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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have more salary cap room (approximately $55 million) than any other team in the NFL heading into free agency, which starts at midnight on Friday.
That's a drastic change compared to where the Bucs stood from a cap standpoint only a few years ago when the team had cap overages of anywhere between $13 million and $20-plus million.
Former Bucs general manager Bruce Allen and senior assistant Kevin Demoff helped get Tampa Bay out of cap hell and into the position the Bucs are in today. Unfortunately for them, neither Allen nor Demoff will reap the benefits of Tampa Bay's extraordinary amount of cap room since Allen was fired in January and Demoff has since accepted a promotion with the St. Louis Rams.
Now new Bucs general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris are charged with the task of deciding how to invest Tampa Bay's millions worth of cap room.
Bucs fans shouldn't expect Tampa Bay to embark on a wild spending spree in free agency. The Bucs have been frugal in their approach to free agency over the last few years, passing on bigger names and banking on less expensive players.
Don't expect Dominik to waver far from the frugal approach implemented by Allen and Demoff. That strategy has paid off several times (see Antonio Bryant) from a cap standpoint, but the team also has nothing to show for it in playoffs, where the Bucs haven't won a game since 2003.
The Bucs will be players in free agency, but they may back out of negotiations for players like Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth if the bidding war with other teams gets out of hand.
Tampa Bay fans are looking for something to wash the taste of a second straight 9-7 season and December collapse out of their mouths, and signing a player like Haynesworth could go a long way in doing that, not to mention the size and playmaking ability he would add to new defensive coordinator Jim Bates' unit.
If the Bucs pass on Haynesworth, a portion of the team's fan base likely will be miffed, and understandably so. For years, Tampa Bay has passed on big-name free agents because of legitimate salary cap woes. Now the Bucs are millions removed from cap problems. The Bucs have more cap room than any team in the league, and Haynesworth is easily the best player available in free agency.
So what excuse could Tampa Bay have for not signing Haynesworth? The only guess here is Dominik and Morris could feel Haynesworth is looking to cash a big check in free agency and then check out on the football field, or ownership simply isn't willing to front the cash for this particular investment.
Before the Bucs enter the bidding war for Haynesworth and other players, Tampa Bay has a few important decisions to make on its own personnel. Dominik has already moved quickly to re-sign quarterback Luke McCown and defensive tackle Ryan Sims, and franchise Bryant. Amazingly, the Bucs have about $55 million in cap room after making these transactions.
But Tampa Bay's tremendous amount of salary cap room doesn't necessarily make it immune to cap casualties. Not that the Bucs need more cap room, but the team is scheduled to pay several players significant roster bonuses and can avoid doing so by releasing them before the first day of the new league year.
The Bucs don't typically release a player unless they feel that player does not have a future in Tampa Bay, whether that is because the team signed another player to replace him or that player is scheduled to earn too much money.
While the Bucs don't have to release any players, the following players are ones to keep an eye in the coming days due to the roster bonuses they are scheduled to receive. Should they release two or more of these players (depending on who they are), the Bucs could free up enough cap room to be $60-plus million under the cap when free agency starts on Friday morning.
RB Warrick Dunn – At 34, Dunn is no longer in his prime or capable of being the full-time running back Tampa Bay may need at times due to Cadillac Williams' knee injury and rehab. Dunn is scheduled to earn a base salary of $2.5 million in 2009, which is the final year of his contract. He is also due a $500,000 roster bonus, which the Bucs can avoid paying by releasing him. Dunn is a good leader and character guy, and one thing that could help him is the fact that new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski was part of a staff that coached Dunn when he was a Pro Bowler in Atlanta. However, if the Bucs target a free agent running back and feel they need to free up cap room and a roster spot to accomplish that goal, Dunn could be out.
WR Joey Galloway – New Bucs offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski claims he can find a way to get Antonio Bryant and Galloway on the field at the same time, something former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said he couldn't do on a consistent basis. Jagodzinski will have a tough time doing that if the Bucs release Galloway, who had just 18 catches in 2008 and carries a $3.5 million salary cap value ($2 million base salary) and is scheduled to earn a $250,000 roster bonus. Galloway has scored 28 touchdowns for the Bucs since 2004, but age might be catching up with this speedster. With Tampa Bay in the market for a wide receiver in free agency and/or the draft, the Bucs could see more value in freeing up Galloway's salary than putting him back on the football field again in 2009.
QB Brian Griese – Tampa Bay has three quarterbacks under contract, and Griese is one of them. He has, by far, the most amount of starts of any quarterback on the Bucs' roster, but he also isn't considered the long-term solution at that position. Griese is familiar with the offensive scheme Jeff Jagodzinski is implementing in Tampa Bay, which could help him compete with Luke McCown for the starting job. However, if the Bucs don't feel Griese will be a valuable asset in 2009 they could release or trade him and his $1.8 million salary cap value and contract, which calls for him to receive a $300,000 roster bonus.
WR Ike Hilliard – Jon Gruden loved Hilliard, especially on third downs, but Jeff Jagodzinski has no loyalty to him. Hilliard has scored eight touchdowns for the Bucs, but has averaged less than 10 yards per reception in three of his four seasons with Tampa Bay. That's not the type of explosive production Jagodzinski is looking for in his receivers. Hilliard turns 33 in April and is scheduled to have a $1.3 million cap value and earn a $200,000 roster bonus, which the Bucs can avoid paying by releasing him. The Bucs could choose not to do that due to Hilliard's intelligence and the fact that Tampa Bay WR Michael Clayton is scheduled to become a free agent.
LB Cato June – Perhaps Tampa Bay's biggest decision when it comes to paying roster bonuses will involve June, who has served as the Bucs' starting strongside linebacker over the past two seasons. June is scheduled to earn a $1 million base salary, but he is also set to receive a $2 million roster bonus, which would match the $3 million salary 11-time Pro Bowl LB Derrick Brooks is scheduled to receive this year. The Bucs invested a 2007 third-round draft pick in Quincy Black with plans of him eventually starting at the Sam linebacker spot. Whether the Bucs feel Black is ready, or they want to pursue a free agent linebacker like Atlanta's Michael Boley, the team can avoid paying June the $2 million roster bonus by releasing or trading him.
C Sean Mahan – Mahan isn't due a roster bonus, but he does carry a $3.175 million base salary, which is the 11th-highest of any Bucs player in 2009. It could be difficult for the Bucs to justify Mahan's salary since he is not a starter along the offensive line. Tampa Bay could leave his contact alone since he is versatile enough to play guard and center and has significant starting experience, but the Bucs could also approach Mahan about restructuring his contract, and if he refuses to rework his deal Mahan could be released or traded by the Bucs.