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The 2009 Bucs offseason is about to begin with free agency approaching in under three weeks and the NFL scouting combine about 10 days away. While transitioning to a new front office and coaching staff to lead the Buccaneers, meetings have been taking place at One Buc Place to chart a path for winning on the field this season and in years to come. With that in mind, this PI Quick Hits will put forward a plan for improving the roster in March, April, and May.
1. START WITH QB
Tampa Bay has addressed the quarterback position with band-aid type players ever since the franchise decided to go in a different direction from Trent Dilfer in the 1999 season. The problem that the franchise faces right now is there are no clear long-term answers available.
The Buccaneers also need to change the type of quarterback they are targeting. They no longer need West Coast quarterbacks that excel in the short-to-intermediate part of the field. Under new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, the Bucs will be implementing a more vertical offense that will require the quarterback to have the ability to complete passes downfield.
The top free agent quarterback, New England’s Matt Cassel, was given the franchise tag, and outside of him all the other free agent quarterbacks do not have the resumé to assure teams they can lead them to wins. The NFL Draft this year does not boast a strong quarterback class, and none of the quarterbacks are especially appealing.
The Buccaneers have their in house option of backup quarterback Luke McCown to consider. After speaking with sources, McCown is thought highly of by the new Bucs front office and the team is going to make a push to re-sign him. Re-signing McCown will take the promise of at least being in a fair competition to be the starting quarterback next season.
McCown has some strong supporters at One Buc Place, and had his detractors as well. Former head coach Jon Gruden was not a big McCown guy. Former quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett was. In his limited amount of playing time, McCown has proven to have all of the physical traits to be a successful NFL quarterback. He has a strong arm, good size, good durability, and good athleticism to make plays with his legs. With the success he had in spot duty during the 2007 season, and the amount of time the organization has spent developing him, McCown deserves a shot to be the starting quarterback and lead the team.
After re-signing McCown, the next step in the plan would be to sign another veteran quarterback that has some upside and will not cost a huge contract. In this plan that player would be Pittsburgh quarterback Byron Leftwich. His one-year with the Steelers saw Leftwich play well completing 21-of-36 attempts (58.3 percent) for 303 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 104.3. Leftwich (6-5, 250) has the arm to complete passes deep downfield, and is still 29.
Having McCown and Leftwich compete for the starting quarterback job would insure the Bucs of having a strong-armed quarterback that could be good fits in the offense this year, and possibly for seasons to come, as both are under 30 years old.
Holdover quarterbacks Brian Griese and Josh Johnson should also be allowed to compete. Of this group, Griese is probably the most misfit for the new offense. While Griese has a lot of experience in the NFL (83 starts0 he has never led a team to the playoffs and will be 34 in March. Griese had a lot of fans among the staff that was dismissed after the 2008 season, so he could be a candidate to be released at the end of training camp. The other three quarterbacks have more upside.
Johnson has a similar skill set to McCown with a strong arm and good athletic ability. He deserves another set of offseason workouts and training camp to develop and fight for playing time. There are other problems and challenges that Johnson will have to face this offseason. Sources have told Pewter Report that Johnson’s prospects were hurt severely by the coaching change. Johnson has been a West Coast offense quarterback through college and last season. That aided his pro development, and now he has to learn a completely different style of offense. That is a challenge for any pro quarterback, but it is magnified with a second-year player. Also, the new offensive staff didn't choose Johnson as a player to develop, so it will be easier for them to decide to go a different route.
The first phase of this offseason plan would be to re-sign McCown, sign Leftwich, and allow them to compete for the starting position. Johnson deserves more time to develop, and Griese is good insurance in case there is an injury in training camp or the preseason.
2. DEFENSIVE LINE IS CRITICAL
After quarterback, the biggest need to address on the Tampa Bay roster is the defensive line. The team has to improve the pass rush, and it has to do so at defensive tackle and defensive end. The rumblings from sources at One Buc Place, and outside the organization are that the Bucs will be making one splash signing this offseason.
The best and most logical of those would be Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. Unlike elite defensive ends Julius Peppers and Terrell Suggs, Haynesworth cannot be restricted with the franchise tag. The All-Pro tackle has been unhappy with the negotiations with Tennessee and at this time it looks like he will hit the open market in free agency despite saying his first choice is to re-sign with the Titans. The Bucs will pursue him, and he would be a perfect fit for the Bucs needs.
Tampa Bay needs to get more interior pass rush. All throughout 2008 quarterbacks had the ability to step up in the pocket because the defensive tackles rarely could apply pressure up the middle. Haynesworth has that ability, and showed it last season with 8.5 sacks. He also wrecks havoc on opponents' rushing attacks by bursting through the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball. His power and speed combination are dominant, and he is the best defensive tackle in the NFL.
Signing Haynesworth would greatly aid the pass rush production of the Buccaneers defensive ends, but the Buccaneers could use more talented pass rushing ends. After signing Haynesworth it is not feasible to also sign Peppers or Suggs if they are available, thus the move to acquire a pass rushing defensive end would come in the first-round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
Last week’s PI Quick Hits detailed the most likely of the first-round defensive ends to land in Tampa Bay, and that player was Northern Illinois’ Larry English. He has a great repertoire of pass rushing moves that he combines with great speed and a non-stop motor. Rotating him, Gaines Adams, and Greg White would allow the Buccaneers to have a deep, healthy trio of pass rushers. The presence of Haynesworth on the inside would drastically improve Adams and White. Adding talents like Haynesworth and English would make the front four very formidable.
3. BOLSTER WIDE RECEIVERS
If the Bucs cannot sign wide receiver Antonio Bryant to a contract extension he could easily be secured for next season with the franchise tag. Bryant’s combination of size and speed and will make him a good fit in just about any offense, including the new one implemented by Jagodzinski. It will be important for Tampa Bay to retain its best offensive weapon from the 2008 season. Franchising Bryant for the 2009 season would be part of this 2009 plan.
After Bryant there is not much top-shelf talent available at wide receiver on the free agent marketplace. With that in mind, part of this plan would include signing wide receiver Michael Clayton. While he is not the best fit for the new passing offense, he is a great fit for the Bucs zone blocking scheme. That style of offense requires wide receiver to hit blocks on the perimeter and on the back end of running plays to create lanes for cutbacks. Clayton would also give the Buccaneers a receiver who can work the underneath part of the field, and after going vertical repeatedly; shorter routes should be wide open.
Outside of Bryant and Clayton, there are some good options of affordable receivers that could be diamonds in the rough signings for Tampa Bay. That was the case with Bryant, and could be with the signing of Detroit Lions wide receiver Shaun McDonald.
In the 2007 season in Mike Martz downfield passing offense, McDonald snagged 79 passes for 943 yards and six touchdowns. Last season in Detroit, McDonald’s production dropped to 35 receptions for 332 yards and one touchdown. The Lions had issues all over the field, and especially at quarterback in route to going 0-16. McDonald (5-10, 183) has good speed that he uses to gain separation and get open downfield. At 27, McDonald is still in the prime years of his career, and he could challenge the Bucs holdover wide receivers to start opposite Bryant.
The other move to strengthen the wide receiving corps would be to draft Ole Miss wide receiver Mike Wallace in the third round of the draft. Wallace averaged 20 yards per catch his senior season, and is an explosive playmaker that is a threat to score a touchdown every time he touches the football. Wallace (6-0, 189) does a great job of pulling away from defensive backs and getting open downfield. He could be a great spot duty contributor as a rookie, and potential starter.
With Bryant, McDonald, and Wallace the Buccaneers would have three wide receivers that are good fits for a vertical offense. Clayton would give them an underneath receiver and standout blocker. The holdovers of Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard, Maurice Stovall, and Dexter Jackson could compete for the remaining spots and all of those players could be contributors or released.
4. FORTIFY SECONDARY
With the defensive line revamped with a splash free agent and a number one draft pick, the only other unit on the defense that needs to be fortified is the secondary. The Buccaneers could do that by re-signing two of their starters that are going to be free agents, safety Jermaine Phillips and cornerback Phillip Buchanon.
Both players have been productive Buccaneers over the past two seasons. Phillips and his backup Sabby Piscitelli have been derailed somewhat by injuries over the past two seasons, so keeping both would protect the team and insure quality depth for next season.
Buchanon turned his career around with the Buccaneers, and has been a solid starter at cornerback over the past two seasons. After the Oakland Raiders' Nmandi Asomugha, Buchanon is the best free agent cornerback. Re-signing Buchanon also yields continuity in the secondary. Re-signing Buchanon to be the starting left cornerback would cause a few other moves in the secondary.
Cornerback Aqib Talib finished the season strong, and some believe he was the best cornerback by the end of the season. Talib has to be a starter next season, and the contract it will take to re-sign Buchanon will be substantial, so he could not be signed to that contract and then placed in the nickel cornerback role. With Buchanon at left corner, Talib would be the starter at right corner. Bucs great Ronde Barber would move to the nickel corner position, but would also provide great depth if either of the starters were to go down with injury. Cornerback Elbert Mack played well last season and should be a solid fourth cornerback next season. He could even challenge for the nickel cornerback spot in the next season or two.
Tampa Bay will have to look ahead to the future though. Barber will not play forever, and Buchanon will be 29 next season. He will be solid for another few seasons, but it would wise for the team to add another young corner to form a trio with Talib and Mack. With that in mind, the suggestion here is to use the Bucs second-round pick on cornerback Coye Francies (6-0, 179). The San Jose State product had a solid week at the Senior Bowl where he displayed a physical style of play and good ball skills. He would make a great potential trio of physically imposing corners for years to come with Talib and Mack.
5. ODDS AND ENDS
With the major needs of the roster filled out, there would be three other moves made to finish off the building of the 2009 Buccaneers, the first of which would be to re-sign tight end Jerramy Stevens. Jagodzinski’s offense uses tight ends in the passing attack, and Stevens is one of the best pass-receiving tight ends available in free agency. Stevens is a mismatch for defenses and he would be a fitting weapon as a tight end that can get down the middle seam of the defense.
The final major free agent acquisition would be Oakland punter Shane Lechler. He is a real weapon and is one of the best punters in the NFL. Bucs fans saw in the final week of the 2008 season when Lechler denied the Buccaneers offense good field position due to his booming punts. Lechler is the same age as Bucs punter Josh Bidwell, but seems to have a much more lively leg. Bidwell struggled down the stretch, and Lechler flourished. Having a punter like Lechler would be a great benefit for the Buccaneers. He could help the defense avoid difficult situations, and that might be necessary as Tampa Bay implements a new offense.
A bargain basement signing to bolster the running game would be Chicago Bears running back Kevin Jones. He is only 26 and is a year removed from knee surgery. Jones showed potential in his tenure as a Detroit Lion. He went over 1,100 yards as a rookie, and still has life in his legs. Jones would come cheap and provide a good option at running back with Earnest Graham, Warrick Dunn and Cadillac Williams.
The final big move of the offseason would be to re-sign middle linebacker Barrett Ruud to a multi-year extension. Ruud is the best player on the Buccaneers defense and locking him up now would be cheaper than waiting until he is about to hit free agency and adds another great season to his credentials.
The signings of McCown, Leftwich, Haynesworth, Buchanon, Phillips, Stevens, Lechler, McDonald, Clayton, and Ruud would take a huge spending spree and Tampa Bay would take advantage of its massive resources of salary cap space.