Going into the offseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers promised their fan base that they would be an active participant in free agency and made it no secret of their plans to acquire this year's top talent on the free agent market. The first wave of free agency and big money spending is now over and the Bucs lived up to their guarantee, making two of the best free agent signings in franchise history. With the first week of free agency in the books, beat writer Andrew Scavelli offers up his grades and opinions on the team’s early 2012 free agency class.
WR VINCENT JACKSON
Tampa Bay landed the best free agent wide receiver on the market when they signed Jackson to a five-year, $55.55 million contract on Tuesday, March 13. Jackson's contract numbers were a nod to quarterback Josh Freeman and showed that this move was all about number five. The 6-foot-5, 230 pound Jackson gives Freeman a legitimate number one receiving option and a much needed vertical deep threat for new offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan's offense, which will allow Freeman to take plenty of shots down the field.
The signing of Jackson will not only help Freeman, but will also aid all of his other receiving options. On the field, Jackson is a polished route runner and is great at getting separation, which will help to take away double teams from receiver Mike Williams and tight end Kellen Winlsow, providing them with more one-on-one opportunities. Off the field, Jackson will provide leadership in the wide receiver room that Tampa Bay's young receivers have not yet had in their first two years with the team and the eight-year pro will be a great mentor and teacher to them.
Jackson was the team's first free agent signing and the Bucs reached a deal with the Pro Bowl receiver within the first few hours of the start of free agency period. Jackson had been looking for a payday for a long time and was finally rewarded in Tampa, getting $26 million in guaranteed money in his new deal and a lot of money early on in his contract. The Bucs may have had to pay Jackson more for his services than other teams to get him to Tampa Bay, but it could prove to be worth it in the long run if he helps revamp the passing game and builds up Freeman's confidence like the team is expecting him to do. The Bucs get a near perfect grade for acquiring Jackson.
OG CARL NICKS
Aside from Peyton Manning, Carl Nicks may have been the best free agent available on the market. Nicks is arguably one of the top interior offensive linemen in the game and Tampa Bay paid him accordingly, signing the two-time Pro Bowler to a five-year, $47.5 million contract with $31 million in guaranteed money.
The 6-foot-5, 343-pound Nicks will help shore up the offensive line and gives Tampa Bay the solution at left guard that they have been trying to find for years. Pairing Nicks with Pro Bowl right guard Davin Joseph also gives the Bucs the best offensive guard tandem in the league. Head coach Greg Schiano's offensive strategy calls for the Bucs to have a physical ground attack and Nicks is one of the best run blockers in the game. The five-year pro enjoys run blocking the most and the Bucs' new offensive philosophy helped lure the division rival to Tampa Bay.
Nicks, like Jackson, made a business move in leaving his former team to cash in on the biggest pay check he could get, but the contract he received was well-deserved and fair for both sides, as he should be the highest paid guard in the league. The Bucs helped Josh Freeman and the offense big time with this signing and the team also deserves credit for trying to hurt a division rival in the process, although the Saints won't feel the loss as they landed Pro Bowler Ben Grubbs to replace Nicks. The Bucs receive top marks for this signing.
CB ERIC WRIGHT
The Bucs helped to fill a big need a cornerback with the signing of Eric Wright, but this signing came at too high of a price. Tampa Bay signed Wright to a five-year, $37.5 million contract on March 14 and guaranteed the veteran corner $15.5 million. Wright's big contract comes just one year after he signed a one-year, $2 million "prove it" contract with the Lions last offseason. Wright is by no means a top-flight corner, but he is getting paid like one by the Bucs.
Although Wright is not an ideal starter, the team loves his versatility and his ability to play both outside and in the slot at the nickel cornerback position. The sixth-year pro Wright's career and skill set compare to Philip Buchannon when the Bucs signed him and Wright should have a similar role as Buchannon did with Tampa Bay, playing any cornerback spot the team needs him to.
The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Wright excels playing in the slot as a nickel cornerback and upon signing with the Bucs said that he would love to learn from legendary cornerback Ronde Barber. Now that Barber is making his return for another season, Wright will get to learn that position from one of the best and perhaps Barber can also inspire him to be more willing to tackle for a smaller cornerback.
With the Lions in 2011, Wright allowed a league-high 75 receptions to be completed against him, but also intercepted four passes and broke up another 16. Sometimes a change of scenery and a different defensive scheme can benefit a player and the Bucs have to hope that is the case with Wright. The Nevada-Las Vegas product flashed a lot of potential and impressed early in his career with the Browns, but hasn't quite taken his game to the next level yet.
The Bucs front office has shown in the past that they are not afraid to give up a lot and overpay to get the guy they want, just as they did with tight end Luke Stocker in the draft last year, and this is no different with the Wright signing. From a signing standpoint, this compares to the Quincy Black deal of last offseason. While Black flashed moments of brilliance and potential, he never showed that he could be a consistent player even though his contract was one of a proven, quality NFL linebacker.
At the end of the day, the Bucs are getting a serviceable, startable cornerback that is an upgrade over E.J. Biggers and Myron Lewis. In no way should Wright keep the Bucs from drafting LSU corner Morris Claiborne, but it does provide the team with a better option than last season's cornerbacks in case Aqib Talib is not on the opening day roster.
If new Bucs defensive backs coach Ron Cooper can harness Wright's talent and skill set and turn him into a consistent cover corner, the Bucs may be able to get their money's worth. Head coach Greg Schiano talked about how the team was going to spend its money cautiously and responsibly before free agency and Wright’s contract was an irresponsible use of money by the front office as the team could have signed a cornerback on the same level as Wright and a solid linebacker with the money they spent on him. That's why a low grade is required here until Wright proves otherwise.
QB DAN ORLOVSKY
The Bucs signed Dan Orlovsky to a two-year, $2.5 million contract on Thursday, March 15. The Connecticut product is expected backup quarterback Josh Freeman and the team obtained Orlovsky for a great value.
While Orlovsky isn’t exactly an upgrade over Josh Johnson, he is a serviceable player that is a better fit for offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan's offense. Orlovsky also worked with Bucs quarterbacks coach Ron Turner in Indianapolis, so the two already have a familiarity and good comfort level with each other.
Ideally, Orlovsky would be a team's third string quarterback or face competition for the backup job, so the Bucs should bring in another quarterback to compete at some point this offseason just to be safe. If Orlovsky does win the backup job, he certainly wouldn't be the greatest backup QB in the league, but this is a solid signing nonetheless.
As a whole, the early stages of the 2012 free agency period were a massive success for the Bucs. Tampa Bay acquired a top flight receiver in Vincent Jackson, one of the best offensive linemen in the game in Carl Nicks, a startable cornerback in Eric Wright and a backup quarterback to Josh Freeman in Dan Orlovsky. The team addressed three very important needs and filled a couple of major holes on their roster.
What's even more impressive is the flawless execution of the Bucs plan to acquire the players they wanted to sign and not miss out on their potential targets. The team sent private jets to pick up these players in a first class fashion and acted quickly to get deals done that the players couldn't refuse. The Bucs used the free agency process the best they ever have since they won the Super Bowl ten years ago and hope these signings can help to produce similar results down the road.
Tampa Bay has a long way to go until they can get to that competitive level again, but the Greg Schiano-Mark Dominik regime is off to a great start in giving the team the opportunity to produce better results than last year. Besides helping the team on the field, these signings have also helped the team off the field, generating a positive buzz around the team in the community that it hasn't had in years as the team has shown that they are committed to putting a winning product on the field.
OVERALL GRADE: A
Check back to PewterReport.com later in the week to find out which players the Bucs should continue to target in the second and third waves of free agency.
For a complete and detailed list of free agent signings and remaining available players on the open market, visit PewterReport.com’s 2012 Free Agency Tracker.