With five sacks and a large contribution on special teams, DE/DT Jimmy Wilkerson proved to be well worth the Bucs' investment in free agency
After picking up a number of standout starters prior to the 2007 season, such as quarterback Jeff Garcia and linebacker Cato June, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were once again able to sign a handful of impact players this past offseason. And, as we did a year ago, with the '07 class, we're going to use this time of the year to review the free agency haul of 2008.
We must start with a quick definition of terms, however.
In this case, we're going to be reviewing all of the non-rookie players added during the 2008 free agency period, which ran roughly from March through June. If we limited the discussion only to unrestricted free agents, we would not be able to include such key additions as Antonio Bryant and Brian Griese. Griese was brought in via trade in early March and Bryant was a different class of signee since he wasn't even on an NFL roster in 2007.
With that mind, here's a look – in chronological order – at the players the Bucs added last offseason that may not necessarily have been free agents themselves, but were added during the free agency period.
This review also excludes any free agents who were with the Bucs in 2007 and then re-signed last spring, such as linebacker Antoine Cash, cornerback Sammy Davis, defensive end Kevin Carter, defensive tackle Jovan Haye and tight end Jerramy Stevens.
C Jeff Faine
The Bucs' first free agent acquisition came very early in the process and proved to be one of the club's best moves. Veteran center Jeff Faine, an unrestricted free agent formerly of the Saints, was brought in to man the middle of one of the league's youngest offensive lines, and he easily lived up to his billing as one of the best centers in the game.
Faine started all 16 games in 2008 and immediately assumed a leadership role along the offensive front. His intensely physical style of play helped set the tone up front all season. The offensive line had some ups and downs as a whole in 2008, but with Faine in the middle of the group, it's easily one of the brightest spots on the Bucs' roster going forward.
DE Jimmy Wilkerson
Faine was one of the biggest names available at his position, and thus made some headlines when the Bucs inked him to a deal. The team's next free agent pickup drew less attention but eventually emerged as a very pleasant surprise as the season progressed.
That man was Jimmy Wilkerson, a versatile defensive lineman who had spent five workmanlike but relatively quiet years in Kansas City before joining the Bucs as an unrestricted free agent. The change in scenery, however, proved to be a blessing for Wilkerson.
After tallying just one sack in his first five years in the NFL – a combination of two half-sacks, in fact – Wilkerson exploded for five in 2008, a total that tied him for second on the Bucs' defense.
Wilkerson provided depth at both end and tackle along the defensive front and was also a valuable special teams performer, but it was his surprising newfound ability to get to opposing quarterbacks that made him one of the better value pickups the Bucs made last offseason.
TE John Gilmore
Like Wilkerson, Gilmore was a mostly low-profile unrestricted free agent pickup who blossomed once he donned a pewter and red jersey for the first time.
Gilmore had spent his first six years in Chicago and had developed a reputation as a stout blocking tight end – not necessarily the most exciting of labels, but a valuable one nonetheless.
However, Gilmore proved in 2008 that pigeonholing him into such a narrow definition may have been a bit shortsighted, as he displayed some excellent pass-catching abilities in addition to his usually-solid blocking duties.
In fact, Gilmore set career highs with 10 starts, 15 receptions and 147 yards, and also added one touchdown on the year. His blocking proved to be equal to the advertising, as he helped Tampa Bay put together one of the league's best rushing attacks in the first half of the season before injuries began to take their toll on the team.
QB Brian Griese
Griese was one of the Bucs' first pickups during the free agency period last spring but he wasn't technically a free agent.
Fans may remember that the Bucs actually picked up Griese – a former Buccaneer from 2004-05 – in a trade with the Bears in early March.
Rumors had been swirling that the Bears were ready to part ways with Griese and release him, but the Bucs decided to send a draft pick Chicago's way in order to ensure that Griese would make his return trip to Tampa.
That move ended up being a successful one, as Griese started five games in 2008 in relief of Jeff Garcia, completing 110 of 184 passes for 1,073 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions. When Garcia struggled with injuries out of the gate, Griese's presence proved very important, as he stepped in to start the next four games, three of which were Buccaneer victories.
LBs Leon Joe, Teddy Lehman and Matt McCoy
In a span of two days in early March, the Bucs added three linebackers – Joe, Lehman and McCoy.
Joe and Lehman were unrestricted free agents previously of the Bills and Lions, respectively, while McCoy was set to become a restricted free agent, but gained unrestricted status when the Saints failed to extend the requisite tender offer his way.
The trio of moves was aimed at building depth at that spot, but as a whole they didn't provide much impact. Only McCoy stuck around long enough to see action in a regular-season game.
Joe and Lehman were both released over the summer months, while McCoy made the 53-man roster before being released in October and re-signed a month later to finish out the season. On the year, McCoy appeared in five games and tallied three tackles, seven special teams stops and one special teams forced fumble.
WR Antonio Bryant
Bryant wasn't really an unrestricted free agent last spring…he was even more available than that. Bryant didn't play in the league in 2007 and thus was available to any team even before the 2008 free agency period began in March.
However, a discussion of the Bucs' additions during the free agency period would be wholly incomplete without mentioning Bryant, far and away the biggest pickup the Bucs made last spring.
In an amazing resurgence, Bryant put together one of the best receiving seasons in Buccaneers history and was one of the more remarkable comeback stories in all the NFL.
Bryant led the Bucs in every receiving category, set career highs with 83 catches, 1,248 yards and seven touchdowns, and made a number of phenomenal catches throughout the year as he emerged as the most dangerous weapon in the Bucs' offensive arsenal.
Set to become a free agent this offseason, Bryant will once again become a target for the Bucs as they almost certainly want to keep him in a Tampa Bay uniform in the years to come.
RB Warrick Dunn
Dunn, like Griese, was an offseason addition with previous ties to the Buccaneers' organization.
Dunn had spent six seasons in Atlanta after playing his first five years in Tampa. Thus, when the Falcons decided to release him last offseason, the choice to return to the Bucs was a natural.
The results were outstanding, as Dunn went on to rush for a team-leading 786 yards and two touchdowns and also tie for second on the team with 47 receptions for 330 yards.
Many wondered whether Dunn still had much left in the tank when he re-signed with the Bucs, but his 2008 performance certainly proved any doubters wrong. Dunn still showed the nifty moves and excellent awareness that had defined his career, allowing him to fill in admirably as the starter after Earnest Graham was lost to an injury midway through the season.
TE Ben Troupe
While Gilmore joined the Bucs toting a reputation as a blocking tight end, Troupe was added as an unrestricted free agent formerly of the Titans who was considered a skilled pass-catching tight end.
Gilmore flourished in Tampa, but Troupe never really found a spot on the team. He battled a number of nagging injuries in training camp and when tight end Jerramy Stevens returned from a two-game suspension, Troupe was squeezed out of spot.
S Eugene Wilson
Eugene Wilson was another unrestricted free agent the Bucs signed that didn't quite pan out.
The veteran Wilson brought a championship pedigree with him from his years in New England, as well as some versatility. A former starting safety with the Patriots, Wilson was also skilled at the cornerback spot, and that's precisely where the Bucs hoped to work him into the rotation.
However, an outstanding training camp from Phillip Buchanon, the usual solid play of veteran Ronde Barber, the rapid rise of first-round pick Aqib Talib and the unsuspected arrival of undrafted rookie free agent Elbert Mack left Wilson without a spot in the defensive backs mix, and the Bucs released him as part of roster cuts on the first day of September.
DE Marques Douglas
Douglas was the final unrestricted free agent the Bucs added, inking a contract in late March. A versatile, veteran defensive lineman, Douglas had been a full-time starter for much of the previous five seasons he spent in Baltimore and San Francisco.
Unfortunately, the best wasn't saved for last for the Bucs, as Douglas failed to find a niche with the Bucs throughout training camp.
However, the move to bring in Douglas did provide some returns, as the Bucs were able to swing a deal with the Ravens in late August, sending him back to Baltimore in return for two draft picks. The move also worked out for Douglas, as he went on to play in all 16 games in his return to Baltimore.
In any offseason, there are bound to be hits and misses as NFL teams ink new contracts with free agents or swing trades with other clubs.
In that respect, the Bucs' 2008 free agency period was no different. However, in the cases of Bryant, Faine, Wilkerson, Griese, Gilmore and Dunn, the Bucs brought in players who proved to be well worth the investment, and then some.
With a new regime in place in Head Coach Raheem Morris and General Manager Mark Dominik, the Bucs are hoping that the 2009 free agency period – set to begin in late February – brings more of the same success.