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Free agency news has been a bit slow, but Pewter Report editor-in-chief Scott Reynolds and I are busy putting together the Pewter Report Draft Preview, which will be mailed in the second week of April.

Reynolds is tied up watching draft tape and busy putting together what is arguably Pewter Report’s most popular issue of the year, which means a new SR’s Fab Five column won’t be available until sometime next week.

That said, I’ve decided to use this installment of Flynn’s Focus to touch on a number of topics that Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans have been inquiring about.

ARE THE BUCS INTERESTED IN WR MOULDS?
Several teams have expressed interest in acquiring Buffalo Bills wide receiver Eric Moulds, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren’t one of them.

Moulds, 32, wants out of Buffalo and has been given permission by the Bills to seek a trade with another team.

The more likely scenario will have Buffalo eventually releasing Moulds, who has a $10.85 million salary cap value in 2006. The Bills have asked Moulds to restructure his deal several times, but to no avail.

Several teams, including Denver, Houston and Philadelphia, are interested in Moulds, but Moulds’ personal advisor, Greg Johnson, recently told Pewter Report that Tampa Bay wasn’t among the teams interested in his client.

“No, not yet,” Johnson said when asked if the Bucs had expressed interest in Moulds. “I don’t think they will, but you never know.”

So why hasn’t Tampa Bay expressed some sort of interest in the three-time Pro Bowler? The Bucs are, after all, the same team that was rumored to be interested in acquiring Terrell Owens before the former Philadelphia Eagle landed in Dallas.

Tampa Bay is also the same team that threw its name into the hat in the bid for St. Louis WR Isaac Bruce before he re-signed with the Rams. The Bucs also brought free agent wide receivers Marc Boerigter (Kansas City), Tim Carter (New York Giants) and Kevin Johnson (Detroit) in for visits earlier in the offseason.

The salary cap obviously is one of the main reasons for the Bucs’ lack of interest in Moulds. The Bucs are approximately $10 million under the league-mandated salary cap, and Moulds’ current cap value exceeds that amount.

Plus, that $10 million figure is a bit inflated seeing as the Bucs will need to set aside approximately $5 million to sign their 2006 draft picks in July.

Moulds’ age (he turns 33 in July) also has something to do with it. Although Moulds still is productive, the Bucs already have two 30-something receivers in Joey Galloway (34) and Ike Hilliard (30).

Although they still could draft a wide receiver in April, it appears as though Tampa Bay is banking on the receivers that are already on its roster.

That means the Bucs are counting on Galloway staying healthy throughout the entire 2006 season just as he did in 2005.

It also means the team is depending on third-year WR Michael Clayton to return to his rookie form after an injury-plagued sophomore season, and for WR Ike Hilliard, who re-signed with the Bucs for four years a few weeks ago, to come up big again on first downs as the team’s number three receiver.

The Bucs also are hoping at least one of their younger receivers – Edell Shepherd, Mark Jones, Larry Brackins, Paris Warren or J.R. Russell – will emerge as a consistent and reliable contributor next season.

Some might view Tampa Bay’s decision to bank on its current group of wide receivers as a gamble. The jury obviously still is out and judgment won’t and shouldn’t be passed until a later date. But in the meantime, what is quite clear is the fact that the Bucs won’t be banking or gambling on Moulds in 2006.

WOODSON COULD BE QUITE A VALUE FOR BUCS
Why are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers interested in signing Oakland Raiders free agent cornerback Charles Woodson?

That’s a question a lot of Bucs fans have been asking themselves and each other ever since the 1998 first-round draft pick visited One Buc Place on March 24, and understandably so.

After all, the Bucs have cornerbacks Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly and Juran Bolden under contract for the 2006 season. They also have more pressing needs at other positions, particularly along their offensive line.

But if you take a closer look at the situation, one will quickly see why Tampa Bay is so interested in signing Woodson.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Woodson is versatile. He can play cornerback or safety. The Bucs lost starting free safety Dexter Jackson to the Bengals in free agency, and although they’re high on third-year S Will Allen, who started eight games in 2005, Woodson is a player the Bucs feel could push Allen for the starting job.

If nothing else, Woodson would provide Tampa Bay’s defensive backfield with an insurance policy for Allen and strong safety Jermaine Phillips, whom suffered injuries last season.

The insurance policy would cover more than Tampa Bay’s safety positions. Woodson would also give the Bucs some more options at cornerback.

Barber, who turns 31 next month, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2007, and both Kelly and Bolden are 30 and 31, respectively.

Although there haven’t been any rumblings regarding a potential holdout by Barber or Kelly this offseason, that was not the case last year when both players’ names were rumored to be possible holdouts.

If one or even both of those players do choose to sit out in an effort to get new contracts, Woodson, although unproven in the Tampa 2 scheme, would give the Bucs some leverage in that regard.

Tampa Bay plays a lot of nickel defense, and Bolden solidified the nickel corner job last season. But the Bucs are just one injury away from having their defense, which ranked 6th against the pass in 2005, shaken up, just as it was in 2003 after Kelly was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.

At 29, Woodson would give the Bucs veteran talent beyond Barber, Kelly and Bolden, and would prevent Tampa Bay from having to rely on young, unproven CBs like Blue Adams, Torrie Cox and James Patrick should an injury occur.

Woodson probably won’t come cheap, especially when considering the Green Bay Packers also are interested in signing him. But like any insurance policy, it pays to have a good one, especially when disaster strikes. So who will land the free agent defensive back?

The Packers have more money to spend, but the Bucs appear to have two things going for them in their bid for Woodson – the fact that he was drafted by head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen in Oakland and now has a chance to be reunited with them in Tampa Bay, and Woodson’s interest in the city nightlife (Tampa definitely has the edge over Green Bay in this particular area).

Those two factors, along with the opportunity to resurrect his career in Tampa just as players like quarterback Brian Griese and defensive tackle Chris Hovan have successfully done, likely make the Bucs the leading candidates to land Woodson.

TIMING OF QUARLES’ RESTRUCTURE COULDN’T HAVE BEEN BETTER
No one should have been surprised to learn earlier this week that Tampa Bay middle linebacker Shelton Quarles restructured his contract. However, the timing of this move was a bit curious, but after further review, it couldn’t have been better.

Quarles, 34, who is under contract with Tampa Bay through the 2007 season, was scheduled to have base salaries of $3.1 million ($5.075 million cap value) and $3.750 million ($5.825 million cap value) in 2006 and 2007, respectively.

The latest numbers from the NFL Players Association show that Quarles’ base salaries for the next two seasons were reduced to $1.3 million, which created a significant amount of cap room for the Bucs.

The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Quarles was scheduled to receive a $400,000 and $500,000 roster bonus in 2006 and 2007, respectively. While he took a significant decrease in pay, Quarles’ reworked deal included some guaranteed money.

So why didn’t the Bucs restructure Quarles’ contract earlier in the offseason like they did Derrick Brooks, Anthony Becht, Michael Pittman, Anthony McFarland and John Wade? The Bucs could have used the millions freed by up Quarles’ restructured deal a few weeks ago when they were outbid for free agent tackles Tom Ashworth and Jason Fabini.

While reworking Quarles’ deal earlier would have been ideal, Bucs general manager Bruce Allen’s timing likely bought he and the team leverage in determining how much of a pay cut Quarles was going to take.

Although he led the Bucs defense with 196 tackles last season, Quarles turns 35 in September, and with the free agent signing period well under way, most teams have already spent the majority of their free-agent dollars to fill needs on both sides of the ball. That, along with the fact that second-year LB Barrett Ruud is waiting in the wings as Quarles’ successor, forced the 10th-year linebacker’s hand.

Of course, the fact that Brooks, a nine-time Pro Bowler, took a massive pay cut for the team earlier in the offseason, set a precedent for other veteran players, who believe the Bucs aren’t that far away from competing for another Super Bowl.

Taking a pay cut wasn’t all bad for Quarles. He’s still earning over $1 million per season, he’ll be playing for a playoff-caliber team in 2006 and he’ll likely have the opportunity to retire with the same team he entered the league with back in 1997, which is a rare feat for any player.

Allen’s timing on restructuring Quarles’ deal couldn’t have been better, and that timing could once again pay off down the road if and when Allen needs more money to work with.

If the Bucs need to free up more cap room, players like DL Ellis Wyms ($3.250 million cap value) and DE Greg Spires ($3.467 million cap value) could find themselves in the same situation as Quarles did when he decided it would be best to stay in Tampa Bay, even if it meant taking a pay cut.

The money freed up by Quarles’ reworked deal likely will help the Bucs pursue a couple of free agents, including CB Charles Woodson and T Mike Pearson, but it also will help the team sign their 2006 draft picks in July.

Tampa Bay’s defense finished the 2005 season ranked No. 1 overall in the NFL. By reworking the contracts of Brooks, McFarland and Quarles, the Bucs defense is now affordable, too.

WHY HAS TAMPA BAY BEEN CONSERVATIVE IN FREE AGENCY?
Some fans want to know why the Bucs haven’t been more active in free agency.

Well, the Bucs haven’t necessarily been inactive. They’ve simply opted to spend their money on their own players instead of bringing in a bunch of new ones, which would run the risk of disrupting the great chemistry that helped the Bucs go 11-5 and win the NFC South division championship last season.

Instead of spending millions on big-time names that could be big-time busts, just as tackles Todd Steussie and Derrick Deese, and running back Charlie Garner proved to be, the Bucs have re-signed several of their own free agents, including FB Mike Alstott, K Matt Bryant, CB Juran Bolden, DT Chris Hovan, WR Ike Hilliard and QB Chris Simms.

Tampa Bay has retained 21 of its 22 starters on offense and defense, with safety Dexter Jackson being the only Bucs starter to get away in free agency. That’s almost unheard of in this day and age free agency and the salary cap.

It’s hard to argue with this philosophy as teams that spend the most amount of money on players aren’t guaranteed anything. In fact, the last three Super Bowl champions (Pittsburgh, New England and Tampa Bay), didn’t necessarily have the league’s best players on paper.

But what they did have in common was team chemistry, which can’t be underrated. After suffering through a few years of lost and blown draft picks, which forced Tampa Bay to sign dozens of free agents each offseason, the Bucs have taken advantage of the opportunity to keep their playoff team intact.

The Bucs are approximately $10 million under the NFL-mandated salary cap, but they’re in no hurry to spend that money. About $5 million needs to be set aside for their 2006 draft picks, and the other $5 million will only be spent on players that are worth signing.

Tampa Bay has met with several free agents this offseason, but it has signed just one from another team – guard Toniu Fonoti, and he signed for close to league minimum.

Just because the Bucs have money to spend doesn’t mean they’re going to spend it, especially this year. This hasn’t been the best class of free agent players. In fact, one Bucs official made it clear that there wasn’t a whole lot to choose from in free agency this offseason.

“You’re looking for the cream of the crap because there’s not a whole lot out there,” the Bucs official told Pewter Report just before free agency began in March.

That’s right — crap, not crop. This year’s free agent class has not been very good in terms of talent.

Tampa Bay’s biggest needs have been along its offensive line, but free agency hasn’t offered much in terms of significant upgrades at the guard and tackle positions.

The Bucs met with tackles Brad Hopkins (Tennessee), Tom Ashworth (New England), Jason Fabini (New York Jets) and Mike Pearson (Jacksonville) a few weeks ago.

While they engaged in contract negotiations with Ashworth and Fabini’s agents, the Bucs opted to allow those two players to sign elsewhere.

Fabini, who would have competed for Tampa Bay’s starting left tackle job, signed a three-year, $4.5 million deal with Dallas, according to the Cowboys’ official website. The contract included a $1.75 million signing bonus and could be worth as much as $7.5 million with escalators.

Ashworth, who would have replaced Kenyatta Walker as Tampa Bay’s starting right tackle, signed a five-year, $13 million contract that included a signing bonus and base salary totaling $4.5 million in 2006, according to SeattlePI.com.

The Bucs need to upgrade both tackle positions, but they aren’t willing to overpay to do it, just as they mistakenly did in 2004 when they signed Todd Steussie and Derrick Deese to long-term, lucrative contracts that neither player lived up to.

Spending millions on free agents can have some benefits, but it’s also a dangerous game. As much as Allen has been raked over the coals for signing Steussie and Deese, he and the Bucs could be perceived as victims seeing as those two players arguably were the two best available free agent offensive linemen in 2004.

The Bucs even took a buyer beware approach to bringing back Walker, who re-signed for five years with the Bucs shortly after Ashworth signed with the Seahawks.

Walker’s base salaries are $700,000 (2006), $1.95 million (2007), $4.35 million (2008), $4.55 million (2009) and $4.95 million (2010), which means his deal was set up in a way that would allow the Bucs to part ways with the former first-round pick as early as the 2007 offseason without taking too much of a cap hit.

The Bucs may still use the $10 million they have available in cap room. They may not. But just because a team has money to spend doesn’t mean they should use it, especially if it means overpaying for a free agent(s) that may or may not pan out.

Rest assured – the Bucs’ $10 million in available cap room won’t be wasted. Tampa Bay could still sign some free agents, including CB Charles Woodson or T Mike Pearson, or perhaps a player that becomes available after June 1.

There’s also the possibility that the Bucs could use available cap room to extend the contracts of some of their own players, including cornerback Ronde Barber, guard Sean Mahan punter Josh Bidwell and quarterback Chris Simms, all of whom are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in 2007.



This story is intended to be read by PewterInsider subscribers only. Sharing of the PI content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers. Be sure to read the latest issue of Pewter Report on-line in PDF format on PewterReport.com.

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