NFL.com Around the NFL Editor Gregg Rosenthal named his top 20 unrestricted free agents of 2016.
The NFL's 2016 unrestricted free agency period opens on Wednesday at 4:00 p.m. ET and technically runs 15 weeks, to July 22. The most significant action will take place in a rush over the next two weeks, however. In fact, thanks to the two-day window that teams and agents are given to begin negotiations, there will surely be a flurry of action on Wednesday afternoon.
A preview of a few CBs who are expected to hit free agency next week.
It remains to be seen how prominently the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will feature in that initial flurry or in the early days of heightened activity. General Manager Jason Licht is sure to stress value when shopping the market, but his team does have the necessary cap space if the right opportunity to improve the roster presents itself.
Hundreds and hundreds of players are about to flood the market. Predicting where they'll end up is a tall order, but it's not hard to match certain names with certain teams based on roster needs and salary cap situations. We're here to do exactly that, but for only a single team and a total of six players. With the doors about to open on this year's free agent market, it's time for another Buccaneers.com Roundtable discussion.
Joining me again are contributors Joe Kania and Andrew Norton. Our task today is simple: From the pool of pending unrestricted free agents (UFAs), identify one player on offense and one player on defense who you believe would be a good fit for the Buccaneers. Call it more of a wish list than a prediction; without really knowing the inner details of the strategy Licht and Head Coach Dirk Koetter have formed for this offseason, we can only make what we think are educated guesses.
A preview of a few TEs who are expected to hit free agency next week.
To that point, we must also state once again for the record that what follows are the opinions of your three Roundtable contributors, not of Licht or Koetter or any members of their respective staffs. Heck, the three of us may not even agree with each other! We have agreed not to duplicate picks, so order may be important. I've drawn straws, and you're up first Joe as we pick offensive players. I'll go second and Andrew third, and we'll flip the order for the defensive picks.
So there you go, Joe. The market is open; start shopping!
Offensive Free Agents
Joe Kania: RB Doug Martin
Am I allowed to do this? When signing a free agent, there are plenty of question marks that come along with them. And, in addition, history has shown that few free agents rarely hit the ground running with their new teams; Pro Football Talk pulled an interesting stat that showed just four of 86 players to make this year's Pro Bowl did so after changing teams last offseason. Signing Martin eliminates many of those questions. We know how he fits with the players the Bucs already have and we know what type of player he can be in the team's offense. He helped the Bucs' finish No. 5 in the NFL in total offense and was instrumental in taking pressure off of Jameis Winston during his rookie season. If I could pick one free agent I'd want on the offensive side of the ball, it would be Martin.
Scott Smith: Well, I'll admit that it's not what I had in mind for this project, but it does serve as a good reminder about free agency priorities, so we'll allow it. While it's easy to get excited about the accomplished players who might hit the open market, it's often more important for a team to retain the good players it has developed in-house. That isn't always possible – thus the whole idea of free agency – but it's a worthwhile goal. I, too, would trade a shot at a big-time name from another team for a chance to keep Martin around.
But maybe we won't have to settle for one or the other. You can have Martin, Joe, and we'll also look at some potential additions from outside One Buccaneer Place. And I'll go next.
Scott Smith: G Ramon Foster
I really wanted to go with Cleveland wide receiver Travis Benjamin, to the point that I briefly had his name typed in above before changing my mind. As I noted right after Super Bowl 50, I feel like the Bucs' rapidly-improving offense could use a fast and shifty receiver for the slot, to work the middle between the team's enormous outside duo of Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. To me, Benjamin seems like he could excel in that role. What's more important, however, is what Benjamin thinks as free agency nears. He had a breakout season with nearly 1,000 yards last year and if the 26-year-old wideout does leave Cleveland he's probably expecting to at least slot in as his team's unquestioned #2 receiver. If Benjamin doesn't re-sign with the Browns I expect him to get a big deal somewhere, and that's why I can't make him my choice here.
Instead, let's take into account the Buccaneer news that dropped at the beginning of this week: the retirement of Logan Mankins. That leaves a whole in the starting offensive line that the team may very well choose to fill from within. Third-year man Kevin Pamphile, originally drafted as a tackle in the fifth round in 2014, got a chance to play inside last year and took to it well. When Mankins missed one week due to a knee injury, Pamphile stepped in and performed quite well in the Buccaneers' win over Jacksonville. Evan Smith, who opened last season as the starting center but eventually ceded that job to Joe Hawley, also has the versatility to play any of the three interior-line spots.
Still, the Bucs could look to replace Mankins with another outside veteran, and Pittsburgh's Ramon Foster is an intriguing option who still seems to be ascending at age 30. Foster has specifically played left guard for most of the past five seasons in Pittsburgh and has developed into a very good run-blocker. At 6-3 and about 340 pounds, he would add a whole lot of size to the Bucs' interior line and could pair with rising second-year man Ali Marpet to give the team one of the league's better guard combos. I'd love to see Pamphile continue to develop into a good contributor for the Bucs and I have confidence in Smith, but it never hurts to add talented depth to the offensive line. It might be tempting, in our imaginary world here, to go after Baltimore's Kelechi Osemele, who is 26, has the versatility to also play tackle and is coming off a very good season for the Ravens. But Osemele may be the most coveted offensive lineman on the entire market this year and in fact the Raiders have apparently already made a very strong pitch.
Andrew Norton: T Andre Smith
I base this pick on a few things that my cowriters stated before me. 1) I agree with Scott's notion of Pamphile being able to fill the guard role left by Mankins's retirement. 2) I agree with Joe's position on helping Jameis Winston develop by protecting him. Joe's case was keeping a familiar face, mine is a bit more literal.
Having Pamphile fill the guard spot, the biggest area to address on the offensive line, and perhaps on the offense as a whole would be the right tackle slot. Andre Smith played that role for the Cincinnati Bengals for the last seven seasons. The Bengals made the playoffs in six of those seven years.
Smith has struggled over the last two seasons in Cincinnati with a number of injuries, but has proven that he can be one of the NFL's best at the position. In 2012, he was Pro Football Focus's highest rated right tackle in the league. If he can return to health, the 29-year-old can join a developing Bucs' line that performed well last season and be a great bookend opposite last season's rookies standout, Donovan Smith.
*Scott Smith: I find it interesting, Andrew, that you refer to right tackle as perhaps the biggest area of need on the entire team, despite the fact that we currently have TWO starters for that spot on the depth chart. Heading into the 2015 season, in fact, right tackle Demar Dotson was considered essentially the anchor for a line that was otherwise being torn down and rebuilt from the ground up. Unfortunately, Dotson got hurt in the preseason opener and that cost him much of the season. The Bucs responded by signing veteran Gosder Cherilus, who did an admirable job starting 13 games on a front line that was vastly improved from the previous year. And Dotson did eventually return to start three of the last five games. Both are under contract for 2016. I'm not suggesting that either one projects as a Pro Bowler in 2016, but I think a Dotson-Cherilus competition could end up producing a competent starter AND some valuable veteran depth.
Andrew Norton: I would be lying if I said I didn't forget a little about Demar Dotson in all of this, considering his limited time last season. He is certainly a suitable right tackle, and Cherilus did a solid job at the position when he was the Bucs starter last year. Taking that into account, you can defend the look at Andre Smith as a "value" pick, considering his recent injury past. Bringing in a veteran who's intent on improving his game to his former level could never hurt. His addition would inspire more competition at right tackle. Also, last season, Kevin Pamphile (who we have hypothetically filling our guard position) was listed as Donovan Smith's backup left tackle. Should Andre Smith win the RT role, you now have solid veteran backups at both tackle positions with Dotson at LT and Cherilus at RT. Competition and OT depth sounds solid to me!
Defensive Free Agents
Andrew Norton: DE Charles Johnson
Moving right along to defense, I'm going to reach for another big name that could immediately improve a position of need for the Buccaneers. Charles Johnson is coming off a season in which he played just nine games due to a hamstring injury and had a reduced role for the Carolina Panthers, but he showed up big in the playoffs, recording a sack in each of the Panthers' three postseason games.
Prior to last season, he had at least 8.5 sacks for five straight years, breaking the double-digit barrier three times, something no Buccaneers player has done since Simeon Rice in 2005. He is one of the top pass rushers available in free agency, but again, if the Buccaneers are to make a splash, this could certainly be argued as their biggest position of need, so bringing in a big name is a possibility. (The fact that the team confirmed Johnson's visit to One Buc Place on Tuesday doesn't hurt my case either.)
In his career, including playoffs, Johnson has 68.5 sacks and 16 forced fumbles. With a league-leading linebacker and perennial Pro-Bowl defensive tackle already in place, a stellar edge rusher is a fine next step in building a dominant defense.
Scott Smith: S George Iloka
I agree wholeheartedly with your final statement, Andrew, and can't help but think of 2001, when Monte Kiffin wooed Simeon Rice to Tampa to be the final piece in that dominant Buccaneer defense. Would Tampa Bay have won a Super Bowl without that move? We'll never know, but I tend to doubt it. Elite pass-rushers are not a common find on the free agency market, and if Johnson indeed remains exactly that (like you said, he looked like it in the postseason), that would be a tremendous addition at an area of great need.
Since we agreed not to duplicate picks, I'll turn elsewhere, in this case to a veteran-laden Cincinnati Bengals secondary that could prove to be a free agency bonanza for other teams around the league. Not only are Leon Hall and Adam Jones two of the more attractive cornerback options on the market, but the starting safety tandem of Reggie Nelson and George Iloka could also depart the Queen City. The Bengals still have a little time left before the market opens, but that's an awful lot of work to get done.
So there's a chance Iloka moves on, and I wouldn't mind seeing the former fifth-round pick land in Tampa. I completely agree that edge rusher and cornerback are the team's top defensive needs, but an infusion of young talent at safety wouldn't hurt either. The team's two main starters at the back end of the defense last year were Bradley McDougald, who as a restricted free agent is likely to return, and Chris Conte, who is due to become an unrestricted free agent. Conte had some strong stretches in his one year as a Buccaneer and the team may be interested in bringing him back, but either way Iloka would be a nice addition.
Iloka is listed at 6-4 and 225 pounds, so he's got the size to bring the lumber on opposing ballcarriers, but he also has demonstrated good coverage skills. He was particularly strong in 2014 with three interceptions and 10 passes defensed, but he has the feel of a player on the rise at age 25, and that's always the best kind of free agent signing. Oh, and he played at Boise State, so Bucs Head Coach Dirk Koetter might be able to use that connection to his advantage in a potential sales pitch. Every little bit helps!
Joe Kania: CB Prince Amukamara
The Buccaneers need help rushing the passer, but the draft is incredibly deep along the defensive line. Tampa Bay could address a need in the secondary in free agency, add a DeForest Buckner or Joey Bosa in the draft and be drastically improved from a year ago on the defensive side of the ball.
There are a handful of talented corners who could be starters immediately, but I think former Giant Prince Amukamara makes the most sense when comparing talent to price tag.
If he can remain healthy, Amukamara has proven he can be one of the better corners in the NFL. That's a big "if", though. Over the course of the past two seasons, he has played in just 19 games. In his five-year career, he has started all 16 games in a season just once. During his time in New York, Amukamara has played well against the run, averaging 9.6 tackles per start, and has been asked to shadow opponents' No. 1 receivers, including Dez Bryant twice a year.
Whoever signs Amukamara should be able to do so at a decent value given his history with injuries.