The Buccaneers aren’t expected to be major free agency players next week when the annual free agency frenzy kicks off on Wednesday at 4 p.m. However, that doesn’t mean the team will ignore it altogether. Bucs fans can expect more of the 2015 variety of free agency from their team, as opposed to the wild spending spree they saw in 2014 when the Bucs signed the likes of Josh McCown, Anthony Collins, Alterraun Verner and Michael Johnson. Below is a breakdown of the defensive positions, the best player available and who we think the Bucs could target. Of course at some positions, it is unlikely the Bucs will even address those units, but we included a Best Bet for continuity sake. Take a look and see if you agree, and comment on who you would like Tampa Bay to bring in via free agency.
DEFENSIVE LINE 2016 Bucs Free Agents: Henry Melton, Tony McDaniel, Jacquies Smith, Da’Quan Bowers, T.J. Fatinikun This will almost certainly be an area that the Buccaneers address early – and possibly often – in the NFL Draft this April, as many have predicted an edge rusher with the ninth pick. PewterReport.com’s Scott Reynolds pegged an interior tackle in his latest mock draft. But that’s not to say a couple of free agents, at a reasonable price, couldn’t supplement the roster.
Before looking outside, however, Tampa Bay might look to resign some of their own first. Henry Melton and Tony McDaniel were solid for the Bucs in 2015, but neither will be a priority to re-sign. Melton, 29, made $3.7 million in 2015 while McDaniel, 31, earned $1.5 million. Neither player will command much more than their last year’s salary, one the Bucs can easily afford if they decide they want either back.
Tampa Bay will retain Jacquies Smith in 2016. While Smith, 25, showed flashes of the player they were hoping he would last season – seven sacks, three forced fumbles and 22 tackles – his first season as a starter was riddled with injuries. At a $500,000 salary in 2015, the former undrafted free agent will be re-signed.
Da’Quan Bowers signed a deal worth around $130,000 when he was brought back midway through the year. If no other team shows interest, Tampa Bay could keep him around until training camp and allow him to compete for one of the four or five defensive tackle positions.
Top NFL Free Agent Defensive Lineman Available: 1. Mario Williams – Bills 2. Jason Pierre Paul – Giants 3. Charles Johnson – Panthers 4. Haloti Ngata – Ravens 5. Chris Long – Rams
Outlook: Don’t expect Tampa Bay to break the bank on veteran defensive ends like Olivier Vernon or Mario Williams, both of whom are bound to be overpaid, but instead on cap casualties, like Chris Long. Again, the Bucs, stocked with nearly $50 million in cap space, have plenty of money to explore some second-tier free agents and possibly look to bring back some of their own for depth if nothing else.
Bucs Best Bet: Charles Johnson The Panther’s defensive end became the first free agent to schedule a visit to Tampa Bay. While Johnson missed the latter half of last season with a hamstring injury and, at 29, is in the backend of his career, he could make for a solid addition and veteran presence on the Buccaneers. Not to mention it’s always a plus to steal a player from a division rival. Before 2015, Johnson missed just three games from 2010-2014 while recording 52.5 sacks.
LINEBACKERS 2016 Bucs Free Agents: Danny Lansanah, Jeremiah George and Larry English The Buccaneers are set at Will linebacker after awarding Lavonte David with a 5-year extension worth over $50 million last season. The former second-round pick started the season slow (for him), but quickly picked it up towards the middle and continues to be one of the most promising players in Tampa Bay.
Right there with David, is middle linebacker Kwon Alexander. The Bucs believe they hit the jackpot when they stole Alexander in the fourth round last year. While the team realized his athleticism and receptivity early on in camp, few coaches and front office members could’ve predicted his rapid ascent into one of the team’s best players and leaders during his rookie season. Tampa Bay is in a good spot at Mike and Will, however the strongside position is a little uncertain.
The Bucs opted not to tender Danny Lansanah last week, making him an unrestricted free agent. The former practice squad-journeyman was the success story of 2014 – 81 tackles, three interceptions and two touchdowns – but regressed a bit once he earned the starting job in 2015. While Lansanah had a respectable season in the rotational linebacker position, notching 55 tackles and a forced fumble, the Bucs lack of commitment suggest they’re open to competition in training camp. Lansanah could still be re-signed if no other teams show interest. Bruce Carter will be released by the Bucs on Monday, and that creates a need that will be addressed via free agency or the upcoming draft.
As for Larry English and Jeremiah George, the former is recovering from a knee injury that landed him on IR before the 2015 season while the latter proved to be solid on special teams once inserted onto the active roster. Both players made just over $500,000 in 2015. For English, even at a low salary it’s hard to imagine him back. George, however, seems like a solid depth option and a special teams starter, especially after his blocked punt against the Bears in Week 16.
Top NFL Free Agent Outside Linebackers: 1. Chad Greenway – Vikings 2. Tamba Hali – Cheifs 3. Michael Neal – Packers 4. Bruce Irvin – Seahawks 5. Tahir Whitehead– Lions
Outlook: Last season the Sam linebacker played under 50 percent of snaps in Lovie Smith’s defense, though that strategy could change with new coordinator Mike Smith. The Bucs are probably confident that David and Alexander will elevate the performance of anyone in that role, so a mid-round draft pick or mid-tier free agent could be inserted in the equation.
Bucs Best Bet:Tahir Whitehead
Extremely athletic and in his prime, Whitehead seems like a good fit for the Buccaneers. The former Temple star was a fifth-round draft pick and didn’t garner a lot of attention until he was inserted in the starting lineup for the Lions after their dismal 1-7 start. Detroit rallied to a 6-2 finish and Whitehead was a bit part of the turnaround on the defensive side of the ball. With Carter and Lansanah no longer in the Bucs plans, Tampa Bay will need to find a starter at Sam. And at the very least, look for some depth moving forward.
CORNERBACKS 2016 Bucs Free Agents: Sterling Moore and Mike Jenkins As Scott Reynolds wrote back in February following conversations he had with general manager Jason Licht, the Bucs are going to give Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks a clean slate with the new defensive coaching staff. That information, along with the expectation that Tampa Bay will also address the cornerback position in the early rounds of the draft, leads to the likelihood that neither Moore nor Jenkins will be back in Tampa in 2016.
Moore, who made around $1.5 million in 2015, was at one point the Bucs best cornerback. Making his presence felt against the likes of Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant, Moore finished the season with 45 tackles and six deflections, while showing an ability to play physical in the short-passing game. Despite his efforts, though, Tampa Bay doesn’t appear eager to bring him back. But that could all change if another team doesn’t make an offer next week.
As for Jenkins, the oft-injured cornerback seems like a long shot to be on the roster next season. Jenkins struggled last year, and given Licht’s comments at the Senior Bowl, the team clearly prioritizes Verner and Banks over the guy who replaced them through much of the 2015 season.
Top NFL Free Agent Cornerbacks 1. Sean Smith – Chiefs 2. Antonio Cromartie – Jets 3. Janoris Jenkins – Rams 4. Greg Toler – Colts 5. Prince Amukamara – Giants
Outlook: Tampa Bay only has so many opportunities to get a Day 1 starter in the NFL Draft this April, so a free agent addition may be in the cards, especially if their first-round pick is spent on another position. The Bucs clearly lacked a true No. 1 cornerback in 2015, and while a new defensive staff provides new optimism for once-underperforming players, there could always be an opportunity in March that the Bucs can’t pass up on.
Bucs Best Bet: Janoris Jenkins At 5-foot-10, 198-pounds, some might feel that Jenkins is too small for the Bucs’ liking – and they may be right. But new defensive coordinator Mike Smith has shown a willingness to draft smaller and faster corners in the early rounds, and it’s paid off for the most part. In 2013 the Falcons spent their first-round pick on Desmond Trufant, a 6-foot, 190-pound corner, before doubling down and nabbing 5-foot-10 cornerback Robert Alford in the second round. Both players have shown promise in their first three years, combining for 13 interceptions, 75 pass breakups and 280 tackles. Meanwhile, Jenkins, drafted in 2012 after three years at Florida and one at North Alabama, has recorded 10 interceptions with 48 deflections and 257 tackles. He’s also returned six touchdowns. The former Gator’s production is undeniable and he could make for a great fit in Smith’s defense. But even if Tampa Bay is interested, getting the Pahokee Native back to his home state may be pricy. Jenkins, who made around $1.6 last year, recently turned down a five-year, $45 million deal from Los Angeles. It sounds ridiculous to brush off a $9 million per year offer, but the market might be out there for Jenkins. If the Bucs want to make a splash at cornerback, and believe that Jenkins could hold down the position for years to come at a high level, they might have to compete for his services and cough up some cash.
SAFETIES 2016 Bucs Free Agent Safeties: Chris Conte, Bradley McDougald and Keith Tandy As Scott Reynolds detailed in February, there is mutual interest between the Bucs and Chris Conte to get a deal done this offseason. It’s just a matter of contract demands.
Conte, who will be entering his sixth season, earned $1 million in 2015 on a one-year contract. And after dealing with a hamstring injury throughout training camp, Conte ended up being one of the Bucs most productive players in the secondary, notching 79 tackles, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. While the Lovie Smith connection is no longer there, Conte still knows new defensive backs coach Jon Hoke from his time in Chicago. Conte will likely demand a little more than his last year’s salary, but the Bucs seem to be interested in keeping him in Tampa for at least another season.
In Bradley McDougald’s case, the third-year pro will be a restricted free agent. Although he didn’t perform up to the level the Bucs were hoping – 87 tackles, two interceptions and four deflections in 2015 – he’s shown ability as an in-the-box safety and could possibly benefit from a new staff. McDougald made $585,000 in 2015.
Keith Tandy, who played fairly well at safety once he got his opportunity late in the season, made $690,000 in 2015. The Bucs likely see him as a special teams player and rotational safety, so it’s unlikely they’ll offer much more than that in 2016.
Top NFL Free Agent Safeties: 1. Eric Weddle – Chargers 2. Reggie Nelson – Bengals 3. George Illoka – Bengals 4. Tashaun Gipson – Browns 5. Walter Thurmond – Eagles
Outlook: It seems more likely than not that Tampa Bay will return Conte, McDougald and Tandy in 2016, and look towards the later rounds of the draft to add another safety. But depending on what the market is for veteran free agents, Tampa Bay could be better off addressing safety instead corner in March. In his Fab 5 column on February 19, Scott Reynolds wrote about familiar faces at safety in free agency, including Reggie Nelson and Tashaun Gipson.
Bucs Best Bet: Tashaun Gipson Gipson doesn’t quite have the numbers Nelson does, but he’s younger and still a very good player. The 25-year old pro’s connection to Tampa Bay is through new director of player personnel John Spytek, who was in the Browns front office when Gipson was signed in 2010 as an undrafted free agent from Wyoming. In four years, Gipson has 240 tackles, 22 pass breakups, 14 interceptions and a forced fumble. He made the Pro Bowl in 2014 after notching six interceptions. He signed a one-year deal worth $2.3 million with Cleveland last year as a restricted free agent, and after an underwhelming year could be looking for a new home. Gipson would likely come as a cheaper option than the likes of George Illoka, Walter Thurmond and Reggie Nelson, and could be a great free agent steal for Tampa Bay.
Zach is entering his 3rd year covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a writer for PewterReport.com. Since 2014, he's handled a large part of the beat reporting responsibilities at PR, attending all media gatherings and publishing and promoting content daily. Zach is a native of Sarasota, FL, and a graduate of the University of Tampa. He has also covered high school football for the Tampa Tribune and the NFL for Pro Player Insiders.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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