When Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen arrived in Tampa Bay in January of 2004, he inherited a team that was choked by the salary cap in 2003, which forced the release of some high-priced veterans and some massive restructuring of contracts. The cap suffocation would last through the 2004 and ’05 campaigns, as well, as Tampa Bay was approximately $19 million over the salary cap in Allen’s first two years in Tampa.

But those days have come and gone, and after years of scraping through the bargain bin and the discard pile that landed some gems, such as nose tackle Chris Hovan, and some busts, such as Todd Steussie, Tampa Bay finally has money to spend and can be a real player in free agency – and they don’t have to cut a single player to do it.

“We’re in good shape right now,” Allen said. “We’re at about $24-million under the cap. We’re $36-million under the ’08 cap and $49-million under the following year’s cap.

“We’re in the top half of the league this year [in teams with salary cap room]. We’re in the top third in ’08, in the top quarter in ’09. In 2004, we were last in the NFC. And three years ago we were last in ’05 in the NFC and we were last in ’06 in the NFC at that point, in January ’04. Over the last three years, we have been able to create the room to allow the team to develop some. We’ve had an infusion of youth on this team that has gotten a lot of playing time. I would imagine Green Bay and the Buccaneers have the most rookie starts of any team in the league over the last two years. When you look back at where we’ve been as a franchise, that’s a good step. The only way to build and have players get better is to play, and I anticipate the investment in time this year in some of these players and the investment in time last year in allowing them the ability to play will pay off in the long run.”

Allen said that the Bucs may restructure some players’ deals to create more salary cap room, but for the first time since 2000, the team doesn’t have to release players simply to become salary cap compliant. If Tampa Bay wishes to release a player, it will be based on performance with any salary cap savings coming as a fringe benefit.

Just how bad was Tampa Bay’s salary cap situation when Allen walked in the door in 2004? Consider that the Buccaneers were already $9 million over the salary cap and had only 46 players under contract at the time. That wasn’t even enough cap room for the Buccaneers to field a 53-man roster let alone a practice squad, and didn’t even include any money that had to be doled out in option bonuses, escalators or spent on Tampa Bay’s 2004 draft class. Those factors pushed the $9 million closer to $19 million.

Part of the reason why the Buccaneers have been so cap strapped over the last few years is because several defensive players performed well and were rewarded with lucrative contract extensions after the Super Bowl. Former general manager Rich McKay gave Booger McFarland a large contract extension that he never lived up to. That contract also didn’t allow enough cap room to re-sign Warren Sapp in 2004.

Defensive end Simeon Rice has been one of the premier pass rushers in the league over the past five years, but was made the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player when McKay needlessly extended his contract despite Rice being under contract for the 2003 season.

Rice has refused to restructure his contract to help the team’s woeful salary cap situation over the past two years, which hasn’t sat well with Tampa Bay’s front office and has led to speculation that he, along with cornerback Brian Kelly, could be traded in the offseason. Doing so would free up an additional $7.25 million worth of salary cap room. But at his season-ending press conference, Allen said that both Rice and Kelly are part of Tampa Bay’s plans in 2007.

“Simeon has been here working out,” Allen said, referring to Rice’s shoulder surgery that cost him half the season. “He looks good. He’s always been one of the most phenomenal training athletes you’ll ever meet. Clearly, this season, you look at it, there were two really poor performances by us. Our quarterback position performed poorly. And our defensing the quarterback position performed poorly. Now when people look at that and say quarterbacks get a lot of blame and too much credit at times, it is a true statement because when an opponent’s quarterback rating is so high, that’s due to pass rush, it’s due to coverage. A lot of sacks are based on good coverage and a lot of interceptions are based on great pass rush. We missed the dozen sacks that Simeon would’ve brought, that he has brought the last five or six years in the NFL. I’m sure he’s one of the leaders in that. And we missed that this year and it hurt this team.

“Brian Kelly is in our plans for the upcoming season.”

The reason why Rice may be in Tampa Bay’s plans is simple. He is the team’s best pass rusher, and without him, the Bucs recorded only 25 sacks a year after recording 36 a year ago.

Rice accounted for two of those sacks through the first eight games before winding up on injured reserve.

“We finished last in quarterback sacks, I think we were tied with the Colts for last," Allen said. "That’s a glaring statistic when you think of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and it’s a bad statistic when you talk about any team and we need to improve that.”

The Buccaneers need to improve their pass rush in 2007 and Tampa Bay defensive end Dewayne White, who replaced Rice in the starting lineup and was tied for the team lead with five sacks, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.

Part of Tampa Bay’s $24 million will have to be spent on re-signing some of its own players, but only White and guard Sean Mahan figure to receive significant contracts either from the Bucs or another team once free agency starts. That puts Tampa Bay at an advantage as other NFL teams that have a similar amount of cap space have more of their own free agents to re-sign, which will drive down that team's available cap room.

“We’ve been having on-going discussions with [Tampa Bay’s soon-to-be free agents] for a few months now and obviously, they’re the only ones we’re allowed to negotiate with until March 2, I believe is the beginning of the league year,” Allen said. “We’ll continue to have dialogue. If we can reach an agreement that’s fair to both, they will. In each one of those cases, those are players we’re interested in.

“This year, we’re analyzing where we’re at today. As I said earlier, we didn’t perform well in certain aspects and we have to improve that. This year’s free agency crop could not be the banner crop that you’ve seen before because even though we are in the middle of the league. There’s plenty of cap room for players to re-sign with their clubs. They have a chance not to even make it to free agency. We’re not going to spend the cap room just for the fun of it. We’re going to make sure we can acquire players that can help the Bucs, not only in 2007, but beyond. Fortunately, the good news from this season is we still have the leadership from the Super Bowl championship and the coordinator’s position on this team and we are drafting high and we feel we have an opportunity in the draft to acquire players that are going to help us in the future. We certainly don’t want to have to start seven rookies again on the offensive side of the ball, but thatt’s where this team was. I know there’s been some talk we’ve neglected the defense, I think the offense has been neglected over a decade. It’s been nice to acquire some players in the draft. We’ve been pleasantly surprised on some of the them on how they’ve performed at a rookie level in the NFL, so we’re going to keep building this team for the future. … I think we’ve sort of spoiled ourselves a little bit around here by playing rookies; that is unusual around the NFL to play guys as much as we have. I think Green Bay and us have had the most young guys play.”

Allen is confident that the Buccaneers will be in the mix for premium, young free agents in their prime this offseason as opposed to having to settle for free agents who were past their prime in 2004 with the likes of Steussie, Derrick Deese and Charlie Garner. Allen's signing of those players in 2004 also contributed to Tampa Bay's salary cap problems over the past two years.

“We have so much to offer,” Allen said. “The Buccaneers, as a team, is an attractive home for free agents, whose agents have already been trying to let us know to save a spot for them. Our coaching staff is intact at the leadership standpoint. Our facilities are the finest, not only in the NFL; but in the world. Our Super Bowl stadium is attractive. No state income tax is extremely attractive to professional athletes, not only in this era, but in previous eras. We have a lot to offer here. We have a great fan base and a team that still ahs a lot of the champions on it and an environment that is all based on football.
“I started with this; I’m not sure what’s going to be available in free agency. We are not going to burn cap room just for the fun of it. We are looking to improve the team, and if you improve 2008 there’s a good chance you’re going to improve 2007. If you’re going to improve 2010 situation there a good chance you’re going to improve 2008 and 2009 as you do it."

Want the inside scoop on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2007 offseason plans? Want to find out who the Bucs are targeting in free agency and the NFL Draft? Subscribe to PewterReport.com's Pewter Insider by clicking here.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th 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 spent six years 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: sr@pewterreport.com
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