LB Hardy Nickerson was not only an ultra-productive player but also an instant team leader after his arrival in 1993
The first two weeks of the 2008 NFL free agency period created a whole new wing in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' locker room. From the beginning of the open market on February 29 through Monday of this week (March 10), the Buccaneers added nine players who had been with other teams in 2007.
Among those newcomers to red and pewter are a new starting center (Jeff Faine), a returning hero (Warrick Dunn) and a pair of promising tight ends (Ben Troupe and John Gilmore).
On paper, it looks good so far. The team has gone a long way toward meeting its stated goal of significantly improving depth all over the roster. Of course, the success of this year's free agency maneuvers (which, it should be said, are far from over) will ultimately be determined on the field, not on paper.
If the 2008 class helps as much as last year's group of free agents did, the Buccaneers will surely be pleased. That crew – which essentially consisted of Jeff Garcia, Cato June, Luke Petitgout, B.J. Askew, Kevin Carter, Jerramy Stevens, Sammy Davis, Matt Lehr and Patrick Chukwurah – had a big hand in taking Tampa Bay from a 4-12 record in 2006 to the NFC South title in 2007.
As a group, the Bucs' 2007 free agency class was one of their most successful since the advent of a true open market in 1993, with demonstrable gains in several areas and very few whiffs. But those '07 additions have only had one year so far to prove their worth; will any of those nine build a lasting, important legacy as a Buccaneer?
In other words, will any of them be remembered as Hardy Nickerson is, or Simeon Rice? Will they string together multiple productive seasons, like Chris Hovan or Martin Mayhew? All of the above have already avoided the fate of an Alvin Harper or a Charlie Garner – significant free agent signings who failed to meet team expectations due to diminished returns or (as in Garner's case) injury. But can they eventually join the list below?
That list is our current exercise in evaluating team history, as was our recent two-part look at the franchise's 10 Most Unbreakable Records. This time, the goal is to name:
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 10 Best Free Agent Signings
Note that we didn't include the term "franchise history" in the list's title. That's because, in essence, this list is only going to concern itself with half of the team's history.
Specifically, our list will be defining the 10 best free agent acquisitions since the Collective Bargaining Agreement ushered in the era of true player free agency in 1993. For sure, the Buccaneers made some astute free agent acquisitions before 1993 – Cedric Brown and Rob Taylor come to mind – but before the CBA free agents were almost invariably players who weren't yet established or who were near the ends of their careers.
The advent of true free agency allowed players to move teams while in the primes of their careers. There are still players who hit the market after being released – McCardell is a good example – but that is often due to salary cap considerations. Thus, we will consider players in that category while looking at the team's unrestricted and restricted free agent signings.
There's one other critical difference between this current exercise and our list regarding unbreakable records. For the previous list, we included a poll that let you give your feedback regarding the list. This time, we're going to ask for your help in creating the list.
Here's how it will work: We have identified our choices for the top three free agent signings in team history. We think those three are rock-solid, the obvious starting point for any such list and choices that cannot be argued. After that, we will list a total of 15 choices, and post a fan poll with those selections. Once you've weighed in using the fan poll, we'll take the top seven vote-getters from the results and round out our top 10.
Why take this approach? Well, making this list proved to be hard. Who has had a greater impact for the Bucs, Greg Spires or Chris Hovan? Was Keenan McCardell's contribution, while briefer, more significant than Michael Pittman's? Should a punter make the list? What was a more astute pickup, Joe Jurevicius or Ike Hilliard?
That's where we need your help. So, on to the list.
Usually we present these in descending order, but due to the in-progress nature of this list, we'll start at the top.
1. LB Hardy Nickerson, 1993.
The Nickerson case is just about the perfect free agency scenario for any team.
You've found a talented player on the rise, but one who is not yet a household name; your scouts determine that the player could be even more productive if given a larger role in your system; you happen to have an enormous hole at that player's position; the player is motivated to prove that he can be the centerpiece for another team; both sides are shown to be correct when the player becomes an immediate star with your team, and before long he is a household name.
Nickerson was no slouch during his first six NFL seasons in Pittsburgh. He was a starter for three full seasons before the jump to Tampa and overall had 61 starts under his belt prior to 1993. However, he was never the focal point in the Steelers' 3-4 defensive front, where the outside pass-rushing linebackers are more likely to emerge as the stars. Nickerson's career high in six Steeler seasons was 114 tackles.
In Tampa, Nickerson instantly became the Bucs' best defensive player, and as the middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme, he was most definitely at the center of everything the defense was trying to do. In his very first season as a Buc, he racked up 214 tackles, a career high and still the team's single-season record in that category.
Nickerson proved to be a perfect fit for the Buccaneers, making plays sideline to sideline and also instantly emerging as a team leader. Derrick Brooks would eventually assume that mantle – and make the weakside spot at least as much of a focal point in the defense – but not before he had been taken under Nickerson's wing.
Nickerson was the only unrestricted free agent who changed teams that year to earn AP All-Pro first-team honors. As mentioned, 1993 was the first year of the modern free agency era, and the Bucs obviously made the perfect opening strike. You could argue that the Buccaneers have never made a more astute signing.
2. QB Brad Johnson, 2001
In 1999, the Bucs started the season with Trent Dilfer at the helm but finished it with one-time third-stringer Shaun King, a second-round pick out of Tulane, leading them into the playoffs. King got his chance after injuries to Dilfer and Zeier, and he made the most of it, helping the team win four of its last five games to capture the NFC Central crown and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The Bucs came within a few minutes of earning a spot in Super Bowl XXXIV, with a near upset at St. Louis. Understandably, they were willing to stick with their young signal-caller heading into 2000. However, the offense struggled in 2000 and, after a quick playoff exit in Philadelphia, the team wasn't quite as sure that King was its quarterback of the future.
Still, it looked as if King would get another shot in 2001 as that year's free agency period opened. Johnson was the only quarterback the Bucs were particularly interested in acquiring to improve the position, and he was rumored to be making a very short trip from Washington to Baltimore. However, when Baltimore focused instead on Kansas City's Elvis Grbac – a decision that team would probably like to have back – Johnson made it clear he was interested in the Bucs. He said he believed he could win a Super Bowl in Tampa; the Buccaneers agreed and Johnson was signed on March 6.
Most members of the local media agreed that the Bucs had made a bold move at the most important position, and that Johnson was definitely an upgrade. They fell short of fawning over him with excess praise, however. Johnson was most commonly described as "solid," "brainy" and "efficient." One columnist, in what was indeed a positive article, called Johnson "dependable," but something on a lower level than Kurt Warner or Daunte Culpepper.
Johnson started every game in 2001 and threw for 3,406 yards, the highest total by a Buccaneer quarterback in 17 years. The next year Jon Gruden arrived as the head coach. Analysts compared the pocket-passing Johnson to Gruden's ultra-mobile quarterback in Oakland, Rich Gannon, and wonder if the Bucs' incumbent would be a good fit for the new coach. Gruden and Johnson had no such doubts.
And they were right, of course. Johnson put together one of the finest seasons by a quarterback in team history in 2002, compiling a then-record 92.9 passer rating on the strength of 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He threw for 3,049 yards despite missing three starts with injuries, and he was brilliant – and, yes, efficient, brainy and dependable – in the three-game run to the Super Bowl XXXVII title.
Johnson would eventually play in and start 49 games over four seasons as a Buccaneer. During that time he would throw for 10,940 yards, 64 touchdowns and an 83.2 passer rating. Would the Buccaneers have captured their only Super Bowl championship without adding Johnson? That's a tough sell, and that's why Johnson was an easy choice for this list.
3. DE Simeon Rice, 2001.
And would the Buccaneers have won it all in 2002 without Rice? Anything is possible, but in retrospect, the team's other big signing of the 2001 offseason seems just as indispensable.
Rice got off to an uncharacteristically slow start in his first season as a Buccaneer, recording only one sack in his first seven games in 2001. Over the last nine games of that year, however, he had 10 QB takedowns, giving his new team a taste of what was to come.
Over the next four seasons, the former Arizona Cardinal racked up 56.5 sacks, the most of any player in the NFL from 2002-05. He had an NFC-high 15.5 sacks in 2002, the Bucs' championship season, and there's no doubt his pressure on opposing quarterbacks helped build the greatest defense the franchise has ever season. Opposing passers finished the season with an incredibly anemic 48.4 passer rating, and while the Bucs' outstanding secondary had a lot to do with it, such stifling D always starts up front.
In the 2002 playoffs, Rice had four more sacks, with at least one in every game and a critical two takedowns in the Super Bowl. His sack of Gannon inside the Bucs' 10-yard line in the first quarter was one of the game's most important plays, as it kept the Raiders from establishing early momentum after the game's first takeaway.
Rice played six seasons as a Buccaneer and racked up 69.5 sacks, averaging nearly 12 per year. He ranks third on the Bucs' all-time list (barely) to Lee Roy Selmon (78.5) and Warren Sapp (77.0). Obviously, both Selmon and Sapp were every bit the player that Rice was, and probably more, but Rice might be the best pure pass-rusher ever to suit up in a Buccaneer uniform. In other words, the Buccaneers got exactly what they were hoping for when they added Rice as a free agent in 2001, and consider how much they were hoping for, that is truly a remarkable signing.
Okay, that's our top three list. We will now list our fifteen candidates to fill out the rest of the top 10, with a very brief blurb for each one. Please browse the list and then use the poll above to vote for the player you think should be next on the list. We will present the 15 candidates alphabetically. (Again, we did not consider last year's free agent class, as successful as it was.)
- P Josh Bidwell, 2004 - Kickers aren't obvious choices for this list, but Bidwell deserves consideration because he has proven to be, with little question, the best punter in team history. In just four seasons he has already posted the three best single-season gross punting averages and four of the six best net punting averages in franchise history. Obviously, Bidwell is also the all-time punting average leader in team annals. * K Matt Bryant, 2005 - Bryant has more raw numbers to overcome in order to become the Bucs' most proficient placekicker of all-time. Still, his signing in '05 was very significant in that it took what had been a league-worst kicking situation for several years and turned it into a strength. And, lest we forget, there was that historic 62-yard game-winner against Philly in 2006. * C Jeff Christy, 2000 - Christy had big shoes to fill in those of three-time Pro Bowler Tony Mayberry, but the former Viking stepped right and won his own Pro Bowl berth in 2000. He was a starter for three seasons and the anchor of the Bucs' Super Bowl line. * DT Brad Culpepper, 1994 - Culpepper has the Buc resume to match most everyone on this list, with 80 starts for Tampa Bay and 33 sacks, sixth on the team's all-time list. The only issue with his candidacy is that he was only a barely established player in Minnesota in 1992 and 1993, his first two NFL seasons. Culpepper's addition in 1994 was more closely analogous to the sorts of free agency moves that occurred before 1993. * TE Jackie Harris, 1994 – The Bucs signed Harris away from the Packers as a restricted free agent, seeking a big-time pass-catching threat at the tight end position. Indeed, in 1995 Harris was the team's leading receiver with 62 receptions, the highest total ever by a Buccaneer tight end. However, he struggled with injuries through much of the rest of his four Buc seasons, playing in just 50 games over that span. * WR Ike Hilliard, 2005 – The argument for Hilliard is still being written. It's fair to say that he was seen as a third receiver when he was signed in '05 after eight extremely productive years with the New York Giants. Indeed, Hilliard primarily filled that role in his first two seasons, excelling particularly in third-down situations. Last year, however, he pushed past several younger players to earn a starting spot and finished the season with a team-best 62 receptions. * DT Chris Hovan, 2005 - His five years in Minnesota started out like gangbusters (45 starts and 13.5 sacks from 2000-02) but ended with a whimper with his released following the 2004 campaign. Hovan quickly signed with the Bucs and has spent the last three years proving beyond a doubt that he had a lot of quality football left in his career. Hovan has started every game at nose tackle since arriving in Tampa – he was a three-technique tackle in Minnesota – and has been an integral part of a very stout Buccaneer run defense. * WR Joe Jurevicius, 2002 – Jurevicius doesn't have the raw numbers as a Buccaneer to stack up with, say, McCardell (thanks in large part to a freak injury sustained in 2003), but he'll be remembered for some of the most amazing moments in franchise history. His game-changing 71-yard catch-and-run in the NFC Championship Game at Philadelphia tops that list, but he also had a handful of very acrobatic and timely touchdown grabs. * LB Lonnie Marts, 1994 – The strongside linebacker position has long been a carousel on Tampa Bay's strong defense, but Marts locked it down for three seasons after signing in 1994. Marts brought more of a playmaking flair to the position than most of the others, as evidenced by his seven sacks in 1996. * CB Martin Mayhew, 1993 - Nickerson wasn't the only rock-solid defensive starter signed by the Buccaneers in that first year of unfettered free agency. Mayhew, who had been a valuable counterpart to Darrell Green in Washington, came to Florida and gave the Bucs a strong presence at left cornerback for the next four seasons. In 1995, he had a team-high five interceptions. * WR Keenan McCardell, 2002 - McCardell might be pushing to get into that top group if his tenure in Tampa had lasted a bit longer. His two seasons as a Buccaneer, however, were obviously worth what the Bucs invested in him after the Jaguars made him a salary-cap casualty in June of 2002. McCardell was the perfect complement to Keyshawn Johnson in the Super Bowl year (and capped his year with two touchdowns in the final game) and in 2003 he put up Pro Bowl-caliber numbers with 84 receptions for 1,174 yards and eight TDs. * T Roman Oben, 2002 – We give this spot to Oben with apologies to guard Kerry Jenkins. Both Oben and Jenkins signed with the Bucs during the 2002 offseason and both became starters for the Super Bowl-bound squad. Both also started the majority of the 2003 season. Oben played the more critical position of left tackle and made five more starts overall. * RB Michael Pittman, 2002 - Like several others on this list, Pittman was a 2002 signee who became integral to the team's Super Bowl run. His Buccaneer tenure lasted longer than most of them (Pittman is currently an unrestricted free agent), and he has racked up some impressive statistics. If he leaves the Buccaneers this spring, he will depart as the fourth-leading rusher and sixth-leading receiver in team history. * DE Greg Spires, 2002 - Like Pittman, Spires signed in 2002 and has been with the team ever since. He was a surprise winner of the team's left defensive end job in his first year with the team, but over the years it became clear that he was simply an outstanding defender who had been awaiting a chance to shine. Spires had a very strong Super Bowl showing, an eight-sack season in 2004 and a share of the team lead in 2006 with five sacks. * C John Wade, 2003 - Wade followed Christy as the Bucs' starter at center (and will apparently be succeeded by Faine next year) and put a hold on the position for the next five years. One of his most impressive accomplishments was returning to full strength in 2005 after suffering a near-catastrophic knee injury midway through the 2004 campaign.