Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
Last week the Buccaneers decided that they were going to move on from starting right guard J.R. Sweezy.
Sweezy was a part of the 2016 free agent class that Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht was hoping could change the tides in Tampa Bay. Though the team finished just outside of the playoffs with a 9-7 record, that hope and hype turned out to be fool’s gold as the follow season ended in a 5-11 result.
Sweezy’s release has been the first big-name free agent cut short in Tampa Bay since Licht came on the scene in 2014, so that got me to thinking of a review of how Licht has done over the years with his free agent budget.
This is what I came up with.
The 2014 free agent class was Licht’s first as a Buccaneers, and it is often also the most scrutinized. Most of the players he signed, including quarterback Josh McCown, defensive end Michael Johnson and left tackle Anthony Collins, were following the marching orders of former head coach Lovie Smith, who hired Licht.
Licht found some nice role player pieces that year, as players like Clinton McDonald and Evan Smith have been key parts of the team since coming aboard. McDonald would have started every game he played had it not been for the signing of Chris Baker (we’ll get to that) last year, and Smith has been a utility player who has seen more playing time in Tampa than he did for Green Bay, so both of those players were playing most of their peak years during their biggest contracts (which is good).
But, unfortunately, Licht’s biggest whiffs that year also cost him the most money. Collins and Johnson both played just one season in Tampa Bay. You can make a strong argument that Collins’ performance and outlook with scattered starting history in Cincinnati never even warranted such a contract. Collins’ injuries and inconsistent play didn’t even amount to any trade value after the season and Collins was ultimately released and hasn’t played football since.
As for Johnson, whew, what a bad deal that was. Johnson had an 11-sack season in 2012 and a six-sack season before that. He has just three and a half sacks in his contract year before signing with the Bucs and Licht gave him money that said that three and a half sack year was an outlier – it wasn’t. Instead, Johnson’s career in Tampa was an outlier and he was gone before the next season.
Alterraun Verner is the best out of the bunch in the No’s, but even struggles to justify the value. After his first season Verner didn’t even start in half the games he appeared in, and for over $6 million per year that’s not what you want. Verner also recorded just four takeaways in his three seasons with the Bucs compared to the 11 he had in the five previous season in Tennessee. Licht paid for Verner’s prime and didn’t see it.
Overall, Licht’s 2014 free agency class: Bad. Licht and Smith got some nice role players, and they helped them down the line, but you can’t miss that hard on that much money. The only real good deal that came out of 2014 was extending Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy’s contract so he would avoid free agency in 2015.
Licht’s 2015 free agent class isn’t as black-and-white, good-or-bad as the one before it. Most of the free agency period was spent cleaning up the previous year’s signing mess, which, yes, is his fault, but I’m not going to fault him twice for it.
The year’s big signing was linebacker Bruce Carter. He signed the team’s highest outsider deal, as the big deal of the offseason was signing No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston and extending All-Pro linebacker Lavonte David. Carter’s contract wasn’t terrible, but what made it look even worse was fourth-round pick Kwon Alexander balling out and gaining the starting spot in the preseason. When Carter was released a year later, it was in the best way (because they had someone better) but still doesn’t look great on the books, especially since the deal he got after he was cut was for one year and not even a $1 million.
Gosder Cherlius was clearly on the decline of his career, and though Tampa got him for a full year as a starter in that first season, that second season of his deal was really rough. A loss, but not too drastic of one, like Carter’s. Henry Melton was on the last year of his career is a fill-in player so though he wasn’t a peak get, he was fine as a signing.
Joe Hawley and Chris Conte were the two best signings from that 2015 season. Conte’s came during free agency and Hawley’s came at the beginning of the season. Hawley ended up playing the most consistent football of his career during his time in Tampa, and for that, Licht gets a positive boost. And as much as fans want to criticize Conte, he’s been his best in Tampa Bay with playing time and production. He was a minor signing who ended up getting another deal, which is another positive.
Overall, Licht’s 2015 free agency class: Still bad, but not as bad. The money guys didn’t end up working out, but their replacement have been really good in Alexander and extending the contract of Demar Dotson. The team still wasn’t good, though, so it’s tough to say it wasn’t sub-par overall.
|24/20||No, but yes|
On the surface, at least percentage-wise this free agent class looked better, but when you dig deeper it still wasn’t anything better than par, if that.
For starters, this is the year the Bucs re-signed running back Doug Martin to a five-year, $35.75 million dollar deal which flopped about as bad as you can with injuries, a suspension and, when on the field, poor play. Licht had his hands tied on that one since Martin was coming off a 1,400-yard rushing year. He was forced to re-sign the Pro Bowl rusher or not give new head coach Dirk Koetter a primary weapon on offense. Licht had his reservations about signing Martin, which is why it came down to the wire, but it still doesn’t look great.
Sweezy, the reason why this is the topic of the Cover 3 this week, signed a massive deal with the Buccaneers in 2016. Sweezy had been a physical, nasty part of a Seahawks line that went to back-to-back Super Bowls, and the desire to get that kind of player in their trenches was an obvious want. But, Sweezy underwent back surgery after he signed with the Buccaneers due to an offseason injury and missed the entire 2016 season because of it. That’s bad luck, and something that is hard to fault Licht for. When he returned in 2017, Sweezy wasn’t the same player. He started 14 games for the Bucs this past season, but appeared to be a shell of his old Seattle self. Now, he’s no longer a Buccaneers, and that contract looks like a total bust.
Grimes, on the other hand, has been Licht’s best signing during his tenure as Bucs general manager. Grimes is a complete alien. I have no idea how he continues to play at such a high level at his age at a position that demands so much athleticism but he does. Grimes has been the best players in the Bucs secondary since he arrived and still is. His contract and extension this past offseason were warranted.
Ayers’ evaluation is a bit tricky. On the surface, you could say that the aging Ayers certainly wasn’t playing his peak football. But, he had a career-high in sacks the year before the Bucs signed him, which never helps the new team in negotiations, and recorded 6.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a safety on the edge in 2016 before being subjected to playing on the worst defensive line in football in 2017. So, was he playing his best ball during the entirety of the deal? No. However I would argue the signing was good; it was the coaches on those around him that let him down.
Overall, Licht’s 2016 free agency class: Not his worst, but big misses with big money yet again.
It didn’t start well and as of this article judging up to 2017 it didn’t end well, either.
Let’s start with DeSean Jackson. Jackson was coming off back-to-back-to-back 1,000-yard season in which he played in more than 10 games (so three out of the previous four years before signing with Tampa Bay). His touchdowns had cooled down since his days in Philadelphia, but Jackson was bringing an element to the Buccaneers offense (and to Jameis Winston) like they could not get anywhere else. Unfortunately, that potential turned out to be anything but. The offense couldn’t figure out how to get Jackson the ball in space and Winston couldn’t figure out how to get Jackson the ball down the field. Has he been worth his deal? No. But, I would argue that is much more on factors outside of his control, to this point.
The other four signings were not worth it no matter how you slice it. Chris Baker may have started 14 games, but was one of the worst defensive tackle in the NFL last year, so much so that the team has already move on from him. And it didn’t help that Baker was lazy and a bit of a cancer within the locker room. J.J. Wilcox signed the biggest deal of his career for Tampa Bay, but didn’t even make it out of training camp, as he was traded to the Steelers.
The reason he was traded was because a supposed upgrade in Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward became available from the Broncos. But a combination of injuries and ignorance in the coaching staff left Ward with the least-productive year he’s had in his career.
And what more do I need to say about kicker Nick Folk? He lost the Patriots game for the Buccaneers and kicked less than 55 percent of his field goal before being released just four games into the season.
Overall, Licht’s 2017 free agency class: Likely, the second-worst free agency class of his tenure, but a few of the players’ poor performances can be placed on the shoulders of a misguided coaching staff.
So, I guess it’s clear to see that Licht’s bread and butter is certainly the draft and not free agency. There are factors that go into each signing that make them good or bad, and often these players are in their late 20’s or early 30’s, so you have to temper some expectations, but the Bucs have been bad because the players haven’t been good and the coaches haven’t been much better. That’s still on Licht’s shoulders any way you slice it.
Plenty of general manager swing big and miss, but Licht needs to start hitting his stride in the free agency market. His philosophy is certainly more towards building in the draft and signing your own (good) players more than going out to get other team’s cast-offs, and though role players will need to be added every year, sometimes you need to make a big splash.
Fortunately, Licht seems to have a knack for finding those role players – perhaps players like defensive linemen Beau Allen, Vinny Curry and Mitch Unrein this year – but big-money free agents still haunt his resume. For the Bucs’ sake, let’s hope that trading for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and making Ryan Jensen one of the highest-paid centers in the league doesn’t end up on the bad side of Licht’s ledger after this season.
The good news for Licht and the Bucs is that some of the players he has acquired through the draft and undrafted free agency, including wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate, have played well enough in Tampa Bay over the years that they just received big-money contract extensions. Several more of Licht’s draft picks, Alexander and offensive linemen Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith, are due to have contract extensions later this summer. Hitting on draft picks is the key to avoiding free agency flops because then a team isn’t forced to turn to free agency to fill holes in the roster created by missing on draft picks.
But one of Tampa Bay’s big-money whiffs that is no longer on the team is Sweezy, and his absence now leaves a hole at the starting right guard spot. We break down a player who is likely to step into that starting role on the next page.