Copyright PewterReport.com 2008

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ first signing of the 2008 NFL free agency period was a big one as former New Orleans center Jeff Faine was given a six-year deal, $37.5 million that includes $15 million in guaranteed money, according to the NFL Network. Faine will reportedly earn $20 million over the first three years of the deal.

By virtue of some extra cash in the final year of his deal, Faine does become the highest paid center in the NFL as this deal tops the six-year, $36 million contract of former Saints center LeCharles Bentley, who also received $12 million in guaranteed money. In 2006, Bentley replaced Faine in Cleveland and Faine replaced Bentley in New Orleans.

Sources tell PewterReport.com that Faine took less money to come to Tampa Bay and had slightly better offers elsewhere in free agency. The price for centers is rising in the NFL. Aside from Bentley’s deal in 2006, Al Johnson cashed in on a four-year $17.5 million contract last year that was less than the six-year, $30 million contract that Andre Gurode received in 2007.

Faine’s backup in New Orleans, 29-year old Jonathan Goodwin, just signed a three-year deal on February 27 that will pay him an average of $2.75 million. Goodwin has only started 15 games in his six-year career.

Still, an average of $6.25 million is a lot of money anyway you slice it. We’ll see how Faine’s deal breaks down in a couple of days, but his first year cap value could make him the highest paid Buccaneer on the roster. Right now, left tackle Luke Petitgout has a cap value of $4.921 million that tops the team in 2008, followed by quarterback Jeff Garcia’s $4.5 million cap value.

Simply put, center was one of Tampa Bay's most pressing needs with the departure of John Wade in free agency as he was the team's starting center from 2003-07, and the Bucs were desperate to fill the position. But I wouldn't necessarily call this a desperation signing.

The team paid top dollar for Faine, but they did not get sucked in to a bidding war for his services where they would be forced to overpay for him. The Bucs made a very fair offer right off the bat to entice Faine to come aboard without him wanting or needing to see a bidding war erupt.

So what kind of player did the Buccaneers get in Faine? He’s young at age 26, but Faine is a veteran who has been a five-year starter in the NFL. At 6-foot-3, 291 Faine isn’t as big as his predecessor, but he is more agile.

I spent about half an hour sitting next to Jon Gruden and talking about the Bucs’ offseason plans in the stands of Ladd-Peebles Stadium at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. We talked about centers and he said he needed someone who could “make the call and deliver the ball” just like Wade could. But he also said that the Bucs haven’t had a center who could trap linebackers on the second level of the defense, get out and pull and get downfield on screen passes since Jeff Christy was the anchor of Tampa Bay’s line in 2002.

Although Christy was undersized, he was very mobile and possessed great quickness. Think of Faine as a cross between Wade and Christy. Faine isn’t a Pro Bowler, and may never be one, but Tampa Bay loves his athleticism and his aggressiveness. He's not a dominant run blocker, but he's good enough in the run game. In fact, Faine's strength may be in his pass protection.

“I think Jeff is one of the better centers in the league,” Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan, who went against Faine twice a year in the NFC South over the past two seasons, told PewterReport.com. “He really started playing well when he got to New Orleans. Jeff is a compact guy who is really agile. He’s good at bumping the nose and getting into the Mike and the Will linebackers at the second level. He’s smart. He can call protections, especially when he sees blitzes. He’s smart in the sense that he’s the quarterback of the offensive line and he’s been there, done that. We’re glad to have him. I think he’s a key addition for us in the offseason. He’s tough and he’ll scrap with you the whole game. I think we have a great, young nucleus on our offensive line with Davin Joseph, Arron Sears, Jeremy Trueblood, Donald Penn and Luke Petitgout. I think he’s a good fit for what Coach Gruden wants to do.”

The addition of Faine solidifies the interior of Tampa Bay’s offensive line for at least the next three seasons. Faine, Sears, who starts at left guard, and Joseph, who starts at right guard, are all under contract together through 2010. It’s also a blow to division rival New Orleans, which gave up the fewest number of sacks in the NFL over the past two years (34) despite having the most pass attempts in the league.

“This is going to be hard for New Orleans,” Hovan said. “He was the key to that offensive line. It was a top offensive line and we knew we had to break out the big boy pads when we were playing New Orleans. Now he’s helping us out. That’s the way free agency can work sometimes and we’re glad he’s a Buccaneer.

“He and Jamaal Brown and Jamar Nesbit did a great job for that offensive line. They had a really good offensive line when they were together. Free agency comes and goes and some guys get taken care of. It’s nice to see that we took care of him.”

YOUTH GONE WILD
A quick glance at the players the Buccaneers have had interest in since the start of free agency on Friday, February 29 – center Jeff Faine (26), linebacker Niko Koutouvides (26), wide receiver Devery Henderson (25), cornerback Randall Gay (25), cornerback Drayton Florence (27), cornerback Jacques Reeves (25), defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson (27), tight end John Gilmore (28), tight end Ben Troupe (25) and offensive tackle Kwame Harris (25) – reveals that this team is looking for young, talented players. With an emphasis on the word “young.”

There are no Derrick Deeses, no Todd Steussies and no Charlie Garners in the group of players Tampa Bay is pursuing. Heck, there is not even a Jeff Garcia or Luke Petitgout-type player.

Tampa Bay is looking for experienced players who appear to be ready for a change of scenery or ready to step out of someone else’s shadow on their former team. Last year, the signing of fullback B.J. Askew, who was a reserve with the New York Jets, drew yawns from most Bucs fans until they saw his blocking prowess in the preseason. Unheralded Chicago tight end John Gilmore, who is known more for his run blocking, may be this year’s Askew.

In 2007, Tampa Bay witnessed a third-string running back in Earnest Graham wind up leading the Buccaneers in rushing yards (898) and touchdowns (10), while a camp fodder defensive end named Greg White wound up leading the team in sacks (eight) and forced fumbles (seven). It appears as if general manager Bruce Allen and pro personnel director Mark Dominik are targeting younger players who are hungry and eager to make a name for themselves in the NFL instead of getting into bidding wars for older, more established quick fixes, such as former Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler (30) and ex-Falcons defensive tackle Rod Coleman (31), who come with much higher price tags.

Allen proved last year that just because he has tens of millions of dollars in excess cap room doesn’t mean he’s going to spend it just to spend it. Allen was patient and extremely conservative last year with the highest signing bonus he paid out being $3 million – and that went to both Garcia and Petitgout.

Allen’s patience paid off when Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker Cato June received less interest than he expected and the Bucs saw his price begin to fall. Several weeks into free agency, Allen and senior assistant Kevin Demoff swooped in and got June for a very affordable deal. The Bucs could be taking the same wait-and-see approach with other veterans on the free agent market in 2008.

TOP FREE AGENTS TOO EXPENSIVE RIGHT NOW
The Buccaneers like former Bengals defensive end Justin Smith, former Bears linebacker Lance Briggs and former Steelers guard Alan Faneca. They just don’t like their asking price. I don’t know exactly what Smith was asking for, but it appeared to be a king’s ransom that only San Francisco was willing to pay.

Tampa Bay loved Smith, but they weren't even thinking about him until his price dropped – but it never did. There appeared to be a market for the Bengals’ former first-rounder because there aren’t many quality defensive ends in this free agent class.

The 31-year old Faneca was asking for $40 million over five years with $24 million over the first three years and $21 million guaranteed. Tampa Bay was contemplating signing him, but then would have to shift Arron Sears to center to make way for Faneca. The Bucs like what Sears did as a rookie at the left guard spot and he has not played center in the NFL before. By signing Jeff Faine, Tampa Bay got a natural center that is five years younger, it gets to keep Sears at left guard and save $6 million in guaranteed money.

Briggs wants Adalius Thomas money. That means a contract that pays approximately $22 million over the first two seasons and includes a signing bonus somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 million. Adding Briggs means the Buccaneers would likely have to release Derrick Brooks and the team does not want to do that.

There have been reports on ESPN stating that Briggs visited with Tampa Bay on Friday. Those reports are inaccurate. Briggs did not meet with the Buccaneers on Friday, nor is there a visit scheduled any time soon. It appears as if Briggs' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, is attempting to create interest for a client that is receiving very little interest because of his asking price.

The contract demands of former San Diego cornerback Drayton Florence may prevent him from becoming a Buccaneer, sources tell PewterReport.com. Florence, who visited with Tampa Bay and Jacksonville on Friday, is asking for close to $6 million per season. The Bucs weren’t about to get involved in the $10 million per year sweepstakes that Asante Samuel was involved in with Philadelphia, and they aren’t sure if Florence is worth that much.

Tampa Bay wouldn’t mind paying $6 million for a cornerback, but Florence is a good, but not great corner and there is a draft class loaded at cornerback coming up around the corner in April.

Meanwhile, cornerback Randall Gay, formerly of the New England Patriots, is scheduled to visit Tampa Bay on Monday after a stop in New Orleans. His asking price is more palatable – between $2.5 million and $4 million.

The Bucs wouldn’t be opposed to signing both Florence and Gay if the price was right for each player. In two years, Ronde Barber will be 35 years old and Phillip Buchanon’s contract will have expired, leaving Barber and Torrie Cox as the only veterean corners under contract in 2010.

WHY WILKERSON?
Don’t be surprised to see former Kansas City defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson sign with Tampa Bay. The Bucs like the fact that Wilkerson has good size to play the run at 6-foot-2, 290 pounds and he’s versatile. He can play either defensive end position and he can also play under tackle, too.

Wilkerson is not a great pass rusher, evidenced by his one career sack in five years in the NFL, but he does possess good quickness. Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has traditionally had a player or two on the roster that has great position flexibility to play inside at tackle and outside at end. In the 1990s it was Tyoka Jackson. In the early 2000s it was Ellis Wyms. Over the last two years it has been Dewayne White and Kevin Carter.

WIDE OPEN IN THE DRAFT
The Buccaneers had former Saints wide receiver Devery Henderson at One Buccaneer Place for a visit on Friday. Team officials classify the meeting as a good one and Tampa Bay is clearly intrigued by Henderson’s blazing speed, which is in the 4.3 range.

Henderson owns an eye-opening, 20.2-yard receiving average over his four-year NFL career as he has hauled in 74 passes for 1,497 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. However, he has not emerged as a 16-game starter in any season and has been plagued by drops in New Orleans. Henderson seems to make the difficult catch look easy, as he demonstrated last December against the Bucs on an over-the-shoulder 54-yard touchdown right before halftime, but struggles to catch the routine pass.

If you have noticed, the Bucs have had little interest in D.J. Hackett, Bryant Johnson and Donte` Stallworth and have stayed out of the bidding war for Bernard Berian. It’s early, but it looks like Tampa Bay may be prepared to select a wide receiver in the early rounds of the 2008 NFL Draft.

MORE FREE AGENCY VISITS
Keep track of all of the Tampa Bay's visits that PewterReport.com has been able to confirm on the Bucs Free Agency Tracker on the PewterReport.com message boards.

LATEST PEWTERREPORT.COM FREE AGENCY HEADLINES
Faine Officially A Buc

Bucs Express Interest In OT Harris

TE Troupe To Visit Bucs On Saturday

Henderson To Visit Bucs

TE Gilmore To Sign With Bucs

Bucs Attempting To Line Up Visits With Douglas, Moore

Bucs Want To Meet With CB Florence On Friday

Bucs To Visit With DE Wilkerson

Bucs Interested In Hackett Among Other FAs

Bucs Close To Signing C Faine

MLB Koutouvides To Visit Bucs Friday

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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