In the span of seven days, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers remade their starting defensive line, added a brawling anchor to their offensive line and brought order to the kicking game. That's what a team can do, at least on paper, when it chooses to dive into the unrestricted free agency pool.
The NFL's new league year began on Wednesday, March 14, and the Buccaneers made their first two strikes within 48 hours, landing defensive tackles Beau Allen, formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Mitch Unrein, late of the Chicago Bears. When the Eagles released end Vinny Curry a couple days into free agency, Tampa Bay jumped on that opportunity as well. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro also left the New York Jets for Tampa, and the Bucs' offensive line got its boost on March 19 when former Baltimore Ravens center Ryan Jensen put pen to paper.
The final new addition in this prolific run was defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, acquired from the New York Giants in a March 22 trade. While that's not technically a free agent addition it was still part of the same effort to fill specific roster needs in advance of the NFL Draft. For the purposes of our discussion today, we're going to count it.
In between these new additions, the Buccaneers also brought back several of their own players who had briefly hit free agency, most notably cornerback Brent Grimes. Also returning were defensive end Will Clarke, safety Keith Tandy and guards Evan Smith and Adam Gettis. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, running back Peyton Barber and linebacker Adarius Glanton all agreed to new deals before the start of free agency but are part of this same overall roster-construction picture.
Finally, Tampa Bay made several big moves to keep its offense healthy both in 2018 and beyond, signing wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate to new long-term contracts.
That's a lot of activity in a short amount of time, and I think it deserves a closer look. Thus, Team Reporter Casey Phillips and Buccaneers.com contributor Carmen Vitali have agreed to join me for another Roundtable discussion. The topic this time is simple: Which of the Buccaneers moves in, and peripherally around, free agency will have the biggest impact on the 2018 season? We will choose from any of the transactions listed above, assuming re-signings and moves that took place before the start of free agency.
Casey, take us away. Carmen, you can go second. With all those great maneuvers noted above, I'm not worried at all about picking third.
Casey Phillips: Bucs Sign DE Jason Pierre-Paul
Real surprising, huh?
In all honesty, I could make arguments that several of the additions and returning players would be the most impactful signing. But we spent the 2017 season discussing a litany of reasons why having a lackluster edge rush affected the entire team. It meant asking too much of the linebackers and secondary. It meant not getting off the field on third down. It meant quarterbacks getting too comfortable and making big plays, etc., etc. Reverse those arguments and we can see what a true impact edge rusher (like JPP has proven he can be) would do for the team. Not only will he pressure quarterbacks into quick or bad decisions that can lead to turnovers and help the secondary, but he will take attention away from Gerald McCoy.
"I wonder what McCoy could do if he wasn't doubled all the time," is one of the most common hypothetical discussions among Bucs fans. This signing could finally show us the answer. So even if a sack isn't coming from JPP, that doesn't mean he wasn't a big reason why it happened. Pierre-Paul could help jump-start the chain reaction of pressuring the QB, which helps the secondary, which gets the defense off the field, which gets the ball in Jameis Winston's hands more often. Sounds like a pretty big potential impact on the 2018 season.
On top of all that, we shouldn't forget how this signing affects the draft. Both Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter recently mentioned how the additions in free agency have given them more flexibility in the draft. As much as we hear GMs around the league say the emphasis is on "best player available," the urgency to improve the pass rush could have meant reaching for a certain player or passing over other positions of need. Thanks to feeling more confident about the line, the Bucs could end up with a DB or RB or OL from the draft they wouldn't have otherwise been able to take, shoring up that position for years to come…in large part thanks to getting JPP.
**Carmen Vitali: Bucs Sign DE Vinny Curry.
Though they play the same position, Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul play a very different game. You'll notice that Curry doesn't have the sack numbers of JPP, but that's because he is more of a workhorse defensive lineman that focuses on stopping the run in addition to disrupting the quarterback and defending the pass. Too often we get caught up in sack totals when evaluating the worth of a defensive lineman when, in reality, they are responsible and impactful in many other ways.
What really makes Curry a special player is the hybrid aspect to his game that doesn't show up on paper all the time. For instance, how many times did Curry still get a hit on the quarterback who was juuust able to get the ball off before taking a sack? The answer is 18. Additionally though, Coach Koetter noted during the NFL League Meeting this week that Curry's presence gives the team more lineup possibilities up front because of the potential for him taking snaps inside on passing downs. This would allow for defensive end Noah Spence to come off the edge more often in passing situations. Now all of sudden defenses have two edge rushers in Spence and JPP to worry about, with a guy of Curry's run-stopping ability on the inside, just in case the quarterback gets any ideas.
How does Curry do in the middle? I'm glad you asked. Curry had 8.5 stuffs last year (for reference: JPP had 4.0 and is considered a pretty good run-stopper in his own right), 2.5 of which came up the middle. His highest number of tackles came when the play direction was up the middle, as well as all three of his sacks. So not only is the potential for him to play inside there, but Curry actually does well when he is focused on the middle. His ability to help the run will help a Tampa team that ranked 23rd in rushing defense. If you can stop the run, you make opposing offenses one-dimensional. This gives other pass-rushers like Pierre-Paul and Spence more opportunities to go after the quarterback, who is inevitably holding onto the ball longer trying to complete a pass. This also could help force quarterbacks into bad decisions, like Casey said with JPP, and create turnovers, or at least get the defense off the field. So while the Curry addition may not be as flashy on paper as the trade for JPP, he gives the defensive line a ton of flexibility that will essentially shift the entire dynamic of the front four.
By the way – I could have easily written a similar argument for the impact of Curry's Eagles-turned-Buccaneers teammate, defensive tackle Beau Allen, and his own workhorse run-stopping ability. Curry's versatility is what made me ultimately place him as the more significant impact-player. But either way, not only did the D-line get pass rush help, Jason Licht and his team also rounded it out with some nasty run-stop support as well.
Scott Smith: Bucs Re-Sign CB Brent Grimes
You really can't argue with either of the above picks because they were really on-point additions in terms of addressing the team's biggest need. So as not to duplicate the choices of Casey or Carmen, though, I'll go in another direction with the move that I think started it all.
Signing Mike Evans to a long-term deal was probably the single most important thing on the Buccaneers' 2018 offseason checklist. Getting Brent Grimes to come back, I'd argue, was the first thing the team wanted to accomplish when reloading its roster for the 2018 season. Casey and Carmen talk a lot about the chain reaction of impacts their two chosen additions will likely cause; I'd argue that not getting Grimes back would have created a chain reaction of its own that would have made it harder to address every need on the depth chart.
Had Grimes chosen to retire (or sign elsewhere, as would have been his right as of March 14), the need at cornerback would have looked a lot more pressing. It sounds like the team is expecting to use Vernon Hargreaves as their slot corner in 2018, which means the two starting jobs on the outside would have currently fallen to Ryan Smith and … ?? The Bucs very well may have felt compelled to chase other cornerbacks in free agency, and the price tag on players like Trumaine Johnson and Kyle Fuller proved to be quite steep. Would chasing a corner of that caliber made it more difficult to concentrate on fixes for the offensive and defensive lines? Very possible.
And, of course, there's no guarantee the Bucs would have landed Johnson, Fuller, Malcolm Butler or the like even if they wanted to. So now you head into the draft with one very pressing and obvious need and you lose a lot of flexibility that Carmen mentions above. I do think that cornerback remains one of the Bucs' more reasonable targets in the upper reaches of the draft, but it's not quite as dire of a situation with Grimes back in the fold.
Oh, I should probably also mention that Grimes is good. He's the best cornerback the Buccaneers have had over the past two seasons, despite being in his early 30s, and he's one of the NFL's most reliable players in producing interceptions. That's a notoriously fickle stats, with even the best DBs going up and down from one season to the next, but somehow Grimes has had at least three picks in each of the last five season (and at least four in four of those five). Here's a list of all the other NFL defensive backs who can make the same claim: .
Good edge rushers are very, very hard to find, and the Bucs did a pretty remarkable job to land two defensive ends who will likely help considerably, especially considering that neither of the two was a free agent when the market opened. That said, it's also quite difficult to find – and maintain – quality cornerback depth. The Bucs may not quite be where they need to be in that regard, but they are a lot closer with Grimes still around.