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One of the deepest positions in the 2008 free agent-to-be class is tight end.
Although a lot can happen between now and March of 2008, there potentially could be several big-name tight ends that test the market next year, which is good news for the Buccaneers, who are scheduled to be approximately $30 million under the salary cap.
Take a look at some of the free agents-to-be at the tight end position in ’08:
TE Dallas Clark (Indianapolis) – UFA
TE Kris Wilson (Kansas City) – UFA
TE Eric Johnson (New Orleans) – UFA
TE L.J. Smith (Philadelphia) – UFA
TE Ben Troupe (Tennessee) – UFA
TE Chris Cooley (Washington) – UFA
At first glance, some might ask why the Buccaneers would be in the market for a tight end next year? They do, after all, have Alex Smith, a 2005 third-round draft pick, and Anthony Becht under contract next season.
But while Smith is under contract through the 2009 season, the final two years remaining on Becht’s deal are actually voidable on a performance clause.
Becht, who turns 30 in August, has established himself as a blocking tight end with the Buccaneers, but he has yet to prove himself in the passing game due to a lack of opportunities.
If Becht’s contract does indeed void, the Bucs will almost certainly be in the market for at least one tight end in ’08. That’s because two more Bucs tight ends – Jerramy Stevens and Keith Heinrich, who can also long snap, are scheduled to become UFAs.
Tampa Bay's 2007 sixth-round draft pick, TE T.J. Williams, will be hard pressed to make the team this year after missing all of his rookie season due to a torn Achilles tendon. He has yet to practice with the team in the OTAs, but is expected to participate in training camp.
Perhaps the most intriguing prospect on this particular free agent-to-be list is Cooley, who has hauled in 165 career passes for 1,822 yards and 19 touchdowns during his three-year career.
But the Redskins won’t let the 6-foot-3, 265-pound Cooley hit free agency without a fight. In fact, some believe Washington would be willing to use the franchise tag on the former third-round pick in an effort to keep him around and off the market.
Clark is also a solid player and would pique Tampa Bay’s interest. The former first-round pick has caught 121 passes for 1,618 yards and 14 touchdowns since entering the league in 2003.
But Clark (6-3, 252) might not be in a big hurry to leave Indy. The team’s offense has helped Clark succeed and establish himself as one of the better players at his position. Some teams might be willing to overpay Clark if he becomes available, but he might actually be willing to accept less to stay put in Indy.
One of the players the Bucs have their eye on is Wilson. Although he lacks ideal height, Wilson (6-2, 251) possesses impressive speed, route-running ability and hands in the passing game.
Wilson excelled in those areas at Pittsburgh, which helped him get drafted by the Chiefs in the second round of the 2004 draft. However, Wilson has had trouble working his way into the rotation since the Chiefs still have TE Tony Gonzalez. Kansas City has even played Wilson at fullback in an effort to get him on the field.
As a result, Wilson has caught just 18 passes for 165 yards and three touchdowns in two seasons.
The Bucs like Wilson’s versatility, and if he hits the free agent market consider them interested. They liked him coming out of college several years ago.
However, the Bucs do fear there might be one or more teams willing to overpay for his services. Tampa Bay likes Wilson, but it is not willing to overpay to get him. Plus, he might not be too anxious to sign with the Bucs and play behind or alongside Alex Smith after spending years behind Gonzalez.
Troupe, Johnson and Smith are all decent players.
Troupe (6-4, 260), a former first-round pick, has somewhat underachieved in Tennessee but he’s still considered a talented player, evidenced by his 101 career catches and seven touchdowns.
Smith (6-3, 258) would be a player the Bucs would take a hard look at. He’s caught 172 career passes for 1,991 yards and 14 touchdowns since 2003. Smith is also well versed in Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense, which would help accelerate his learning curve in Tampa Bay. He also played with Bucs QB Jeff Garcia last year, and Garcia may be called upon to do some heavy recruiting.
Johnson (6-3, 256) is a tremendous receiver, but he needs to work on his blocking and find a way to stay healthy. He’ll have the opportunity to prove that in New Orleans this year, but he's been banged up a lot during his NFL career.
Although all of these players could be considered intriguing prospects, Tampa Bay is quietly hoping Becht sticks around for another season or two, and Stevens stays out of trouble and re-establishes himself as one of the NFL’s better tight ends. That could earn Stevens a long-term contract from the Bucs.
But even if Becht’s contract voids and Stevens proves that he isn’t worth re-signing, the Bucs should have plenty of options at the tight end position in free agency in ’08.
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