General Manager Mark Dominik is determined to add productive players to the team's offense
A 25-year-old tight end with a 1,000-yard campaign under his belt. A 1,000-yard rusher from the 2008 season who is just entering his prime. A 27-year-old receiver coming off an 80-catch season. A former 1,000-yard receiver who, at 26 and in his best shape in years, is a prime candidate to rack up big numbers once again.
The names are important – Kellen Winslow, Derrick Ward, Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton, respectively – but the theme uniting those four acquisitions of the last week is even more telling. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded for Winslow, signed Ward, locked up Bryant and brought back Clayton as the first shots in what is the primary, underlying plan for the franchise in 2009.
That theme: productivity. It's undeniable that the Buccaneers are getting younger – that was unavoidable when Derrick Brooks and four other veterans were released last week – but they are not necessarily getting greener. With new General Manager Mark Dominik and new Head Coach Raheem Morris forging a new direction for the team, the goal is to stock the roster with as many productive and proven players as they can get their hands on.
In the first week of free agency, that plan has been applied to the offense, which in Tampa has traditionally lagged in production as compared to the defense. Dominik also mentioned the return of running back Earnest Graham from a 2008 ankle injury and the extension of the necessary tender offer to restricted free agent tackle Donald Penn when assessing the maneuvers so far.
"Our plan has been to help this offense be surrounded at every position [by] players that have been productive," he said. "Even though the age of this team right now makes it seem like it's going younger, and it is, the experience of these guys, the production of the guys we're bringing in, is there. So that's been our attack, prior to free agency and going into free agency."
The fast start on the offensive side of the ball was not merely circumstantial. The Bucs studied free agency and felt they could get that side of the ball immediate help through the available pool of talent. Obviously, that also included targeting a player who wasn't a free agent in Winslow, who was acquired from the Browns for two draft choices. (Dominik also confirmed reports that those picks were a second-rounder in 2009 and a fifth-rounder in 2010.)
"There was a plan to go offensive first," said Dominik. "We felt like free agency did have a lot of strength in offense, in the ability to add players that we thought could really help this team. We felt like free agency was going to afford us that, assuming that the contracts and the players made sense. But that didn't limit us to saying there's not a defensive player that made sense for us."
From that productivity standpoint, it's hard to argue with the decision to bring in Winslow. Though injuries limited him to "only" 43 catches in eight starts last year, that's still more than the Bucs' most productive tight end in 2008, Jerramy Stevens (36 catches). In his last two full seasons, 2006 and 2007, Winslow averaged 85.5 receptions, which is more than all of the Bucs' tight ends hauled in during the '08 season, combined.
Last Friday, 336 players became unrestricted free agents but only one of those was a 1,000-yard running back in 2008. That would be Ward, the new Buc and former member of the New York Giants' league-leading backfield triumvirate along with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. Ward produced his 1,025 yards on just 182 carries (a 5.6-yard avg.) and has just 342 career totes on his leg odometer, meaning the Bucs are certain he's going to be a productive player in 2009.
What Bryant produced in 2008 was one of the best receiving seasons in team history and one of the better stories across the entire league. He was out of football in 2007, but a year later he's among the elite at his position, and compensated that way thanks to the franchise tag the Bucs placed on him. It was a crucial part of the productivity plan to keep Bryant in town.
Much of the storyline on Clayton is that he has yet to duplicate what he produced in 2004, which was simply one of the five best rookie receiving campaigns in league history. His single-season high in receptions and yards since that 80-catch, 1,193-yard breakout was last year's 38-484 campaign, but he has never wavered from his all-out, intensely physical approach to the game. Few receivers in the NFL block more willingly or tenaciously than Clayton, which helps the rest of the offense produce. In addition, he finished strong in 2008 and may just have more 1,000-yard seasons in him.
"A lot of things that Clayton does do you may not see unless you watch the tape, and that is his tenacity and his competitiveness," said Dominik. "I think every corner – and I have a feeling a lot of linebackers and a lot of safeties – know who Michael Clayton is. But we're also bringing him back to catch passes. We want him to be involved in the offense as well, but that did have a lot to do with [his re-signing], in terms of the toughness and the physicality that we're looking for out of our offense."
The Bucs' other two free agency signings so far – kicker Mike Nugent and linebacker Niko Koutouvides – were aimed mostly at special teams. The attention could now turn to defense if the right assets remain on the market. That could include more work on Tampa Bay's own list of free agents; Dominik said on Tuesday that he had spoken to the agents of unrestricted free agent defensive backs Phillip Buchanon and Jermaine Phillips that morning.
"Every day I think the market adjusts one way or the other," said Dominik. "The hard part of any organization, from the front office to the coaching staff, is assigning a value to what a player really is. If at some point, [that value] is "X," "X plus one" is not worth it. You have to be able to make those decisions, so we'll continue to monitor the market.
"We are still looking. There's a month-and-a-half until the draft, and then the draft, so obviously there will be more new people on the roster by May 1st. We just want to make sure that they fit into our one, two, three, four, five-year plan, and that they want to play for the Bucs."