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Tampa Bay made a point to address its need for tight ends this offseason, and it appears as though the Bucs were successful in doing just that.
Tight end Anthony Becht, who had been with the team since 2005, signed with the St. Louis Rams in free agency.
Part of Becht's decision to sign with the Rams was based on Tampa Bay inking Chicago Bears free agent TE John Gilmore in free agency. Like Becht, Gilmore is considered a blocking tight end, but some in the organization feel Gilmore is a bit more athletic and has been better hands than Becht.
Tampa Bay didn't stop with Gilmore. The Bucs landed competition for TE Alex Smith, who caught a career-low 32 passes for 385 yards and three touchdowns in 2007, by inking Tennessee Titans free agent TE Ben Troupe.
Troupe is considered an athletic tight end and is at his best in the passing game. He struggled early in terms of digesting head coach Jon Gruden's playbook, but Troupe made a lot of progress over the last month of organized team activities and during the three-day mandatory mini-camp.
The fact that Gilmore and Troupe still are attempting to learn the playbook prompted the Bucs to re-sign TE Jerramy Stevens, who caught 18 passes for 189 yards and led the team's tight ends in touchdown receptions with four despite playing sparingly in 2007.
But Stevens' pass-catching ability came with a huge public relations backlash from fans that did not want Stevens on the team due to his troubled past, which included an alleged rape that never brought about criminal charges while he played at Washington.
The Bucs appear to be set on the idea of keeping four tight ends on their 53-man roster, including Stevens, evidenced by how much Stevens was featured in Tampa Bay's offense this offseason.
Smith, Troupe and Gilmore are under contract with the Bucs for the 2009 season. They're also young. Gilmore is the team's oldest tight end, and he turns 30 in Sept. of '09.
Stevens signed a one-year contract worth league minimum, but if he stays out of trouble and performs well the Bucs likely would give serious consideration to re-signing him again in '09.
Tampa Bay has a talented stable of tight ends. This group, which currently includes Smith, Troupe, Gilmore, Stevens, Daniel Fells and Tyrice Thompson, is made up of one former first-round draft pick, one former second-round selection and one former third-round draft pick.
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden likes to feature plenty of two- and three-tight end sets in his version of the West Coast offense, so the four tight ends on Tampa Bay's 53-man roster likely will see significant playing time.
However, there's always a chance the Bucs could be interested in landing another veteran tight end when 2009 rolls around. Here is a list of the tight ends that are scheduled to become free agents next year.
Billy Bajema (6-4, 258) San Francisco Dwayne Blakely (257) Tennessee Mark Bruener (6-4, 260) Houston Mark Campbell (6-6, 260) New Orleans Darnell Dinkins (6-4, 259) Cleveland Bubba Franks (6-6, 265) New York Jets Will Heller (6-6, 270) Seattle Eric Johnson (6-3, 256) New Orleans Jim Kleinsasser (6-3, 274) Minnesota Nate Lawrie (6-7, 256) Cincinnati John Owens (6-3, 255) Detroit Richard Owens (6-4, 273) St. Louis Justin Peele (6-4, 255) Miami Bret Pierce (6-5, 263) Denver Marcus Pollard (6-3, 255) New England Jeb Putzier (6-4, 256) Seattle Sean Ryan (6-5, 255) Miami Bo Scaife (6-3, 249) Tennessee L.J. Smith (6-3, 258) Philadelphia Jerramy Stevens (6-7, 260) Tampa Bay Tony Stewart (6-5, 258) Oakland Fred Wakefield (6-7, 295) Oakland Daniel Wilcox (6-1, 245) Baltimore
The Bucs definitely picked a good year to address their tight end position based on the list of players scheduled to hit the free agent market next year. It's certainly not overflowing with talent.
The one player on this list that the Bucs could have an eye on is Philadelphia TE L.J. Smith, who was scheduled to become a free agent this year before the Eagles placed the franchise tag on him.
Smith, 28, is well versed in the West Coast offense and he's one heck of a receiving threat. He's caught 194 career passes for 2,227 yards and 15 touchdowns for the Eagles.
If Smith performs well in 2009 and the Eagles allow him to hit free agency, Tampa Bay could be interested, especially if Alex Smith does not turn in a better year than the one had in 2007.
The other player to keep an eye on is New York Giants TE Jeremy Shockey. He is not scheduled to become a free agent and is signed with the Giants through 2011.
However, Shockey was the subject of several trade rumors this offseason due to the emergence of TE Kevin Boss during the Giants' playoff and Super Bowl run.
The Bucs had some internal discussions about trying to create a package to offer the Giants in exchange for Shockey around the draft, which was before Tampa Bay had re-signed Stevens.
Sources told Pewter Report that the Giants weren't actively shopping Shockey, but that the team was willing to entertain trade offers and actually part ways with Shockey if the compensation involved at least a first-round pick.
After some consideration, the Bucs moved on as they felt the Giants were asking too much for Shockey. That ultimately led to Tampa Bay's decision to re-sign Stevens.
Shockey, 27, has caught 371 passes for 4,228 yards and 27 touchdowns with the Giants since entering the NFL as a first-round pick in 2002.
While he's under contract with the Giants for several more seasons, Shockey's base salary is scheduled to jump from $1.9 million in 2008 to $3.025 million in 2009.
If Boss turns in another solid year, there's a chance the Giants could entertain trade offers for Shockey again during the '09 offseason. And if they do, don't be surprised if the Bucs show some sort of interest in acquiring Shockey.
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