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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are anxiously awaiting the start of the free agent signing period, which is scheduled to begin on March 2.

The Bucs, who produced a dismal 4-12 record last season, currently have $24 million to spend in free agency. They’ll look to use that cap room to sign impact players that can add both competition and depth to Tampa Bay’s roster.

The Buccaneers have faced three straight years of cap overages – some as high as $19 million – so this is the first time since general manager Bruce Allen has been in Tampa Bay that the Buccaneers actually have the opportunity to be a serious player in free agency.

But some question Allen and Bucs head coach Jon Gruden’s ability to spend the available cap room wisely.

The duo, which was quite successful together in Oakland, has produced a 20-28 regular season record since Allen’s arrival in 2004. That overall record includes two losing seasons (5-11 and 4-12), but it also includes the 11-5 record the Bucs posted en route to winning the NFC South division championship in 2005.

Although Tampa Bay has had some serious salary cap challenges since winning Super Bowl XXXVII, it has still managed to sign players in free agency.

Allen and his staff have been extremely creative in terms of structuring contracts that have allowed the Bucs to lure a few big-name free agents to Tampa Bay, and for what the team could afford to pay them. Some of the cap room has also been created by releasing players, too.

Some of Allen's contracts have turned out to be bargains while others have turned out to be busts. Pewter Report uses this installment of Flynn’s Focus to review Allen and Gruden’s track record in free agency on a year-by-year basis, starting with 2004.

2004 OFFSEASON
Allen attempted to make a splash in free agency in his first year with the Buccaneers by signing a few established veterans to long-term, lucrative contracts. Instead, those players turned out to be well past their prime, and it didn’t take them long to drown in Tampa Bay.

Allen signed tackle Derrick Deese, running back Charlie Garner and tackle Todd Steussie to deals that included approximately $10 million worth of signing bonuses.

Those signings weren’t completely reckless as the Bucs needed a veteran running back since they lost Thomas Jones to the Chicago Bears in free agency and were in danger of losing starting halfback Michael Pittman to jail and suspension. Garner had a proven track record in Oakland, but he unfortunately suffered a torn patellar tendon in Week 3, which sidelined him for the season and eventually his career.

Deese and Steussie were added to help improve Tampa Bay’s struggling running game. Like Garner, Deese was coming off of an injury from the previous season, which made signing him a bit risky.

While he was healthy, Steussie was moved from the left to the right tackle position, which turned out to be a strategic mistake as Steussie had spent his entire career playing at left tackle before signing with the Bucs. Steussie struggled mightily at the right tackle position before being benched in favor of Kenyatta Walker in Week 5.

Although Deese and Steussie didn’t pan out in Tampa Bay, those two players were two of the bigger names that were available in terms of veteran offensive linemen in 2004. At the time, signing them to long-term deals made sense, but it didn’t take long to learn that those signings weren’t going to amount to much more than expensive mistakes.

Allen and Gruden also added a pair of less expensive guards in Matt Stinchcomb and Matt O'Dwyer, both of whom were expected to start. O'Dwyer tore his pectoral muscle weightlifting before training camp and Stinchcomb later succumbed to injury, too. Neither player had much of an impact in Tampa Bay, but those mistakes weren't as costly as signing Deese and Steussie.

To make matters worse, Tampa Bay had allowed Jones to leave for Chicago and defensive tackle Warren Sapp to sign with Oakland in free agency. The Bucs also released safety John Lynch, who had not passed his physical with the Buccaneers due to a neck injury he had suffered the previous season.

Former Bucs G.M. Rich McKay’s decision to sign DT Booger McFarland to a long-term deal that included a $9 million signing bonus forced the Bucs to allow Sapp to walk, and releasing Lynch freed up over $4.5 million in much-needed cap room. But the Bucs didn’t put that money to good use that year, and Lynch turned out to be a healthy and productive player in Denver.

Allen signed several players to one-year contracts worth close to league minimum, but not many of them panned out. The list included O'Dwyer and Stinchcomb, running back Brandon Bennett, linebacker Keith Burns, fullback Greg Comella, cornerback Mario Edwards, quarterback Jason Garrett, linebacker Jeff Gooch, defensive tackle Lamar King, cornerback Tom Knight, O’Dwyer and defensive tackle Darrell Russell.

But Allen didn’t completely strike out that year in free agency.

The Bucs had several key pick ups, including punter Josh Bidwell, linebacker Ian Gold, quarterback Brian Griese and tight end/long snapper Dave Moore.

Bidwell had a solid outing as a punter. Gold was extremely productive while notching well over 100 tackles as the strongside linebacker. Griese eventually worked his way into the starting lineup. Moore was a consistent and reliable long snapper.

Still, the Buccaneers produced a 5-11 record while finishing in last place in the NFC South division in 2004, which means they failed to improve their team in free agency. In the pass-fail world of the NFL, Allen and Gruden failed in their first foray into free agency together in Tampa Bay due to the 5-11 record.

Perhaps the saving grace from Allen and Gruden’s outing in free agency was the trade they pulled off with Dallas that sent disgruntled wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson to the Cowboys in exchange for WR Joey Galloway, who struggled with injuries in 2004, but has since been Tampa Bay’s most dangerous and productive weapon on offense.
 
2005 OFFSEASON
With post-Super Bowl contracts and the deals executed for Deese, Garner and Steussie catching up with Bucs, Allen treaded carefully into free agency in 2005.

Tampa Bay parted ways with O’Dwyer, Burns, Deese, Garner, guard Cosey Coleman, cornerback Corey Ivy and wide receiver Charles Lee. The Bucs also released Steussie, but he was later re-signed to a one-year deal worth league minimum due to injuries.

The Buccaneers also had to release quarterback Brad Johnson, who was playing poorly and had a contract that was too expensive for the team to keep.

However, cap restraints also forced the Bucs to lose some productive players, including defensive back Dwight Smith and defensive tackle Chartric Darby. Although he was signed to a long-term deal by Allen, Gold’s contract was structured more like a one-year deal, and the Bucs couldn’t afford to keep him onboard. That, along with the fact that Gold wanted to play at his natural position on the weak side, where Derrick Brooks was starting, prompted the Bucs to release Gold.

But the Bucs’ strategy paid off. Tampa Bay’s front office did a tremendous job of spending what little cap money it had by luring players who were looking to re-establish themselves in the NFL.

The Bucs signed cornerback Juran Bolden, kicker Matt Bryant, wide receiver Ike Hilliard and defensive tackle Chris Hovan to one-year contracts worth the league minimum.

Allen also signed tight end Anthony Becht to a favorable contract that included a $200,000 signing bonus, and inked punt returner Mark Jones, safety Blue Adams and linebacker Wesly Mallard to inexpensive deals to bolster Tampa Bay's special teams.

Those free agent signings played an integral role in helping the Bucs improve from 5-11 to 11-5 en route to winning the NFC South division championship and returning to the playoffs for the first time since they won the Super Bowl. One would have to suggest that the free agency moves made by Allen and Gruden helped propel the team into the playoffs as NFC South champs.

2006 OFFSEASON
Due to more cap restraints, Tampa Bay had to release Griese in a cap maneuver. It also had to allow fullback Jameel Cook, Jackson and Steussie to go in free agency.

But the Bucs were fortunate to only lose Griese as they were well above $19 million over the cap at the start of the offseason. However, Allen managed to convince several players, including Brooks, Becht, McFarland, running back Michael Pittman and center John Wade to restructure their contracts, which freed up a significant amount of cap room.

Tampa Bay used most of the limited cap funds it had to keep its NFC South championship team intact, re-signing Bryant, Bolden, Hovan, Hilliard, Walker, fullback Mike Alstott and quarterback Chris Simms. In August, the Bucs signed Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber to a long-term contract that kept him off the free agent market this offseason.

The team also inked wide receiver David Boston, linebacker Antoine Cash, guard Toniu Fonoti, tackle Cornell Green and linebacker Jamie Winborn to contracts, and picked up cornerback Phillip Buchanon off waivers during the season. With the exception of Winborn’s long-term deal, those players earned league minimum in ’06.

In addition to those moves, the Bucs made two trades, sending a 2007 sixth-round pick to the New York Jets in exchange for tight end Doug Jolley, who never really made an impact last season.

But Tampa Bay's biggest cap casualty turned out to be a costly one as the Bucs had serious problems at the quarterback position, where Simms and quarterback Luke McCown were injured, and rookie sixth-round pick Bruce Gradkowski struggled as a starter before being replaced by Tim Rattay.

With Tampa Bay producing a disappointing 4-12 record in 2006, the highlight of the season might have come when the Bucs also traded McFarland to Indianapolis in exchange for the Colts’ 2007 second-round pick. And in December, Allen signed Simms, Bidwell and running back Earnest Graham to contract extensions.

While Allen and Gruden tried to make the right moves, they ultimately failed as the team's dismal 4-12 record shows. Their limited signings could not overcome the Bucs' injuries and age on defense, which contributed to their losing season.

OVERALL
Allen and Gruden have definitely had some mixed results in free agency. Now that the Bucs are out of cap hell, but in some trouble on the field as a team, evidenced by their three losing seasons over the last four years, they can’t afford to make mistakes like they did with Garner, Steussie and Deese.

To their credit, Allen and Gruden at times made the best of a bad situation by luring some talented players to Tampa Bay for bargain basement prices while doing a decent job of re-signing their own free agents.

It wasn’t easy for the Bucs to shop at the dollar store for several offseasons. But now that Allen has put the Bucs in a position to shop wherever they want this offseason, the question that will soon be answered is: will he and the Bucs make the most of 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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