Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen spent the first three years of his tenure in Tampa Bay attempting to get the team out of a salary cap mess he inherited.
However, he and Bucs senior assistant Kevin Demoff's hard work in terms of managing the salary cap could pay off big this offseason as Tampa Bay is currently $23 million under the 2008 NFL-mandated salary cap and should be as much as $30 million under the cap by the time free agency starts in March.
"We're in good shape," Allen said at his season-ending press conference on Thursday. "I think we're about $23 million under the cap and $45 or $50 million under the cap the next year."
The Bucs, who went 9-7 and won the 2007 NFC South division title last season after going 4-12 in 2006, believe they have a solid nucleus of players to build around.
That includes a list of no-name players, running back Earnest Graham, fullback B.J. Askew, defensive end Greg White and quarterback Luke McCown, to name a few, that came out of nowhere to not only make Tampa Bay's 53-man roster, but also help the Bucs win their second division title in three seasons.
"Half of our roster has under four years of experience and half of our roster is homegrown players," said Allen. "They got some valuable experience both on and off of the football field that will make them better in the future."
One of the ways Tampa Bay believes it will improve its roster is through the training room. The Buccaneers finished the 2007 season with 14 players on injured reserve, including running back Cadillac Williams, fullback Mike Alstott and left tackle Luke Petitgout.
But the Bucs will also look to add some new and more talented players to their roster through free agency and the NFL Draft, where they're scheduled to pick 20th in the first round this year.
While Tampa Bay's defense ranked No. 2 overall in 2007, its offense finished the season ranked 18th. That was improved from the 2006 season, but the Buccaneers know they will have to get more consistent production from head coach Jon Gruden's offense if the Bucs are going to become the first team to ever win the NFC South division two straight years.
The Bucs likely will target several positions on the offensive side of the ball in free agency, including running back, wide receiver, tight end and the center.
"The best way we can improve this team is by addition," said Allen. "Let's get those guys healthy and competing. Would I like to sign a Tiger Woods at every position? Absolutely. We did not have a Pro Bowl player this year. We can talk about why – were we not on national television or those things? We need some players to come in and help this football team, and dominate. Everybody inside our locker room is going to be given an opportunity."
The defensive side of the ball could also receive some help in free agency, particularly along the defensive line, where the Bucs notched 33 sacks in 16 regular season games.
While their pass rush improved from 25 sacks in 2006, the Buccaneers watched Giants quarterback Eli Manning complete 74 percent of his passes and toss two touchdowns and no interceptions en route to a 24-14 win over the Bucs on Wild Card Weekend.
Manning was sacked just one time, which reinforced Tampa Bay's belief that it needs to upgrade its pass rush more this offseason.
"Our pass rush did get better for what they were able to accomplish, but we think we can do better," said Allen. "In this league right now those two elements [quarterback play and defensive pass rush] determine the winner."
The Bucs could use some of their cap money to re-sign some of their own free-agents-to-be, including running backs Michael Pittman and Michael Bennett, tight ends Anthony Becht and Jerramy Stevens and center John Wade, among others.
Tampa Bay will also sign some other teams' players in free agency, where the likes of running backs Michael Turner (San Diego) and Mewelde Moore (Minnesota), wide receivers Jerry Porter (Oakland) and Donte Stallworth (New England), defensive ends Jared Allen (Kansas City) and Justin Smith (Cincinnati), defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (Tennessee), linebacker Lance Briggs (Chicago) and cornerback Asante Samuel (New England), are scheduled to hit the open market in March.
But even though they are in the top quarter of the league in terms of available cap room, the Bucs won't necessarily spend all of it just for the sake of doing it. Tampa Bay did, after all, have $14 million in cap room at one point during the 2007 regular season.
"We have the opportunity to go after anybody that is available," said Allen. "We look at things a little differently. There are values we put on someone and some other teams could put a different value on that player. The amount of money you receive as a player doesn't make you a better player. Circumstances sometimes dictate if you line up next to someone you can be a better player in that system.
"There's no limit to who we can go after, which is a nice feeling entering into free agency."
Even though he was disappointed by how Tampa Bay's season ended last Sunday, Allen had a difficult time hiding his enthusiasm when discussing the Buccaneers' roster in terms of how it looks now and what it could wind up looking like by the time the 2008 season rolls around.
"The infrastructure is set," said Allen. "It starts with us having the best facility in the league, without a doubt. It starts with the leadership of our coaching staff and it starts with a core of players that have tasted some victories. We still have some champions on this team that can lead this team. There's no reason why we can't compete in the future at all."
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