It’s understandable how panicked many Bucs fans have been over the last couple of weeks. Tampa Bay started off free agency with a bang, signing the top safety on the market, Pro Bowler Dashon Goldson, to a five-year contract. But since then, they have allowed key players like defensive end Michael Bennett, the team’s leading sacker, and defensive tackle Roy Miller to slip away. Both were stalwarts on the league’s top rushing defense in 2012.
At a time when it should be adding cornerbacks, Tampa Bay even lost E.J. Biggers, who many fans were pleased to see depart via free agency, although he would have provided depth at a very thin position.
The fact that the Bucs haven’t done much to replace these players has fans upset, and may just be relying on another stellar draft to do so. While it is quite understandable to be nervous about what the Bucs plan is, fans should understand that there is indeed a plan. The Bucs’ starting cornerbacks aren’t going to be Leonard Johnson and Danny Gorrer next year.
It was reported that former Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes was the Bucs’ “Plan B” if a trade for New York Jets Pro Bowl corner Darrelle Revis fell through. But the fact that the Bucs didn’t even have Grimes come for a visit makes that seem unlikely. If Tampa Bay wanted to put some pressure on the Jets to pull the trigger on a trade, they would have put forth much more effort by bringing in another cornerback for a visit.
So if Grimes wasn’t part of the plan, then what is? Surely the Buccaneers aren’t relying solely on a Revis trade to help their atrocious secondary. Well, fans don’t need to look far for a back-up plan. If a trade doesn’t happen, the Bucs will likely restructure Eric Wright’s contract and bring him back at a reduced price.
While that may not excite fans as much as a Revis trade, it’s not a bad move. Wright actually played well when he wasn’t injured or suspended. In fact, Wright missed six games last season, during which the Bucs went 1-5, the only win coming in the final game against the Falcons. With Wright on the field, the Bucs went 6-4 and were in playoff contention.
Along with re-signing Wright, the Bucs will hope to have Ronde Barber come back for one more year at the nickel cornerback position. This is no certainty, although many believe he will ultimately return.
Rounding out the cornerback spot on the roster will be a rookie. The Bucs could grab a player like Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes, Washington’s Desmond Trufant, Mississippi State’s Jonathan Banks or Darius Slay, Rutgers’ Logan Ryan or Southeastern Louisiana’s Robert Alford in the first two rounds, or UConn’s Blidi Wreh-Wilson, San Diego State’s Leon McFadden, Utah State’s Will Davis or California’s Marc Anthony in the middle rounds. Cornerbacks don’t typically perform great in their rookie year, but the Bucs would gladly welcome some new additions after last year’s debacle against the pass.
A revamped secondary that includes Wright, Barber, Goldson, strong safety Mark Barron, and a solid rookie cornerback actually doesn’t sound too bad. But obviously having the best cornerback in the league on your team would be preferable for most fans.
If the Bucs trade for Revis, they might end up giving up their 2013 first-round pick, which could otherwise be used on a cornerback. So even with Revis, don’t be surprised if the Bucs keep Eric Wright instead of relying on a second or third-round rookie CB to start the season.
It is also worth noting that Goldson is extremely close to Wright, and stated on 98.7 The Fan that he hopes to mentor Wright if he remains with the Bucs. Goldson is clearly a “Buccaneer Man” (the team wouldn’t have signed him otherwise) in terms of character, so the Bucs’ brass might feel more comfortable keeping Wright around with Goldson to keep him on track.
While the secondary is the most popular topic of interest for Bucs fans, an equally important need is the defensive line. There is little talented depth and quality competition anywhere on the line at this point, and that should be a serious concern. It is nearly impossible to go an entire year without injuries on the defensive line, so surely the Bucs will need to add more depth before the season starts.
It would be wise to target a veteran pass rusher like John Abraham or Dwight Freeny, but with guys like that it’s tough to convince them to want to play for a non-playoff team. Expect the Bucs to target a pass rusher early in the draft to compete for a starting role. The Bucs are high on defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, who will replace Bennett in the starting lineup, but injuries have stalled his development and could continue to hold him back. If Bowers isn’t able to perform the way he is expected to, the Bucs will be in big trouble no matter who is in the secondary.
Tampa Bay would rather not part ways with its 2013 first-round selection in a trade for Revis because that pick his could be used on BYU defensive end Ziggy Ansah or Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner if either player falls in the draft. Adding another quality defensive end would provide depth and a very good rotation.
It is also worth noting that while the recent under-the-radar signings in running back Brian Leonard, defensive end George Selvie, defensive tackle Derek Landri, kicker Nate Kaeding, and wide receiver Steve Smith have fans even more annoyed than before, the Bucs are doing something they haven’t done in a while, which is to build quality depth. Injuries hurt the Bucs in 2011 at the defensive tackle and running back spots and at the cornerback position last year.
Leonard, Landri, Kaeding, Smith and Selvie, along with tight end Tom Crabtree, wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, and linebacker Jonathan Casillas provide much needed competition to their respective positions. Competition brings out the best in players, so while these lower-level signings might not be very exciting, they should improve the team in 2013.
Although the cornerback position has yet to be upgraded, and the only real big splash in free agency was Goldson, the Bucs have quietly added six other free agents this offseason.
It may seem as though Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik is just sitting back enjoying the offseason while the best players that were once available in free agency become unavailable, that is not the case. There is a plan in place.
While it may be taking longer to unfold than what most people expected, it will continue to unfold and reveal itself in the next couple of months as the draft approaches and another wave of free agency will follow shortly thereafter. And if at that point the Bucs have still not met fans’ expectations, it will reflect in ticket sales for the upcoming season.
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