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Two integral members of last season's number one pass defense are entering the final year of their contracts with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Starting left cornerback Phillip Buchanon and safety Jermaine Phillips both had excellent seasons for the Buccaneers last year, and both players could be playing for another organization in a year's time.
With selecting young cornerback Aqib Talib with the their first-round pick this year, and safety Sabby Piscitelli with a second-round pick in the 2007 draft, the Buccaneers have young players behind the veterans Buchanon and Phillips. At times in the NFL, having a player with a high draft slot behind you can signal the end of a players tenure with their team.
Three months after drafting defensive end Gaines Adams the Bucs cut end Simeon Rice. In 2005, the Buccaneers ran behind guards Dan Buenning and Sean Mahan. In the next two drafts the Bucs took guards Davin Joseph and Arron Sears. Mahan was not re-signed by the team and Buenning is a backup, and possibly fighting for a roster spot. After taking Joseph, the Bucs selected Jeremy Trueblood in the second round of the 2006 draft, and he soon replaced Kenyatta Walker at right tackle. Less than a year after drafting wide receiver Michael Clayton, wide receivers Joe Jurevicius and Keenan McCardell were playing for the Seattle Seahawks and San Diego Chargers respectively.
Thus, there is a decent chance that Buchanon, and or Phillips, is playing their last season for the Buccaneers. Yet, both players are entering their prime, and were instrumental in Tampa Bay achieving the number one ranked pass defense in the NFL. Other Bucs defensive backs are in the final year of their contract with Tampa Bay, they are cornerbacks Eugene Wilson, Sammy Davis, and safety Will Allen. Amongst the group of future free agents Buchanon and Phillips play more prominent roles on the team. Thus, between Buchanon and Phillips, which player should the Buccaneers sign to an extension first? Cover 1- Buchanon should be extended first.
With long-time cornerback Brian Kelly banged up for stretches of last season, Buchanon became the Buccaneers starting left corner. A Miami product, Buchanon had a strong season as the starting left cornerback. Kelly bought out of the remaining year of his contract with Tampa Bay to become a free agent, where he signed with Detroit. With Ronde Barber turning 33, the Bucs had to start planning for a new set of starting cornerbacks.
With Talib, the Buccaneers appear to have one of their long-term cornerbacks in the fold. In May, Buchanon told Pewter Report that he and Tampa Bay were discussing a contract extension. Sources told Pewter Report that the discussions were ongoing.
"Yeah, there are talks going on. Right now they're just talking," said Buchanon. "Right now I'm just playing football and doing what I do, but hopefully we'll get something done. I have one year left on the deal and I'm going to play it out, so hopefully we get something done because I like being here in Tampa."
Last season, Buchanon started 13 games at left cornerback. He made 63 tackles with three interceptions, 11 passes defensed, and one forced fumble. As a punt returner, Buchanon fielded 16 balls and averaged 3.4 yards per return. His longest return was 24 yards against Jacksonville on Oct. 28. Entering 2008, Buchanon will have competition at the starting left cornerback position opposite Pro Bowl corner Barber.
Sources have indicated to Pewter Report that the team has been impressed with the developmental progress of Talib, and the rookie is in the mix to start at left cornerback for the Buccaneers in 2008. Even though Buchanon is fighting for his starting spot entering his contract year, he should be the first defensive back extended.
In 2007, the Buccaneers played 42 percent of their defensive snaps in their nickel formation that employs three cornerbacks. In the seasons to come, Buchanon (5-11, 186) will be needed to pair with Talib and another cornerback after Barber retires. Thus, the drafting of Talib is not an indictment on Buchanon. If it were, the Bucs would not be negotiating an extension with him.
The drafting of Piscitelli could be viewed as a reflection of the team's long-term view of Phillips as their safety. Phillips had a rough 2006 season. Piscitelli was taken with a premium pick in the following draft and was battling Phillips in training camp last year. Phillips responded to the return of defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, and retained his starting position to open the season. Piscitelli soon went on injured-reserve, and Phillips produced a strong campaign.
One of the reasons why Phillips improved his play from '06 to '07 was the presence of rookie safety Tanard Jackson. Sources indicated to Pewter Report that Jackson covered for some of Phillips' weaknesses. With Jackson's abilities in coverage, Phillips was able to play what came more natural to him, and thus he produced a better season for the Buccaneers. Without Jackson, it is possible that Phillips would not have had a bounce back season.
In the organized team activities that the media has been allowed to watch, Phillips has had a number of passes completed against him. In the OTA last Thursday, tight end Jerramy Stevens got open against Phillips and hauled in a pass from quarterback Luke McCown. Phillips was also beaten deep downfield by tight end Alex Smith who dropped the pass that could've gone for a touchdown.
Phillips and Buchanon gave up a pass downfield to tight end Ben Troupe from quarterback Brian Griese. Troupe also beat Phillips for a reception from quarterback Jeff Garcia. Covering the tight end is an important responsibility for Bucs safeties, and last year Jackson excelled at it, most Buc fans can easily recall his massive hit on Colts tight end Dallas Clark.
Sources have told Pewter Report that Piscitelli has the speed of Jackson, and the size and power of Phillips, and could be a potential combination of the players. With that kind of player waiting in the wings, it looks like Phillips is not the priority to re-sign that Buchanon is.
If Phillips has a big season, the Bucs could franchise him. The franchise tender for a safety is not as expensive as it is for a cornerback. Even if Tampa Bay does not want to give Phillips a long-term lucrative contract, they could franchise Phillips and then trade him for a draft pick in order to get something in return for him. Signing Phillips to an extension now would make it harder to get something in return for him if the team decides to start Piscitelli down the road.
It is likely the Buccaneers will save money if they sign Buchanon, 27, to a contract prior to him becoming a free agent. The Bucs could franchise Buchanon, but then would have to pay him the equivalent of a top 10 cornerback, which is a huge contract. Buchanon would also be getting paid comparably to Pro Bowl cornerbacks.
The Bucs could sign Buchanon to a quality contract that would be on par with the contracts that Barber has signed, versus a franchise figure that is affected by the mega deals of players like Nate Clements, Champ Bailey, and DeAngelo Hall. Buchanon has not yet made a Pro Bowl, so franchising him does not look like a desirable situation for the Buccaneers to be in. Tampa Bay would be wise to lock up Buchanon prior to free agency.
Cover 2- Phillips should be extended first.
While Buchanon was a part of the Bucs defensive backs that helped the team finish with the best pass defense in the league, there are reasons to have reservations about giving him an extension. The fact that a rookie cornerback is giving him a run for his money at his starting position has to be a concern.
If Buchanon loses his spot to a rookie, is he really a cornerback that you can plan on being a cornerstone of your secondary for seasons to come? There are a few reasons why Talib is challenging Buchanon for his starting position. Size and ball skills are two of those reasons.
In the latest SR's Fab Five, Pewter Report's Scott Reynolds quoted Barber saying that Buchanon dropped about five interceptions last season. Dropping one or even two is understandable, but five leads one to question the ball skills on Buchanon. This year the Buccaneers have been emphasizing the need to improve their interception totals. If Buchanon can hold onto a few of those drops, that will go along way to the Bucs staying as the best pass defense in the NFL.
Looking back at the 2007 season, there were a few plays that Buchanon allowed touchdowns on due to a lack of size and ball skills. Opposing teams seem to have been targeting Buchanon in the red zone. Some of those plays occurred at New Orleans, at Indianapolis, and against Jacksonville. One of the weaknesses of the 2007 Bucs was their red zone defense and red zone offense. For Tampa Bay to repeat as division champions and go further in the playoffs they will have to improve their red zone defense and offense. Thus, Buchanon will have to shore up his coverage in this part of the field.
In 2007, Phillips (6-2, 220) had his best season as a professional. He was tied for third on the team with 120 tackles, recorded 11 passes defensed, one sack, and led the Bucs with four interceptions. While the Bucs offense was completing passes against Phillips in the OTAs, that is not the environment to properly evaluate Phillips.
OTA sessions are not going to be the kind of football that Phillips will standout in. He is a physical player that will have the biggest impact with hitting and tackling. There were numerous occasions at the last OTA were Phillips had a bead on a player to lay a big hit but had to stop short.
Early in the practice, Phillips displayed the hitting ability that the Bucs like out of their defensive players. When the defensive backs were working on their tackling and were hitting a tackling dummy, Phillips stood out.
"That's the power that we're looking for," shouted Morris when Phillips hit the bag with more violence then the other defensive backs.
While Phillips, 29, may not be the strongest safety in terms of pass coverage, he still led the Bucs in interceptions, which shows he has a nose for the football and decent ball skills for a safety. It is rare for a safety to lead the team in interceptions, especially on a Buccaneers team that had proven ballhawks in Barber and Kelly. Phillips' 11 passes defensed is a high number for a safety.
Despite his productive season, Phillips and the team are believed to not be discussing a contract extension at this time. Phillips spoke to Pewter Report about his contract status recently.
"Man I'm not really worried about it," said Phillips. "A lot of times that guys start to worry about their contracts and their situations then their level of play drops. The main goal right now for us is to win a championship. How special would it be to be here in Tampa and win the Super Bowl in our own back yard? That's the focus right now is just getting better and we're looking forward to a good year in '08."
With Phillips comment in mind, by all indications he is a good leader and teammate in the locker room. Throughout his time as a Buc, Phillips has been a team-oriented guy that is willing to contribute in any way to help the team win. Phillips has been a valuable contributor on special teams, seven tackles last season. Overall he is a serviceable player that would provide quality depth if he were beaten out of his position by Piscitelli.
Phillips is affordable. If he were signed to a reasonable extension, Tampa Bay would be able to retain him if he didn't stay a starter. A player who was in that situation was linebacker Ryan Nece after Cato June became the starting linebacker on the strongside.
Signing Phillips to an extension now would probably save money than trying to retain him when he is a free agent. Teams will look at Phillips numbers compared to the other top safeties in the NFL. Phillips stat line from last season is better than many of the strong safeties in the Pro Bowl. He was second in tackles, tied for first in interceptions, and led the strong safeties in passes broken up. Player Tackles Interceptions PBU Phillips 120 4 11 Darren Sharper 63 4 8 Roy Williams 92 2 5 Bob Sanders 132 3 6 Troy Polamalu 58 0 9 Antoine Bethea 95 4 8 John Lynch 62 0 2
Considering how Phillips compares to the Pro Bowl strong safeties, it is hard to argue against giving Phillips an extension. With his play and his price, it is very reminiscent of the deal the Bucs got in their contracts with Barber. With the price and production, Phillips should be the defensive back that gets an extension first.
While it is hard choice, Buchanon is the player that should get an extension first. With all the teams playing three and four wide receivers sets, three quality cornerbacks is essential to any good defense. With Buchanon extended, Tampa Bay would have a trio secured for the next few years with Barber, Talib, and Buchanon. When Barber eventually retires, then Tampa Bay would need to find a third cornerback to pair with Talib and Buchanon.
With Buchanon, Wilson, and Davis entering free agency in the next offseason, the Bucs would be down to a Marcus Hamilton as their third cornerback. Signing Buchanon to an extension would guarantee depth and talent at corner.
Phillips' 2007 season has him worthy of an extension, but with Piscitelli behind him, it may be a good idea to see Phillips have another season like 2007 rather than a season like 2006, before giving him a new contract.
Since Buchanon became a Buccaneer in 2006 he has had made a steady improvement in his play and has become a valuable member of the team. Of the defensive backs approaching free agency he should be the one that receives an extension first.
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