The Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered the free agent signing period with approximately $43 million to spend, which was the most amount of cap room of any team in the National Football League.
However, the Bucs don't have many big-name players to show for it, evidenced by the fact that they've allowed several free agents to sign with other teams for more money than what Tampa Bay was willing to pay.
Some have accused the Bucs of being too conservative and cheap. Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen, however, feels the Bucs are being smart.
"Like with everyone that you're probably going to ask me about, we checked on [Chicago free agent linebacker Lance Briggs'] status and what he was looking for, and we were really never involved with that," Allen told PewterReport.com.
Last year, the biggest signing bonus Tampa Bay handed out was just $3 million. Both quarterback Jeff Garcia and left tackle Luke Petitgout signed with the Bucs for that bonus money.
The rest signed for much less, and many of those players, including LB Cato June and DE Greg White, were signed well after the free agent signing period began.
Tampa Bay didn't wait long to outbid its highest signing bonus number from 2007. Just hours after the 2008 free agent signing period began on Feb. 29 the Bucs inked center Jeff Faine to a six-year, $37.5 million deal that included a $15 million signing bonus.
The Bucs have also signed defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson, tight end John Gilmore and linebackers Matt McCoy, Teddy Lehman, Antoine Cash and Leon Joe. In addition, Tampa Bay traded a 2009 sixth-round draft pick to Chicago in exchange for quarterback Brian Griese.
But some have questioned whether the Bucs, who spent the first several seasons of Allen's tenure in Tampa Bay working to get out of salary cap hell, have been too frugal in their approach.
Tampa Bay has visited with several free agents, including cornerbacks Drayton Florence, Randall Gay and Jacques Reeves, wide receiver Devery Henderson, tight end Alge Crumpler and linebacker Niko Koutouvides, but each of those players wound up signing with other teams for more money.
Others, like Briggs and free agent CB Asante Samuel, defensive end Justin Smith and wide receivers Randy Moss and Javon Walker were not brought in for visits before signing with their respective teams.
While they are looking for more playmakers, Allen said the Bucs are also searching for the right fit when it comes to adding players to their roster via free agency.
"Everyone we visited, we haven't made many of them offers. Part of a visit is to get their physical condition and meet with the coaches," said Allen. "It's a ‘getting-to-know-you' type meeting to see if we believe this player will fit into what we want to do. Now you can watch the film on players, but as you know, I've said to you before, we're looking for really good teammates. And sometimes they might not be a right match for us. We don't make a contract offer to everyone we bring in."
As of right now, the Bucs have approximately $36 million remaining in cap room. Tampa Bay intends to use a significant amount of its available cap room this year, but not all of it will be allocated to signing new players and the team's 2008 draft class.
Tampa Bay also wants to keep the core of its team intact, and in order to do that the Buccaneers will have to sign several of their own players to contract extensions.
Players like quarterback Jeff Garcia, running back Earnest Graham, fullback B.J. Askew, cornerback Phillip Buchanon and safety Jermaine Phillps are entering the final year of their deals.
The Bucs are working on signing several of those players, as well as restricted free agent defensive tackle Jovan Haye and exclusive rights free agent DE Greg White, to new contracts, but the team realizes that they must hold aside a certain amount of cap room to sign their own players while adding others through free agency and the draft.
That's one of the main reasons why Tampa Bay has been unwilling to overspend for some of the free agents that were – or currently are – on its radar.
"Part of the plan for several years now was to put ourselves in the position to not only acquire some free agents this offseason, but to be able to retain our own players," said Allen. "We're looking at our roster and having dialogue with our current players about extending some of our players into the future to make sure that the Bucs are going to be in good position for years to come."
Tampa Bay is also not opposed to extending the contracts of players that have more than one year remaining on their deals, like middle linebacker Barrett Ruud and tight end Alex Smith.
"We do have a nice young core of talent that's been accumulated over the last few years," said Allen. "We're going to look at several of them – it could be one year, it could be two years – and see if we can make some type of arrangements to extend them in the future. But we have plenty of time to do that as well – we could have them anytime between now and next January really."
Tampa Bay has already had some success in terms of retaining its own priority free agents. Running back Michael Bennett signed a three-year contract with the Bucs just days before he was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.
"He's been a dynamic performer in the NFL, I mean, he is a Pro Bowl selection from a few years ago," Allen said of Bennett. "But Michael's a hungry, eager football player that has special traits, one special trait being speed. I'm talking to the coaches at the end of the season, and looking at the free agency of running backs, it was clear that one of the guys who really fit in the best was going to be Michael Bennett."
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden entered this offseason in search of more speed and playmaking ability on offense. While Bennett certainly fits that description, some feel the Bucs have not yet addressed the need for more speed at the wide receiver position.
Allen reminded Bucs fans that free agency was an ongoing process and that the team would address some of its needs as free agency progresses and in the 2008 NFL Draft. He also suggested the Bucs could execute another trade at some point this offseason, even if the player(s) has a high cap number, due to the fact that team still have a significant amount of cap room at its disposal.
"We believe that free agency really runs up until camp starts. There are some players who are available in trades that we're having some discussions with and have some intrigue with," said Allen. "Then, of course, you have the draft, which gives us another opportunity to find five or six players who we feel can help us this year and then into future."
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