New Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith has obvious, strong ties to the Chicago Bears, the team he coached for nine seasons from 2004-12. As Smith and his new coaching staff begin their evaluations of the Tampa Bay roster they are inheriting, don’t be surprised to see the Buccaneers target some Bears in free agency.
While Chicago re-signed quarterback Jay Cutler, cornerback Tim Jennings and guard Matt Slauson on January 1, likely because of Smith’s hiring in Tampa Bay, the Bears still have a lot of players who are set to become unrestricted free agents this March, including several starters that could help Smith’s Buccaneers in 2014.
During his introductory press conference at One Buccaneer Place, Smith said he believes in all three phases of football – offense, defense and special teams. When mentioning special teams, Smith indicated that he wanted to get a strong return specialist.
“To me, if you play great defense, you can win eight games,” Smith said. “If you have special teams along with that, you can win 10. But in order for us to have three phases that contribute to wins, we need a great returner also.”
Tampa Bay had first-year player Eric Page returning kicks and punts in 2013 with some level of success. Page averaged 24.9 yards per kick return and 10.9 yards per punt return in 2013.
But Smith might have someone else in mind for the Buccaneers in 2014. There may be no better return specialist than Chicago’s Devin Hester, who this year tied legendary cornerback and return man Deion Sanders’ NFL record with 19 total returns for a touchdown. In October, Hester brought back a punt 81 yards for a touchdown. It was his 13th punt return for a touchdown, which extended his own punt return scoring record. Hester has five kickoff returns in his NFL career, and has also returned a missed field goal 108 yards for a touchdown.
“Special teams, we win out,” Smith said. “I, myself, worked out Devin Hester. You’ve got to have a returner. You can win games. We won games based on our special teams and having a good kicker and a good punter.”
Prior to his touchdown against the Redskins, Hester, a four-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler, had not scored on a return in almost two years on November 13, 2011. The 31-year old Hester, could be Smith’s first option in free agency as Chicago won’t be able to re-sign all of its pending free agents due to the recent big contracts doled out to Cutler, Jennings and Slauson.
PewterReport.com has compiled a list of Chicago’s remaining free agents and analyzes which Bears may be targeted by Smith when free agency begins on March 11.
BEARS FREE AGENTS LIKELY TARGETED BY BUCSThe following Bears free agents are proven performers that could help the Buccaneers in certain areas of need:
WR Devin HesterSimply put, Chicago may not be able to keep the 31-year old, record-setting Hester in 2014. Hester, who is strictly a return specialist. Hester made $1.9 million in 2013 and may be viewed by the Bears as a luxury the team can no longer afford. The former Miami Hurricanes star still has plenty of playmaking ability, evidenced by an 81-yard punt return touchdown against the Redskins, a franchise-record 249 return yards against the Vikings, a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Rams that was negated due to a questionable holding penalty, and a 39-yard kick return and a 49-yard punt return against the Packers in the playoffs. Hester, who was drafted by Smith in 2006, could really energize Tampa Bay’s return game.
CB Charles Tillman The talented, 6-foot-2, 198-pound cornerback has been a playmaking machine for the Bears during his 11-year career. Tillman has forced an amazing 42 fumbles and recorded 36 interceptions, including eight he’s returned for touchdowns for Chicago. But are the Bears ready to invest in a player who is coming off injured reserve and turns 33 in February? Tillman, who tore his right triceps in a November 10 loss to Detroit, could be a nice, stop-gap option at the cornerback position in Tampa Bay to fortify the Bucs’ pass defense in the pass-happy NFC South division.
CB Zack BowmanBowman was inserted into the starting lineup when Tillman went down with a midseason triceps injury. Known as a good special teams player and a good Cover 2 cornerback, Bowman might be a good fit in Tampa Bay to help bolster the team’s depth at cornerback, a position that isn’t deep past Darrelle Revis and Johnthan Banks. The 6-foot-1, 196-pound Bowman has 10 career interceptions and two forced fumbles in his six-year career, and would bring good size to the Bucs cornerback position.
DT Henry MeltonMelton had a Pro Bowl season with six sacks in 2012 before a torn ACL cost him all but the first three games of 2013. Melton was arrested in his home state of Texas and charged with assault and public intoxication, which didn’t set well with the Bears brass. “Obviously, he has some off-the-field issues that he needs to make sure that he’s focused on football and having a passion for football,” Chicago general manager Phil Emery said. Melton is a talented, disruptive three-technique tackle that was selected by Smith in the fourth round of the 2009 draft that would fit well in Tampa Bay and could provide some insurance at the position as two-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy is entering a contract year.
BEARS FREE AGENTS POSSIBLY TARGETED BY BUCSThe following Bears free agents are considered possible targets by the Bucs due to their ties to Smith, but will likely re-sign with Chicago:
DE Corey WoottonWootton, whose 6-foot-6, 270-pound frame resembles that of Bucs defensive end Will Gholston, was the Bears’ most consistent defensive lineman in 2013. With 11.5 sacks in his four-year career, including 3.5 in 2013, Wootton has the physical tools to become an excellent defensive end, and the Bucs need to add more quality depth at the end position. With Julius Peppers turning 34 this year and Chicago not having much depth at defensive end, the Bears will need to re-sign Wootton.
CB Kelvin Hayden Hayden missed the 2013 season due to a torn hamstring, but was effective in Smith’s defense in 2012 when he had a team-high four fumble recoveries in addition to an interception. The 30-year old Hayden, who is 6-foot, 195 pounds, spent several years playing for Tony Dungy in Indianapolis’ Cover 2 defense, and the Bucs could use another big cornerback for depth.
S Major WrightThe Buccaneers have two very good starting safeties in Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron, and probably don’t want to spend starter money on Wright, who who had 100 tackles, two forced fumbles and two interceptions last year. The Bears are interested in re-signing their third-round pick from 2010, but he played collegiately at Florida and may have an interest in returning to his home state and playing for Smith once again.
C Roberto GarzaWhile Jeremy Zuttah didn’t exactly light it up playing center in Tampa Bay in 2013, it’s not likely that the Bucs would want to make a move in free agency to bring in Garza, who turns 35 in March. Emery has indicated that Chicago would like to re-sign Garza this offseason, but the Bucs need better play at the center position.
QB Josh McCownMcCown, who will turn 35 in July, is a journeyman that had a good deal of success filling in for the injured Jay Cutler this year. McCown, who was signed by the Bears in 2011 when Smith was the head coach, completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 1,829 yards with 13 touchdowns and one interception in 2013. While the Bucs could use a veteran QB to compete with Mike Glennon, there is a good chance that McCown stays in the Windy City despite Cutler’s extension.
OTHER BEARS FREE AGENTS NOT LIKELY TARGETED BY BUCSThe following Bears are restricted free agents and will likely be re-signed by Chicago: defensive tackle Nate Collins, who spent the 2013 season on injured reserve, and safety Anthony Walters.
Chicago cornerback Sherrick McManis, linebacker Blake Costanzo and safety Craig Steltz are mostly special teams contributors and reserve defenders. Of the three, Steltz has the most experience in Smith’s defense.
Journeyman offensive tackle Jonathan Scott was signed by Chicago in 2012 while Smith was still with the Bears, but was released and then re-signed in 2013. Scott is on his fourth NFL team in eight years.
The Bears also have six free agents that were signed in 2013 by Emery and new head coach Marc Trestman and don’t have any ties to Smith: defensive tackle Landon Cohen, middle linebackers D.J. Williams and Larry Grant, guard Eben Britton, tight end Dante Rosario and quarterback Jordan Palmer.
Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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