With less than 10 days to go before the start of free agency, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made their second pre-emptive move in keeping their roster intact by placing the franchise tag on wide receiver Antonio Bryant, who was given a one-year deal worth $9.884 million, which is the average of the top 5 NFL receivers. This move comes on the heels of re-signing quarterback Luke McCown, who will be given the chance to win the starting job, to a two-year deal worth $7.5 million.

With McCown and Bryant essentially locked up, the Buccaneers will be looking for more talent to upgrade a 9-7 team that barely missed the playoffs in 2008 due to a four-game slide in December. After addressing some major needs on offense, Tampa Bay will soon address the defensive side of the ball.

The Bucs received potentially good news on Wednesday with reports of Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who figures to be the most sought-after free agent this year, stating that he will not re-sign with the Titans before testing the market. Haynesworth signed Tennessee’s one-year franchise tender in 2008 upon the condition that he would not be franchised again in ’09.

Due to the team’s need at defensive tackle, the Buccaneers, who had approximately $40 million in salary cap room prior to placing the franchise tag on Bryant, are expected to pursue Haynesworth when free agency starts at 12:00 a.m. on February 27, according to sources. Haynesworth, a two-time All-Pro, is considered the best defensive tackle in football and is seeking a deal that would make him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.

That distinction currently belongs to Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen, who signed a six-year contract last offseason worth $12.2 million per year and contained $32 million in guaranteed money. According to a report in The Tennessean, Haynesworth’s agent, Chad Speck, turned down a four-year, $36 million deal that fell way short of his client’s reported demands. Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt is supposed to meet with Speck during the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week, but Haynesworth is still expected to hit free agency.

At 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, Haynesworth would bring ideal size to the middle of new defensive coordinator Jim Bates’ defense to help stop the run and pressure the passer. Haynesworth, who will turn 28 in June, had a career-high 8.5 sacks in 2008 after notching six the previous year. Haynesworth has 24 sacks and 271 tackles (199 solo) in his seven-year NFL career.

Another option along the defensive line for Tampa Bay in the coming weeks could be Panthers pass rusher Julius Peppers, who wants out of Carolina after seven seasons. Peppers is expected to be hit with the franchise tag by 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, and media reports have stated that he wants to be traded to one of four teams.

The Panthers are trying to work out a long-term deal with Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross by Thursday so they can use the franchise tag on Peppers, who has become disenfranchised with the team, to prevent him from leaving via free agency without receiving any draft pick compensation.

Using the franchise tag on Peppers would mean offering him a one-year contract that would pay him a base salary of $16.7 million and prevent any other team from signing Peppers without surrendering two first-round picks as compensation.

The Rock Hill Herald is reporting that the teams Peppers wants to be traded to are the Dallas Cowboys, an AFC team and two NFC teams, which are believed to be two NFC South teams.

A quick scan of the NFC South teams’ rosters shows that New Orleans already has two entrenched, high-paid starting defensive ends in Charles Grant and Will Smith, while Atlanta and Tampa Bay only have one entrenched end each in John Abraham and Gaines Adams, respectively. Thus, the Bucs could be on Peppers’ wish list, and if that is the case, Tampa Bay would likely have to consider acquiring the Pro Bowl defensive end to boost its sagging pass rush and to deal a blow to a division rival.

A league source told Pewter Report that while not ideal, the Panthers may not rule out trading Peppers within the division because they can’t be choosy and would have to reach a deal with another team quickly to free up the salary cap room from the franchise tag in order to acquire other players.

The Panthers are without their first-round pick in 2009 due to a draft-day trade with Philadelphia from a year ago that allowed Carolina to acquire right tackle Jeff Otah. It is likely that Carolina would ask for compensation similar to what Minnesota gave Kansas City in the trade for Allen last year, which was a first-rounder and two third-rounders.

Whether one of the four teams Peppers wants to go to could be convinced to part ways with those draft picks for a 29-year old pass rusher remains to be seen. Allen had just turned 26 when he was traded last April and is three years younger than Peppers, who is coming off a career year in which he recorded 14.5 sacks on the heels of a career-low 2.5 quarterback captures in 2007. He has amassed 339 tackles (273), according to NFL.com, in addition to 70.5 career sacks and four interceptions.

After a team trades for Peppers, it will have to give him a contract in the realm of what Allen was awarded last year and what Haynesworth is seeking for this year. Landing either Haynesworth or Peppers in free agency would be a boon for Tampa Bay, and would bring even more star power to the Bucs defense. But acquiring both may be next impossible due to the financial implications – even for a team like the Buccaneers that is flush with salary cap room.

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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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