when Warner made his one big play of the day, lobbing a perfect pass down the left sideline to noted Buc-killer Ricky Proehl for a 30-yard touchdown and the game's final points. CB Brian Kelly had pretty good coverage on Proehl but the pass just dropped in over his outstretched hand. On the play, the great Monte Kiffin called a blitz, which left Kelly in man coverage against Proehl. I have no proof, but that decision may very well have contributed to the success of the play, or even Warner's decision on where to throw it. I'm actually a fan of blitzing on important third downs in order to make the quarterback make a very quick decision, but obviously it doesn't always work. The Bucs blitz didn't get to Warner; perhaps more men in coverage would have prevented the play.

Just like we don't know if Marshawn Lynch would have scored on a second down run from the one, we'll never know if a different defensive decision would have stalled the Rams' drive at the 30 (where they still could have kicked the go-ahead field goal).  So, again, I wouldn't even refer to it as a bad play-call; it simply was a play that didn't work out, on which I happen to remember the call and have long wondered if that contributed to the outcome.


3. Trade Partner?

Okay, this is a fun hypothetical. Neither Paul nor I is saying the Buccaneers are going to trade out of the #1 spot, but if they did want to do so, where would they find a partner?

Well, first I think we have to assume that the other team in the deal is moving up to take a quarterback, right? That doesn't mean the Buccaneers are definitely taking a quarterback at #1, just that any team making a move that dramatic would surely be targeting Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota.

I also believe that we'd be talking about a team in the top 10. As I've written about before, the cost of making a move up by double-digit spots in the first round of the draft is likely to be enormous, as it was for Falcons when they jumped from #27 to #6 to get Julio Jones. Even going from #6 to #2 in 2012 to get RG3 cost the Redskins their second-round pick and two more first-rounders in addition to #6 that year. I know people like to connect the dots from Philly's Chip Kelly to Oregon's Mariota, but I just can't see the Eagles jumping all the way up from #20, as I've said before.

So we're looking for a team in the top 10 of the draft that very obviously needs a quarterback. That could be Tennessee, but since they're second they don't have to move up in order to get one of the two aforementioned quarterbacks. So this would only be on the table if they very significantly liked one of the two better than the other and were afraid a different team was planning to leap-frog them into the #1 spot. That's a lot of "ifs;" this one doesn't seem like a good fit.

The Jaguars and Raiders at #3 and #4 both drafted quarterbacks last year and started them as rookies, in Blake Bortles and Derek Carr respectively. Carr's first year went better than Bortles' but I personally doubt that either team would move on from that investment so quickly. As for Washington at #5, I don't think we're done with the RG3 era yet. Perhaps a QB-needy team could use the Jags, Raiders or Redskins to leap up into range to then call the Bucs for the #1 spot.

At #6 is the Jets, who have a new GM, a new head coach and a beleaguered young quarterback in Geno Smith. It's possible the new management will want to immediately put its own stamp on the team's future. Chicago, at #7 and also with a new head coach, has Jay Cutler going into just the second year of a seven-year, $127 million contract with $54 million guaranteed and a potential cap hit of almost $20 million if it moves on. I don't think so. The Falcons and Giants, at #8 and #9, have Matt Ryan and Eli Manning, so no dice. The Rams round out our top 10 and it would not be a shock to see them move on from Sam Bradford.

So, to summarize, it seems like the best fits for a team trying to trade out of the #1 spot this year would be the Jets at #6 and the Rams at #10. Of course, this is total speculation and I have no personal knowledge of any of the teams above, including the Buccaneers, being interested in a trade.

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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