Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Buc Mailbag: Making Moves

This week, Buc fans want to know about a couple of former CFL prospects, the team's ongoing approach to free agency and the likelihood of two specific defensive back signings.

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Photos of the Buccaneers' complete roster.

Each week during the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from  Buccaneer fans. This week, one Buc fan gives us a reminder of a couple of interesting prospects signed out of the Canadian Football League two months ago. We also discuss the state of free agency and if the Bucs are done shopping, then consider two specific players who are still on the market.*

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. Canadian Imports

Prior to the free agency the Bucs added a WR and I believe a LB that should be excellent additions to the offense. Can you remind us fans about what they can contribute and if there will be a need for the Bucs to draft at those positions?
- Raymond Kelly (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Well, the Buccaneers actually signed 15 players to "reserve/futures" contracts between the end of the 2016 season and the start of free agency. For those unfamiliar with the term, a reserve/futures deal is basically just a way of signing an available player (i.e. one who was not under contract with any team at the end of the 2016 season) to the 2017 roster before the 2017 league year actually begins. That includes practice squad players, whose contracts expire as soon as their team's season ends.

Pictures of the Buccaneers' running backs.

But, yeah, I know who you're talking about, in part because there was only one wide receiver and one linebacker among those 15 players, and in part because the two most interesting signings (to me, at least) were both players from the Canadian Football League. That would be wide receiver Derel Walker, signed on January 5, and linebacker Jeff Knox, added two weeks later.

What Walker and Knox can contribute to the Bucs is a bit of a mystery, although presumably a little less so for the team's talent evaluators, who surely studied their CFL tape extensively. I would think best-case scenario for Walker is that he makes the team as a fourth or fifth receiver and gets a chance to show he can compete at the NFL level. The most likely path for Knox, if he's going to make it, is that he shows right away he can contribute on special teams, earning him a roster spot and a more extended chance to prove he's an asset on defense, too.

First, let's look at where they've been. Walker is a former teammate of Mike Evans at Texas A&M, where he transferred after playing a couple junior college seasons. In 2013, Evans (69-1,394-12) and Walker (51-818-5) finished 1-2 on the Aggies' receiving yardage chart. Evans, as you know, was drafted seventh overall by the Buccaneers in 2014 in the middle of an incredibly deep class of receivers. Walker was not drafted, signing as a rookie free agent with Tennessee. When the Titans waived him at the end of the preseason, he decided to head to Canada in 2015.

In his very first game for the Edmonton Eskimos, the 6-2, 185-pound Walker caught 10 passes for 125 yards. He barely slowed down over the next two seasons, racking up 198 catches for 2,699 yards. The CFL is a pass-happy league, but those are still some high-octane numbers. Walker had a contract set to expire early in 2017, and he drew a lot of interest from the NFL, trying out for seven different teams in December.

Pictures of the Buccaneers' wide receivers.

Knox, who played at the confusingly named California University of Pennsylvania (not to be mistaken for Indiana University of Pennsylvania) also went undrafted in 2014 and headed to the CFL in 2015. He signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and got a chance to play thanks to an injury to the team's starting middle linebacker and went on to earn all-star status. Knox had 179 tackles on defense over the past two seasons and – notably – another 29 stops on special teams. Like Walker, Knox drew interest from several NFL clubs, earning three tryouts before landing in Tampa.

So, how likely is the CFL-to-NFL jump? We all know one very good example from Buccaneers history in Shelton Quarles, who went undrafted out of Vanderbilt, had an initial shot with the Dolphins but eventually ended up playing in Canada. The Buccaneers signed him in 1997 and he was an instant hit on special teams (I keep coming back to that) before eventually winning a starting job on the strong side. Quarles moved to middle linebacker in 2002, leading to a Pro Bowl berth and a Super Bowl ring. He is now the Buccaneers' Director of Football Operations.

Other ones that come immediately to mind are Warren Moon, Jeff Garcia and Cameron Wake. A Google search gave me a few others: Joe Theismann, Joe Horn, Jerrell Freeman and Brandon Browner. That's a pretty good list, but of course it doesn't really tell us the likelihood of Walker or Knox making it in the NFL. What percentage of players who start out in the CFL and then subsequently get a shot in the NFL are able to stick?

There is CFL-NFL movement every year, but it's not easy to find a comprehensive list of all those players. I did find a list compiled by a CFL writer last February of 16 CFL players who signed with NFL teams that year, and here it is: DL Freddie Bishop, CB Steven Clarke, WR Jeff Fuller, CB Aaron Grymes, S Erik Harris, CB Buddy Jackson, LB Willie Jefferson, CB Josh Johnson, T Colin Kelly, DT Cleyon Laing, RB Cam Marshall, S Dexter McCoil, DL Tristan Okpalaugo, WR Eric Rogers, WR Terrell Sinkfield and K Swayze Waters.

Pictures of the Buccaneers' tight ends.

I don't immediately recognize any of those names, but I also don't claim to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the 53-man rosters for all 32 teams. Upon looking them up, I see that the majority of them previously had a shot in the NFL before going to the CFL, so a path more like that of Walker than Knox. However, the best success story out of this group in 2016 was one of the exceptions: safety Dexter McCoil, who made the San Diego Chargers' roster, played in all 16 games with two starts and notched 22 tackles and an interception.

Freddie Bishop (New York Jets), Aaron Grymes (Philadelphia), Erik Harris (New Orleans) and Josh Johnson (Jacksonville) all made their respective teams as well, though none played more than eight games. Wide receiver Eric Rogers is obviously a talent that intrigues the NFL – he got a whopping 17 tryouts last winter before signing with San Francisco. He ended up on injured reserve but will get another shot in 2017.

A couple of the players above were cut in May or June but most of them at least got a shot in training camp. I don't know if the Buccaneers have uncovered their next Shelton Quarles in either Walker or Knox, but there are reasons for optimism. For one thing, the team is not particularly deep at either the receiver or linebacker positions at the moment. And neither Walker nor Knox were mere roster-fillers in Canada; they were actually among the league's best at their respective positions. I would not be at all surprised if one or both makes the 53-man roster.

2. More Moves to Come?

It has been nearly 2 weeks since the Bucs signed WR DeSean Jackson, DT Chris Baker, and SS J.J. Wilcox. Despite also signing K Nick Folk recently, do you see Tampa Bay making anymore moves or they are just going to wait for the NFL Draft? Anthony Gironda New Port Richey, Florida (via email totbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)History suggests the answer is yes, there will be some more signings. I just wouldn't expect any of them to be earth-shattering moves.

In each of the first three seasons that Jason Licht was the Buccaneers' general manager (2014-16), the team continued to work the edges of free agency after the rush of the first few days. Last year, the Buccaneers signed linebacker Daryl Smith and punter Bryan Anger late in March, then added quarterback Dan LeFevour. In 2015, late April brought cornerback Sterling Moore and punter Andrew Wilder, followed by the April pre-draft signings of fullback Jorvorskie Lane, tight end Emmanuel Ogbuehi, center Ben Gottschalk and linebacker Larry Dean. Plus the team traded for defensive end George Johnson after initially attempting to sign him as a restricted free agent. In 2014, cornerback Mike Jenkins and wide receiver Louis Murphy came aboard in late March followed by wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins and safety Major Wright in the first part of April.

Pictures of the new additions to the NFC South.

Not all of those guys are household names, of course, and some of them were more of the "street" free agent variety rather than unrestricted free agents (UFAs). But the notable UFAs include Anger, Smith, Moore, Lane, Jenkins, Murphy and Wright. All carved out significant roles, with varying levels of success.

I could continue going back through the years, because it's pretty much the same story every offseason (2011 being a big-time exception due to the lockout). I just didn't think it was particularly relevant since those would be teams run by different management groups. The point is, free agency might offer most of its big news in the first few days, but it really goes on for about four months. Not only do teams continue to pick at the list in late March and April, but there is often another run after the draft. Once teams have seen what needs they were and weren't able to fill on draft weekend, they may look for a little depth in what remains of free agency.

And there are some spots where the Bucs still need some depth. They only have five linebackers under contract, for instance, six if you can't the near-certain return of exclusive rights free agent Adarius Glanton. Last year, the team took 10 linebackers into training camp. The signing of DeSean Jackson radically improved the receiving corps, but there is still little experienced depth behind Jackson, Mike Evans and Adam Humphries. The tight end numbers are low at the moment and the team probably needs to add a couple defensive backs. Yes, a lot of that camp depth will come through the draft and the signings of rookie free agents, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Bucs make another strategic strike or two in unrestricted free agency.

3. Secondary Considerations

Well, I did just end the last answer by saying the Bucs could use a little more secondary depth, so John has a relevant follow-up here. That said, I would put either of those two potential signings in the "likely" category.

McDonald has essentially started for four seasons for the Rams and is just 26 years old, but he hasn't landed anywhere since the free agency carousel began. That may be in part because there were quite a few safeties of note that hit the market this year (Barry Church, Duron Harmon, Tony Jefferson, J.J. Wilcox, Bradley McDougald, Micah Hyde, Mike Adams, Darius Butler, etc.) and because the draft offers some very good options this year, too. In addition, McDonald's arrest on a DUI last May could factor into some teams' evaluations of him.

The Buccaneers have already signed one safety since the start of free agency in J.J. Wilcox (and lost one in McDougald). Wilcox was only a part-time starter last year in Dallas but he was a starter for most of the previous two seasons and surely is considered a competitor for a front-line gig with the Buccaneers. Keith Tandy and Chris Conte are also strong candidates to start. I think the Bucs might need some depth at safety still, but to bring in another player who is expected to start would really muddy the waters. I can't see that as a priority for the team right now.

Sam Shields is a different story. He was released by the Packers, the team that developed him from an undrafted player into a star, in January. Shields hadn't played since the 2016 season opener, when he suffered the latest in a string of concussions. Shortly after his release, Shields said he planned to continue his career in 2017 but did indicate that he was still suffering from concussion symptoms.

As such, the real question here isn't where Shields will land but if he will indeed continue his career. It's easy to root for him if that is his desire and he's able to do it, but it remains to be seen if that will happen. As such, as I said above, I'd have a hard time calling his becoming a Buccaneer likely.

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