Free agency can either be a gold mine or nothing more than a collection of fool’s gold for NFL teams, including Tampa Bay. The Bucs struck it rich in 2001 and the following year, signing the likes of defensive end Simeon Rice, quarterback Brad Johnson, offensive linemen Roman Oben and Kerry Jenkins, wide receivers Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius among others to help the team win its first and only Super Bowl during the 2002 campaign.
The Bucs flopped in free agency a few years later while trying desperately to get back to the Super Bowl, as the likes of offensive linemen Derrick Deese and Todd Steuessie and running back Charlie Garner were past their prime and wastes of money.
In recent years, Tampa Bay has struggled in free agency, landing Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver Vincent Jackson and getting mixed results with Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson, but missing badly on running back Derrick Ward and cornerback Eric Wright, and seeing a lot of money wasted on Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks, who can’t seem to get healthy after two toe surgeries and a bout with MRSA within the last year.
New Bucs general manager Jason Licht and head coach Lovie Smith are taking bold steps to remake the roster after a disappointing 4-12 season, and are heavily using free agency to accomplish that feat. When teams turn to free agency to rebuild there is a risk-reward potential that comes with every new player.
Tampa Bay had a flurry of activity from the outset and signed nine unrestricted free agents within the first 48 hours of free agency, including three of its own players. The Bucs believe they have at least six new starters out of these eight players, and PewterReport.com breaks down the risks and rewards of each of Tampa Bay’s unrestricted free agent signings.
QB JOSH McCOWNThe ContractTampa Bay signed McCown to a two-year deal worth $10 million.
The RisksMcCown who will be 35 years old in July and has been a journeyman throughout his career with stops in Arizona, Detroit, Oakland, Carolina, Chicago and now Tampa Bay. McCown is not a dynamic playmaking quarterback. Instead, he is more of an experienced, game manager-type of signal caller without much upside. What you see is what you get with McCown, who has not shown the ability to win a starting job for years, much less lead a team to the playoffs. Inserting him as the team’s starter delays the growth and development of a younger quarterback more suited to the future, such as Mike Glennon, who started 13 games last year as a rookie, or a potential draft pick.
The RewardsMcCown is coming off a very productive season in which he threw 13 touchdowns and just one interception with a 3-2 record while starting five games for the injured Jay Culter in Chicago. Despite struggling to crack the starting lineup in his many NFL destinations, McCown is Tampa Bay’s most experienced quarterback, playing in 58 games in his career, while completing 794-of-1,337 passes for 8,827 yards with 50 touchdowns and 45 interceptions. He is battle-tested and capable of coming in and distributing the ball to Tampa Bay’s playmakers on offense, while serving as a great mentor for young, developing passers.
How This Signing Impacts The Roster The addition of McCown, who is not the long-term solution at the quarterback position, and him being anointed as the starter by Smith could signal the end of Glennon’s tenure in Tampa Bay – or it may not. Glennon might need a strong performance in the team’s initial mini-camp in April prior to the draft to stay in Tampa Bay or the Bucs may trade him and draft a quarterback, such as Fresno State’s Derek Carr, and head into the season with McCown, Carr and backup Mike Kafka.
CB ALTERRAUN VERNERThe ContractThe Buccaneers signed Verner to a four-year, $26.5 million contract with $14 million in guaranteed money.
The RisksThere are few risks for Tampa Bay with the signing of Verner. He is a solid, young cornerback, whose game is on the rise. The Bucs even got him for a fair price at just over $6.6 million per year. The biggest knock on Verner is size as he is only 5-foot-10, 187 pounds, but the best cornerback in franchise history, future Hall of Famer Ronde Barber, was comparable in size at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds. The Bucs have a tall cornerback in Johnthan Banks, who is 6-foot-2, and are attempting to sign Charles Tillman, who is also 6-foot-2, so Tampa Bay will still have a sizable secondary.
The RewardsVerner was tailor made to fit in the Tampa 2 defense, as he is very familiar with playing in Cover 2 zone concepts both in college at UCLA and in Tennessee. His best season came last year when he had 57 tackles, a career-high 22 pass breakups and a career-high five interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. With 11 interceptions and two forced fumbles in four seasons, Verner has been very productive throughout his career with regards to turnovers. He’s a physical tackler, too, evidenced by 101 tackles as a rookie in 2010. Verner, who has four years of experience in the NFL, is only 25 years old, and just 10 months older than Banks, who was a rookie last year.
How This Signing Impacts The Roster With the team parting ways with Darrelle Revis on Wednesday, the signing of Verner gives Tampa Bay a playmaking, starting-caliber cornerback with Pro Bowl credentials to replace Revis Island. With Verner and Banks, the Bucs have two legitimate starting cornerbacks and the team will be looking for a third either in free agency or the draft to compete with the likes of Leonard Johnson, Danny Gorrer, D.J. Moore, Rashaan Melvin, Anthony Gaitor and Deveron Carr for roster spots.
DE MICHAEL JOHNSONThe ContractJohnson signed a five-year deal with $43.75 million, including $24 million in guaranteed money.
The RisksComing out of Georgia Tech in the 2009 NFL Draft, Johnson was a player pegged with first-round ability and a late-round consistency. As a result, Johnson was drafted in the third round by Cincinnati and has only put together one monster statistical season, which came in 2012 when he had 11.5 sacks. The Bengals placed the franchise tag on him in 2013, but opted to sign fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap to a long-term extension instead, and this was before he produced just 3.5 sacks. The word on Johnson is that he needs to be pushed to greatness. It will be up to new defensive line coach Joe Cullen, a Rod Marinelli disciple, to do just that.
The RewardsJohnson has proven he can be a double-digit sacker in the NFL, albeit just once in his career. He had a career-high 11.5 sacks in 2012, but he had 16 quarterback hits and 40 QB pressures in 2013 to go along with his 3.5 sacks. His 2013 season wasn’t nearly as bad as it seems at first glance when you factor in the hits and pressures. Johnson also affected the passing game by using his 6-foot-7 frame to swat down nine passes at the line of scrimmage. At age 27, Johnson is in his prime and brings the speed, quickness and agility off the edge that the Buccaneers need to rush the quarterback’s blind side in the Tampa 2 defense next to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. With Cullen, a defensive line guru, and Smith on hand to motivate him and set high expectations for him, Johnson is in a better environment to succeed in Tampa Bay than perhaps anywhere else.
How This Signing Impacts The Roster With Johnson firmly entrenched as the team’s starter at right defensive end due to his ability, previous production and salary, the Bucs have created a log-jam at the left defensive end position where Adrian Clayborn, Will Gholston and Da’Quan Bowers will compete for the starting job. Clayborn has the experience edge over Gholston and Bowers, but he’s not a natural left defensive end, and might struggle on the left side due to Erb’s Palsy, a condition where Clayborn’s right arm is shorter and weaker than his right arm. However, most of Clayborn’s sack production came on the left side while playing the weakside end in 2013.
OT ANTHONY COLLINSThe ContractCollins signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the Buccaneers that includes $15 million in guaranteed money.
The RisksWhile Collins was one of the best pass protecting offensive tackles last year, he has never been a full-time starter in Cincinnati as he has been biding his time behind Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right tackle Andre Smith, who was a former first-round pick. Collins, a former fourth-round pick, played in 15 games last season and started eight, supplanting Whitworth, who was moved to left guard. Is he ready to prove that he can be a personal protector for Josh McCown’s blind side for 16 straight weeks?
The RewardsThe 6-foot-5, 315-pound Collins doesn’t turn 29 until December, making him two years younger than Bucs left tackle Donald Penn, who has started 108 straight games for the franchise since entering the lineup in 2007. With an average of $6 million per season, Collins was one of the most affordable high-end tackles in free agency and came more than $1 million cheaper than Penn.
How This Signing Impacts The Roster The addition of Collins gives the Bucs two big, talented tackles, along with right tackle Demar Dotson, in their prime under the age of 30. Collins’ signing prompted the Buccaneers to release Penn on Thursday. Tampa Bay now has four players capable of playing offensive tackle on the roster, including Collins, Dotson, Jamon Meredith and Emmett Cleary. Meredith is a swing tackle candidate that can play on either side. The Bucs will likely add another offensive tackle through the draft or through undrafted free agency to develop for depth behind Collins and Dotson.
DT CLINTON McDONALDThe ContractMcDonald signed a four-year contract worth $12 million, including $4.75 million in guaranteed money.
The RisksMcDonald has never been a starter and has only been used situationally during his five years in the NFL. Prior to the start of the 2013 season, McDonald was cut out of training camp in Seattle and was fortunate to be re-signed. The Bucs are paying an average of $3 million per season for a player whose only NFL sacks (5.5) came last year as a part-time interior pass rusher. Did Tampa Bay overpay for an unproven player? By all accounts, McDonald is a very hard-working player, so a big payday shouldn’t deter him from continuing to develop and become complacent.
The RewardsAt 6-foot-2, 297 pounds, McDonald has ideal size, power and quickness, which makes him an ideal fit next to McCoy, a Pro Bowl three-technique defensive tackle. McDonald’s work ethic sets him apart in that he entered the league as a seventh-round pick out of Memphis with Cincinnati and then was traded to Seattle where he made himself into the player he is today. Because of his 4.8 speed and pass-rushing skills, McDonald has the ability to start at nose tackle next to McCoy or slide over to the three-technique spot on a limited basis and replace him when the Pro Bowler needs a breather. He’s driven to earn every penny of his new contract.
How This Signing Impacts The Roster Given his experience, production and salary, McDonald will be given the first shot as the team’s starting nose tackle due to his pass-rush ability, evidenced by 5.5 sacks last year. McDonald supplants Akeem Spence on the top of the depth chart after the rookie struggled getting to the quarterback, registering just one sack during his rookie season. McDonald brings great versatility to the table and his signing gives the Bucs some flexibility and depth at both the three-technique and nose tackle spots.
TE BRANDON MYERSThe ContractMyers signed a two-year deal worth $4.25 million with $2 million in guaranteed money, but the deal has $1.5 million in incentives.
The RisksMyers is not known for his blocking, although the Buccaneers feel that he will be the most complete tight end on the team. Despite very good production over the past two seasons, totaling 126 catches for 1,328 yards and eight touchdowns, Myers is on his third team in three years. The Raiders did not re-sign him despite spending the first four years of his NFL career in Oakland. The Giants voided the final three years of Myers’ contract and made no attempt to re-sign him, which is puzzling.
The RewardsAt 6-foot-3, 253 pounds, Myers is nearly 25 pounds heavier than Tim Wright, who started eight games at tight end as a rookie last year, and he’s a better in-line blocker in the running game. The Iowa product also brings experience and productivity to Tampa Bay’s offense, evidenced by catching a career-high 79 passes for 806 yards (10.2 avg.) and four touchdowns two years ago in Oakland and 47 catches for 522 yards (11.1 avg.) with four touchdowns in New York.
How This Signing Impacts The RosterMyers becomes the team’s starting tight end, and there will be a battle between Wright, Tom Crabtree and Luke Stocker and Steve Maneri for the number two tight end position, as well as a roster spot. Myers’ addition should give Wright and Crabtree, who both saw time in the starting lineup last year, the motivation to add some bulk and step up their game in the offseason and during training camp.
LB JONATHAN CASILLASThe ContractCasillas re-signed with Tampa Bay for one year, but financial details are not yet known.
The RisksCasillas is coming off a knee injury that ended his 2013 season prematurely, but all indications are he will be ready for the offseason program, which begins on April 7. Prior to his injury he played in 12 games with four starts at strongside linebacker. Despite having more previous starting experience in New Orleans than Dekoda Watson did in Tampa Bay, Casillas was beaten out for the starting spot initially before becoming a starter when Watson suffered a shoulder injury. Can he handle the starting strongside linebacker spot for 16 weeks?
The RewardsWhen he was on the field on defense, Casillas was productive. He finished his first season in Tampa Bay with 24 tackles, two passes defensed and one forced fumble. Casillas really brought some value to the Bucs’ special teams last year with nine tackles, which led the team at the time of his season-ending knee injury. Casillas brings youth (26), speed (4.5 in the 40-yard dash) and athleticism to Tampa Bay’s defense and special teams. Signing Casillas to a one-year deal gives him the chance to prove himself in a new scheme to a new coaching staff and comes with very little risk.
How This Signing Impacts The RosterWith Lavonte David set at weakside linebacker and Mason Foster the current starter at middle linebacker, Casillas, who was targeted to re-sign with the Bucs over Watson and Adam Hayward, will get the first crack to be the starter at the strongside position. The Bucs only have Ka’Lial Glaud, Danny Lansanah and Damaso Munoz on the roster for depth and competition, so look for Tampa Bay to add several more linebackers through a mixture of free agency, the draft and undrafted free agency.
OL JAMON MEREDITHThe ContractMeredith re-signed with the Buccaneers for two years, but financial details are not yet known.
The RisksMeredith started 12 games in 2012 and eight games last year at both guard positions and his play has been inconsistent at times to the point where he has not been able to establish himself as anything more than an emergency fill-in. He had the chance to hit the open market this year for a potentially bigger contract, but opted to re-sign with Tampa Bay for two years. Was he not confident enough in his abilities to find a starting job elsewhere in free agency?
The RewardsMeredith is one of the most versatile players on Tampa Bay’s roster, capable of playing either offensive tackle spot, or either guard position. Meredith is a proven commodity at One Buccaneer Place, stepping in for the injured guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph for stretches of time over the past two years. He is currently in position to challenge for the starting right guard spot, which has been vacant since Joseph’s release on Saturday. Despite being a part-time starter due to injury over the past two years, Meredith has improved and has been the best lineman on the field for Tampa Bay, behind only right tackle Demar Dotson.
How This Signing Impacts The RosterThe Bucs opted to sign Meredith over keeping Joseph and didn’t re-sign versatile backup Ted Larsen. Tampa Bay only has Meredith, Nicks, who is coming off two toe surgeries, Patrick Omameh, Jason Foster at the guard positions. The team also has center Jeremy Zuttah, who has several games at guard, as another option. The Bucs will undoubtedly add another guard or two to the mix either via free agency or the draft – or both. Because Meredith has great value as a swing tackle, if he lands a starting role as a guard, that could prompt Tampa Bay to find another swing tackle candidate.
CB DANNY GORRERThe ContractGorrer re-signed with the Buccaneers for one year, but financial details are not yet known.
The RisksDespite entering his sixth season in the NFL, Gorrer is still an unproven player with limited on-field experience. In his year and a half in Tampa Bay, Gorrer has missed time due to injuries and has only played in 13 games with one start. Although he’s not a lock to make the 53-man roster in 2014, he currently occupies a spot on the Buccaneers and he’s probably only good enough to be considered for the fourth cornerback on the team. Still, re-signing Gorrer to a one-year deal doesn’t carry much risk. He either makes the team near the bottom of the depth chart or he doesn’t.
The RewardsAlthough Gorrer has limited production, evidenced by 21 total tackles, two passes defensed, an interception and a forced fumble, the team likes something about the 27-year old cornerback to have re-signed him twice over the past two years. At 6-foot, 180 pounds, Gorrer has decent size and he’s good on special teams and in the locker room. He’s a highly competitive player that had a good preseason game against Baltimore with an interception before tearing his groin, and will only help drive the competition at the cornerback spot.
How This Signing Impacts The RosterWith Verner and Banks likely set as starters, Gorrer’s addition adds competition for one of the final two roster spots at the cornerback position. Gorrer will compete with Johnson, Moore, Gaitor, Melvin and Carr in an already crowded defensive backfield that will see the Bucs add another cornerback or two via free agency and/or the draft this offseason.
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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