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 defensive backs.
BUCS’ PENDING FREE AGENT DEFENSIVE BACKS With the re-signing of Major Wright on Saturday, Leonard Johnson now becomes the only free agent defensive back currently on the Buccaneers roster.
Johnson, a former Iowa State standout from Largo high school, went undrafted in 2012 but quickly signed with his hometown team as a rookie free agent. During mini-camp he impressed coaches enough to get placed with the team’s draft picks on a separate field, and continued to show promise throughout his rookie season. Johnson finished 2012 with 41 tackles and three interceptions, taking one back for a touchdown. After his sophomore campaign in 2013 in which he recorded 62 tackles and one interception, Johnson had to make the transition to the Tampa 2 system that Lovie Smith and company installed last year. He became a rotational player in the nickel position for Tampa Bay, tallying 45 tackles, three forced fumbles and one interception.
WHAT THE BUCS HAVE AT DB For a system that involves more coverage than the average defense, the Buccaneers have solid depth at defensive back. Between cornerback and safety, they currently have 13 players in the secondary on their roster, including Dashon Goldson, Alterraun Verner, Johnthan Banks, Bradley McDougald, Mike Jenkins, Major Wright, Kieth Tandy, Shelton Johnson, Isaiah Frey, C.J. Wilson, Jocquel Skinner, Brandon Dixon and M.D. Jennings.
Dashon Goldson’s future with the team is uncertain. The former 49er has not quite lived up to his five-year, $41 million contract signed in 2013 along with being somewhat out of place in the Tampa 2 scheme. There was question last offseason as to if the new regime would release him like they did Revis, and while they may have considered it; it would’ve been unreasonable given his contract situation. Unlike Revis, Goldson’s 2014 base salary of $9 million was completely guaranteed, thus, it made sense to keep him around at least one more year. Now, he would be owed $8 million for the season with half of it guaranteed. If the Buccaneers decide to cut him, they would save $4 million in 2015. Although Goldson brings veteran leadership to the team, Tampa Bay is looking for more center-field type safeties like Bradley McDougald and Major Wright, than hard-hitting, play in-the-box safeties like Goldson. That said, we should expect the Bucs to choose the option of releasing Goldson and ultimately save the $4 million in cap space.
Alterraun Verner was one of the prized free agents of last March’s opening class, signing a four-year, $25 million deal. Verner’s production dropped from his previous Pro Bowl season in Tennessee, as he finished 2014 with 76 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass break-ups – a category in which he led the league in 2013 – but he continued to improve as the season progressed. Many attributed his early struggles to transitioning into a new defense where he was still getting comfortable. The 26-year old corner is due $4.2 million in 2015 – the lowest base salary of his four-year deal – and should be back starting for the team next season.
Johnthan Banks came on strong last year, notching 50 tackles, four interceptions and 10 pass break-ups. The third-year pro out of Mississippi State is slated to make $1.2 million of his rookie contract this season and will undoubtedly be brought back as the starter opposite Verner in 2015.
Exclusive rights free agent safety Bradley McDougald signed a one-year tender with Tampa Bay on March 5, and unrestricted free agent cornerback Mike Jenkins was also re-signed to a one-year deal. Like Banks, McDougald was another player who finished the season well, showing a great deal of promise towards the future. The Buccaneers claimed him off waivers in November 2013 after he singed as an undrafted free agent with the Chiefs, where he didn’t see the field outside of special teams. Last season he contributed with 50 tackles, seven pass breakups, and his first career interception that came on a one-handed grab against Drew Brees in Week 17. Lovie Smith singled McDougald out after the year as an example of promise towards the team’s future. His biggest endorsement, however, came when the team traded Mark Barron for a fourth and sixth round pick in the 2015 draft. The Kansas product is expected to be a day-one starter at one of the safety positions in 2015.
The Buccaneers struck a two-year deal with veteran safety Major Wright as part of their four-player signing spree on Saturday. The former Gator has experience playing in the Tampa 2, after having spent his first four seasons (2010-2013) in Chicago with Lovie Smith. Last year he totaled 51 tackles over 12 games with seven starts for the Bucs. The coaches like his familiarity with the defense, as well as his role as a mentor to the younger players like Banks and McDougald. There’s a good chance Wright begins the season as a starter, and will at least be involved in the rotation.
Keith Tandy played in 15 games with no starts last season, recording eight sacks and one interception. A former sixth-round pick out of West Virginia in 2012, Tandy is set to make $690,000 during the last year of his rookie contract and should be given a chance to compete for a depth role in 2015.
M.D. Jennings signed with the Buccaneers in January of this year on a one-year, $660,000 contract. A former undrafted player out of Arkansas State in 2011, Jennings spent three seasons in Green Bay where he played in nearly every game, including 16 starts in 2013. He’s most known for being the player that intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass that was later ruled a catch and a touchdown for the Seahawks during the controversial Monday Night game in 2012. After a solid 2013 campaign in Green Bay, Jennings was released and subsequently spent time on the Bears practice squad last year, but never saw the field. Being as the Bucs were quick to sign him after their season ended, it would seem like he at least has a decent shot to compete for a safety position in 2015.
Mike Jenkins was also recently re-signed on a one-year, $1.5 million deal on March 5th. The Tampa native and former first round pick out of USF was once a Pro Bowler in 2009 for the Cowboys. Jenkins has had a decent career up to this point but has been slowed by numerous injuries through the years, most recently a pectoral tear suffered in the first game of 2014 that sent him to the IR. While Johnthan Banks appeared to be the better player anyway, the Bucs clearly value Jenkins to the extent of bringing him back for another year.
Brandon Dixon was a sixth round pick for the Jets in 2014 before joining the Bucs practice squad in September. The 24-year old from Northwest Missouri State showed flashes last year, even recording an interception during one of the 14 games he played. In his March 2nd “Young Buccaneers On The Rise” column, Scott Reynolds listed Dixon as one of the 15 up-and-coming players, alluding to his performances against Brandon Marshall and A.J. Green after the team called upon him to step up with an injury depleted secondary. Dixon is scheduled to make all $510,000 of his base salary in 2015 and will look to be one of the five or six cornerbacks Tampa Bay keeps on their active roster.
The signing of Isaiah Frey back in October was seen as somewhat of an emergency move, while Leonard Johnson was struggling at the nickel spot. The third-year pro had familiarity with Lovie Smith, coming over from Chicago after spending his first season-and-a-half with the Bears. Last year while playing in eight games and no starts, the 6-foot-0, 190-pound corner recorded just 15 tackles and one pass break-up for the Bucs. With all of the recent re-signings, combined with the draft’s outlook at nickel cornerback, it seems unlikely that Tampa Bay will bring back Frey at his $585,000 salary next season.
Rounding out the Bucs last three players in the secondary are C.J. Wilson, Jocquel Skinner and Shelton Johnson. Wilson, 25, saw action in two games for the Bucs after being promoted from the practice quad to the active roster in November. The former undrafted NC State product also spent brief time on the Bears practice squad in 2013. Skinner, 22, is a St. Pete native that played in college at Bethel University before going undrafted. He signed a future contract with Tampa Bay in January 2015. Lastly Johnson, 24, went undrafted out of Wisconsin in 2013 before signing with Oakland, where he would play in four games for the Raiders. All three players account for a combined $1.7 million with none guaranteed in 2015. They’ll likely be competing for a spot on the practice squad.
WHAT THE BUCS NEED AT DB Even with the looming decision to release Dashon Goldson, along with the uncertainty at nickel cornerback, it’s not likely that the Buccaneers will use free agency to fill said roles. When it comes to the latter position, the league is continuing to prove – even beyond the days of Ronde Barber and Charles Tillman – that the nickel corner is a unique enough position to find in the middle rounds of the draft. That’s best evidenced by Philadelphia’s Brandon Boykin, who was a fourth round pick and Denver’s Chris Harris Jr., who went undrafted. This year’s draft class is pretty deep, and smaller-statured nickel corners don’t get selected high. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Buccaneers spend one of their many mid-round picks on their future nickelback. As for safety, the Tampa 2 requires a unique player at that spot, too; one that can drop in deep coverage and understand their assignment. There are some impending free agents that have familiarity in the Tampa 2 and could be of good value to the Buccaneers.
BUCS’ BEST BETS 1. Kansas City S Ron Parker As PewterReport.com wrote on Saturday, the Bucs have reportedly shown interest in Chiefs safety Ron Parker, via NFLTradeRumors.com. After going undrafted out of Newberry in 2011, Parker bounced around to multiple teams before finding a home in Kansas City in 2013. Over the past two seasons, the 6-0, 200-pound safety has played in 31 games, starting 15 in 2014. Last year he totaled 94 tackles, one interception, one sack and one forced fumble. Parker, 27, made $645,000 in 2014 and even though he won’t demand top dollar, it’s almost certain that he won’t return to the Chiefs as they currently sit $1.6 million over the cap.
2. Chicago S Chris Conte On Saturday Conte, 26, confirmed himself that he will not be returning to Chicago in 2015. A former third-round pick out of Cal for the Bears in 2011, the 6-foot-2, 203-pound safety has ties to Lovie Smith and familiarity playing in his defense, which could make the Bucs more inclined to sign him. He would come relatively cheap too, as past injuries could keep teams away. In 2014 he missed 4 games completely and left another seven due to various ailments. However, when playing Conte contributed with an impressive three interceptions and three pass deflections. Last season he made $1.5 million and will likely command a similar amount in 2015.
3. Philadelphia S Nate Allen A Fort Myers native, the former USF Bull might be willing to give the Bucs a hometown discount. Allen, who fits the mold of a Tampa 2 safety, appears to be one of the casualties of the Chip Kelly era in Philadelphia. The former second-round pick has started nearly every game since being drafted in 2010 and last season recorded 62 tackles, four interceptions and five pass deflections. Allen, 27, made $1.2 million in 2014, and although he’s had his struggles in Philly, he could be a suitable fit in Tampa at a reasonable amount.
4. Buffalo S Da’Norris Searcy Searcy, 26, has been a solid player for the Bills since being drafted in the fourth round of 2011. Last season he played in 15 games, starting in 13 with 65 tackles, three interceptions and five pass break-ups. With Rex Ryan implementing his own system, many Bills could be on their way out of Buffalo, and Searcy is reportedly drawing a number of team’s interest, including Oakland who has a lot of cap space. In 2014 Searcy made $1.5 million, but will probably make a lot more in 2015.
5. Denver S Rahim Moore Another player who’s drawing a great deal of interest is Bronco’s safety Rahim Moore, 25. A former second round pick out of UCLA in 2011, Moore has an impressive 20 career pass break-ups and eight interceptions, proving his instincts and ability in coverage. After suffering a bad leg injury in 2013, he came back strong, starting all 16 games in 2014 while recording four interceptions and five deflections. Last year he made $1.4 million, and will likely command around $5 million in 2015.
TOP 5 DEFENSIVE BACKS IN 2015 FREE AGENCY 1. New England S Devin McCourty (re-signed with Patriots) General consensus is that McCourty, 27, is the best defensive back of the 2015 free agent class. The former Rutgers Scarlet Knight has had a great career up this point, including two trips to the Pro Bowl. Last season he made $5.2 million. Now, coming off a Super Bowl victory it’s certain that he’ll get a big payday at the start of free agency. Reports say that New England is still working to retain their high-prized safety.
2. Seattle CB Byron Maxwell Another member of the Legion of Boom looks poised to be heading out of Seattle. Byron Maxwell, 27, enters his fifth season out Clemson in 2015, after improving every year. Teams could be wary that his production is a result of those around him, but nevertheless, someone – if not Seattle – will overpay and give the former sixth round pick a hefty raise. On Sunday ESPN’s Josina Anderson reported that Maxwell said during an interview, “I’m going to Philly.”
3. Arizona CB Antonio Cromartie Four years ago Cromartie looked like he could be a fit for Tampa Bay, but now, the 30-year old safety from FSU doesn’t seem like a possibility. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound athletic corner made $4 million last season on a one-year deal and appears to be on his way out of Arizona. He’s expressed interest in returning to the Jets who have a lot of cap room in 2015.
4. Denver S Rahim Moore As previously noted, Moore’s 20 career pass break-ups and eight interceptions speak to his ability in coverage. Although, he was the man responsible for letting Jacoby Jones get by him on Flacco’s hail marry in the 2012 divisional round. Nevertheless, at 6-foot-1, 195 Moore has the size and stats to command a pricy contract in 2015.
5. Cleveland CB Buster Skrine Skrine, 25, is coming off his best season in 2014, starting all 16 games and recording 67 tackles with four interceptions. He had a particularly impressive 18 pass break-ups on the year. A former fifth round pick in 2011 out of Chattanooga, Skrine made $1.4 million in 2014. He already has a large market of teams interested, but if the Bucs want to go the free agency route for a nickel corner, then the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Skrine could be a good fit.
Zach is entering his 3rd year covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a writer for PewterReport.com. Since 2014, he's handled a large part of the beat reporting responsibilities at PR, attending all media gatherings and publishing and promoting content daily. Zach is a native of Sarasota, FL, and a graduate of the University of Tampa. He has also covered high school football for the Tampa Tribune and the NFL for Pro Player Insiders.
Contact him at: email@example.com