S Jermaine Phillips was attractive to other teams in free agency but chose to remain a Buccaneer
As the 2009 free agency period reaches the end of its first week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers continue on their mission to build talented, productive depth at every corner of the roster. Sometimes that means looking first to the team's own list of free agents.
Safety Jermaine Phillips was considered perhaps the premier player on the open market at his position, but teams will have to look elsewhere after the Buccaneers re-signed their own starter on Thursday. The team also reached agreement with two other returning players who had become unrestricted free agents last Thursday, tight end Jerramy Stevens and wide receiver Cortez Hankton.
Phillips missed three games in midseason and the last two contests in December due to forearm fractures. In the 11 games in which he played, however, Phillips was a force, racking up 86 tackles, three interceptions, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and six passes defensed. Known as one of the league's hardest hitters, he also has proven to be a turnover producer, tying for second on the team with his three picks. He has a total of nine interceptions over the last three years, an impressive total for a strong safety.
Re-signing Phillips allows the Buccaneers to keep most of their very strong secondary from 2008 intact. Starting cornerback Phillip Buchanon left for the Detroit Lions but the team will retain Phillips, rising star free safety Tanard Jackson, Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber and rookie standout cornerback Aqib Talib.
Phillips was a fifth-round draft pick in 2002 and he played primarily on special teams as a rookie during the Bucs' run to the Super Bowl XXXVII championship. He moved into the starting lineup midway through his second campaign and has since opened 71 games among his 93 appearances, amassing 535 tackles, 11 interceptions, 34 passes defensed, three sacks and 50 stops on special teams.
Stevens and Hankton also provide the team with valuable depth on the offensive side of the ball. The former was the team's top pass-catcher at that position in 2008 while the latter, a former Jacksonville Jaguar, spent the season on injured reserve.
Though the Buccaneers' tight end corps has changed dramatically since Friday's trade for former Cleveland Brown Kellen Winslow, the return of Stevens still provides intriguing depth at the position. Stevens led all Buccaneer tight ends in 2008 with 36 catches for 397 yards and two touchdowns.
A talented pass-catcher who originally entered the league as a first-round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2002, Stevens has the speed and athleticism to work the seams and stretch the field from the tight end position. His career totals include 184 receptions for 2,044 yards and 21 touchdowns, and his 36 grabs last year marked his second-highest single-season total since a 45-catch 2005 campaign in Seattle.
Stevens has played two seasons in Tampa since signing in April of 2007. In 29 games and six starts he has contributed 54 receptions for 586 yards and six touchdowns.
Hankton has yet to catch a pass as a Buccaneer but his four seasons in Jacksonville (2003-06) suggest he could be a valuable member of the receiving corps. The 6-0, 200-pound wideout entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2003 but made the team as a rookie and played in all 16 games, posting a career-best 17 receptions for 166 yards. Over his four seasons in Jacksonville, Hankton appeared in 46 games and recorded 34 receptions for 310 yards and two touchdowns.
Hankton followed those four years by signing as a free agent with the Vikings in 2007, but he was released in the final roster cut-down. He signed with the Buccaneers the following January but suffered a groin injury in the preseason and was placed on injured reserve on September 1.
Phillips, Hankton and Stevens were three of 10 Buccaneers who became unrestricted free agents last Friday. Five of those 10 have already signed back on in Tampa, with wide receiver Michael Clayton inking his pact on Sunday and Will Allen following suit on Monday. Quarterback Luke McCown and defensive tackle Ryan Sims, two other potential unrestricted free agents, re-signed with the Buccaneers before the start of free agency and wide receiver Antonio Bryant accepted his franchise-player tender offer and is thus under contract for 2009 as well.
The Buccaneers' remaining unrestricted free agents are defensive end Kevin Carter, defensive end Patrick Chukwurah and quarterback Jeff Garcia. Buchanon and defensive tackle Jovan Haye (Tennessee) have signed with other teams.