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One position the Tampa Bay Buccaneers must address this offseason is tight end, where Ken Dilger, Rickey Dudley and Dave Moore are each scheduled to become unrestricted free agents and are at least 33 years of age.
While Dilger stayed fairly healthy and put together a solid 2004 campaign (39 catches for 391 yards and three touchdowns), he could opt to retire. However, his agent, Mark Bartelstein, told Pewter Report earlier this week that his client was leaning toward playing next season.
If Dilger decides to play another season, the Bucs would like to have him back, but not necessarily as a starter. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden, who is known for favoring two-tight-end sets, would like to get a younger and more athletic tight end to start. The team doesn’t think Will Heller is the answer, and is no lock to make the team in 2005. His blocking needs plenty of work and he lacks the speed and athleticism to be a dangerous, pass-catching treat. Rookie Nate Lawrie is still too raw to determine his true potential, but his future in the NFL seems to be as a No. 2 tight end at best.
Tampa Bay could find what it is looking for in free agency, where Green Bay tight end Bubba Franks is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 1. While the Bucs like Franks, who has hauled in 28 career touchdowns in a West Coast-style of offense, they don’t think they’ll be able to afford him, especially if he gets offered anywhere near Alge Crumpler-type money (six-year extension with Atlanta worth $27 million and included approximately $9.5 million in guaranteed money).
There are, however, a couple of tight ends the Bucs will take a look at and could come at an affordable price.
New York Jets tight end Anthony Becht will be on the Bucs’ radar screen should he hit the free agent market on March 2. The 6-foot-5, 272-pound Becht is only 27 and has started 72 of the 78 games he’s played in during his five-year career.
Becht has hauled in 133 passes for 1,164 yards and 17 touchdowns, and while those numbers make him an attractive player, his 2004 campaign (13 catches for 100 yards and one touchdown in 16 games) will likely drive down his value in free agency.
Don’t be surprised if new Bucs offensive quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett, who served as Becht’s offensive coordinator in New York, attempts to lure Becht to Tampa Bay, where the Pewter Pirates run a similar style of offense.
The Bucs’ recent efforts to field a talented roster have been hindered by several trades made over the past several years. One of those trades was the one the team made for wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, a deal that cost the Bucs two 2000 first-round draft picks. By signing Becht, the Bucs would in essence recover one of those picks since the Jets used the 27th overall selection in that draft to select Becht out of West Virginia.
Should Becht wind up re-signing with the Jets or landing with another team, the Bucs may take a look at Detroit tight end Stephen Alexander or Denver tight end Jeb Putzier. Both players had productive seasons in West Coast systems in 2004, but could still be had for a fairly reasonable price. Two other options are Arizona’s Freddie Jones, who will likely command a bigger salary than Becht or Putzier, and Green Bay’s David Martin, a former wide receiver who grew into a tight end. While a bit raw, he is athletic and has been in West Coast offense for four years. He could also be a bargain.
If the Raiders release former second-round draft pick Teyo Johnson, expect the Bucs to be interested. General manager Bruce Allen had a hand in drafting Johnson in Oakland three years ago.
The other place the Bucs could turn to in their search for a tight end(s) is the NFL Draft. Virginia junior Heath Miller is the top tight end entering the draft and is projected to be a first-round pick. While Tampa Bay loves Miller, it has several other pressing needs and won’t take him with the fifth pick overall. Even if they traded down, the Bucs might not be willing to invest a first-round pick in Miller, who caught 41 passes for 541 yards (13.2 avg.) and five touchdowns in 2004.
But don’t rule out the possibility of the Bucs taking a tight end on the first day of the draft. Gruden and his coaching staff have been impressed with Stanford tight end Alex Smith, who spent this week at Senior Bowl as a member of the North team.
Smith (6-5, 255) led the Cardinals in receptions last year with 52 for 706 yards (13. 6 avg.) and three touchdowns. He finished his career at Stanford with 107 career receptions and eight touchdowns. Gruden publicly praised Smith this week, and with Gruden’s need for a tight end who has soft hands and can stretch the field, Smith could be a player the Bucs target in April.
“That’s kind of my speciality,” Smith said of stretching the field as a receiver. “I just try to get down the field and open whenever I can. That helps the receivers on the outside with the threat down the middle.”
The fact that Smith played in the West Coast system at Stanford would likely make his transition from college to the pros much easier should the Bucs decide to draft him.
“That’s exactly the same system we were in at Stanford,” Smith said of Gruden’s West Coast-style system. “We were featured a lot and they needed us to control their middle, so that’s definitely something I’d be comfortable with.”
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