NFL free agency begins on March 7 when teams are allowed to talk to agents prior to March 10 when players can actually be signed to contracts. PewterReport.com examines the Buccaneers’ 2015 free agency plans and previews some of the positions that are the biggest area of need in Tampa Bay. Today we take a look at the offensive line.
BUCS’ PENDING FREE AGENT OL
Tampa Bay has just one free agent, Oniel Cousins, who is slated to become an unrestricted free agent. Cousins was brought in last season on a one-year veteran minimum salary and was inconsistent and likely won’t be back with the Bucs.
WHAT THE BUCS HAVE AT OL
Tampa Bay brought in Cousins, Anthony Collins, Evan Dietrich last year in free agency with mixed results. Collins was a bust and has earned a ticket out of town with his inconsistent play, and frustrating the staff with his rehab of an injury late in the season. The Bucs traded for left guard Logan Mankins right before the start of the season and he played well at times, but not to the Pro Bowl level he did while in New England. Part of that was due to arriving just a week before the regular season and having little time to acclimate himself to the Florida heat and humidity after spending his career playing for the Patriots. An offseason in Tampa Bay is expected to help improve his play and conditioning.
Dietrich-Smith was average at best, but like Mankins, the Bucs feel 2015 will be a better year for the former Packers center. Demar Dotson is expected to get the starting nod heading into offseason workouts at the left tackle position where he started the final three games of the season filling in for Collins.
Patrick Omameh will be back, but the team is looking to upgrade at the guard position and he will be fighting for a roster spot along with Josh Allen and Garrett Gilkey who also played guard at times for the Bucs in 2014 and will likely be released this offseason. Second-year guard Kadeem Edwards spent the last month of 2014 on injured reserve and Tampa Bay has hopes that Edwards is further along the learning curve in 2015.
Kevin Pamphile may get first crack at replacing Dotson at the right tackle position after getting some game action late last season. Matt Patchan spent part of 2014 on the practice squad and the Bucs are eager to see if another offseason helps him develop into at least a serviceable backup. The Bucs also have former USF Bull Jeremiah Warren on the roster as well but he will face a tough battle to stick in 2015.
WHAT THE BUCS NEED AT OL
After giving up 52 sacks in 2104 – third worst in the NFL – the Bucs need their three main starters to perform at a higher level, while also finding a starting-caliber right guard and a right tackle. Tampa Bay also needs to improve the overall depth across the line and fans can expect a lot of new faces on the roster when training camp begins in late July.
With the Buccaneers expected to draft a quarterback in April’s NFL Draft, it will be crucial that they get the offensive line playing at a much higher level. Protecting the new Bucs’ passer will go a long way in determining the success of whoever is under center for the Buccaneers in 2015. Tampa Bay also needs to run the ball with more consistency this year to provide the balanced attack that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will strive to bring to Raymond James Stadium next fall.
BUCS’ BEST BETS 1. San Francisco G Mike Iupati
The Bucs have already been burned with high-dollar free agent guards like Carl Nicks, but with it being a major weakness on the team, the Buccaneers know they must find an impact starter to play guard opposite of Mankins. Iupati has made the Pro Bowl the last three seasons and played well for a dysfunctional San Francisco organization in 2014. While he is good in pass protection and very physical in run blocking, Iupati does struggle in pass protection with quicker defensive tackles. Still, Iupati may get a call from Tampa Bay early in free agency but they will be bidding against a number of other teams.
2. Denver G-OT Orlando Franklin
At 6-foot-7, 320 pounds, Franklin is probably better suited to play right tackle than right guard, which should make him more attractive to Tampa Bay. With Dotson moving to the left side, Franklin could slide right in at right tackle, or as he proved last season, be a very effective guard. Franklin, just 27 years old, had a number of penalties at guard last season but was very solid in pass protection giving up few sacks, and also helping the Broncos run game, excelling with his run blocking skills.
3. Green Bay OT Brian Bulaga
Bulaga was a former first round pick of the Packers in 2010 and became the youngest player to start in a Super Bowl that year. Bulaga has yet to make a Pro Bowl and isn’t the same caliber of some of the NFL’s top tackles, but excels in both run and pass blocking and will command a lot of attention on the the free agent market. The former Hawkeye has played both left and right tackle in the NFL, something that makes him attractive to the Buccaneers.
4. St. Louis OT Joseph Barksdale
Barksdale isn’t a household name and isn’t even the best right tackle available in free agency, but also won’t break the bank for the Buccaneers if they choose to look at the former LSU product. After being drafted by the Raiders in 2011, Barksdale struggled in Oakland and was released just prior to the 2012 season where he was signed by the Rams and has started 31 games. With good size, (6-5, 326) Barksdale was very good at run blocking for Jeff Fisher’s squad, but needs to improve his pass blocking technique.
5. Eagles G Todd Herremanns
Released by the Eagles after 10 seasons, the 32-year old lineman is a big, physical run blocker at 6-foot-6, 321 pounds. Herremanns was drafted by the Eagles when Bucs general manager Jason Licht was in Philadelphia’s personnel department. Herremanns has battled injuries throughout his career, but has had a nice run since 2012 and has experience at right guard and right tackle where he could help Tampa Bay.
TOP 5 OFFENSIVE LINEMEN IN 2015 FREE AGENCY
1. Denver G Orlando Franklin
Franklin is rated higher by some teams than even Iupati due to his versatility. With three years starting experience at right tackle, and an outstanding first season as a guard with the Broncos, Franklin is a potential future Pro Bowler. The Broncos are allowing Franklin to walk not because of performance, but instead because of the new blocking scheme being implemented by Gary Kubiak. Franklin will most likely command a contract in the $6-7 million per season range on the open market.
2. San Francisco G Mike Iupati
The 49ers would like to keep Iupati, but contract talks have been sparse, according to reports out of San Francisco. It appears the 49ers are prepared to lose Iupati, and even drafted a potential replacement last year in Brandon Thomas. Iupati, along with Franklin, will be the most sought-after offensive linemen when free agency begins next Tuesday. While his pass blocking skills aren’t the best at his position in the NFC, no one argues his road-paving run blocking style will make him an attractive player for teams looking to improve their offensive line.
3. Green Bay OT Brian Bulaga
Bulaga isn’t a star player but is a dependable, steady performer who did a good job of keeping Packers QB Aaron Rodgers upright over the last five seasons. The former Iowa standout is wanted by the Packers, but Green Bay didn’t use the franchise tag on Bulaga, something the Packers haven’t used since 2010. If he makes it to free agency expect a number of teams bid for his service, including the Giants, who are rumored to be interested in the 26-year old.
4. Oakland C Stefen Wisniewski Wisniewski played well for the Raiders after taking over at center in 2012, but most likely will sign with another team if he makes it to free agency on March 10. Wisniewski and Chiefs center Rodney Hudson are both viewed as the top two centers in free agency, and ironically there is talk in Oakland that Hudson will replace Wisniewski. The Raiders have more than enough cap room to sign Wisniewski but may let him test the free agent waters where he may end up getting paid well due to his flexibility to play both guard and center.
5. Cowboys OT Doug Free
Free’s career in Dallas has been interesting as the Cowboy standout right tackle went from being a bubble player a couple years ago, to being one of the better players on an excellent offensive line in Dallas. Free missed some time with ankle injuries in 2014 but is expected to not have any lingering issues going forward. But at age 31, teams will have to decide how many more productive years the former Northern Illinois standout has left. Unfortunately for Dallas, the Cowboys have a number of other pressing free agents to take care of first.
Mark Cook currently is the director of editorial content and Bucs beat writer and has written for PewterReport.com since 2011. Cook has followed the Buccaneers since 1977 when he first began watching football with his Dad and is fond of the 1979 Bucs team that came within 10 points of going to a Super Bowl. His favorite Bucs game is still the 1979 divisional playoff win 24-17 over the Eagles. In his spare time Cook enjoys playing guitar, fishing, the beach and family time.Cook is a native of Pinecrest in Eastern Hillsborough County and has written for numerous publications including the Tampa Tribune, In the Field and Ya'll Magazine. Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org