The Pewter Report Roundtable features the opinions of the PR staff as it tackles a topic each week that involves the Bucs. As of Sunday, March 21, the Bucs have not signed a single free agent outside of their own roster. Today, the Pewter Report staff sounds off on which available outside free agent the team should target in free agency.
This week’s topic: Who Is One Outside Free Agent The Bucs Should Sign?
Table of Contents
Scott Reynolds: Bucs Could Use A Pass-Catching RB Like White
If I had to pick one outside free agent for the Bucs to sign in free agency this year, the obvious answer for me would be New England running back James White. I had Tampa Bay signing White in my Bucs Battle Plan a few weeks ago and I think the move makes sense for obvious reasons – Leonard Fournette remains unsigned and the Bucs likely won’t bring back LeSean McCoy at age 33. With only Ronald Jones II, who is entering a contract year, the unproven Ke’Shawn Vaughn and C.J. Prosise on the roster, the running back position could use some bolstering. While I have no doubt that the Bucs will draft a running back this year – likely early – signing a veteran like the 29-year old White, would bring experience and pass-catching ability to Tampa Bay’s RB room.
Patriots RB James White – Photo by: USA Today
White played with quarterback Tom Brady for six years in New England and the two have a great chemistry. White has rushed for 1,240 yards and 10 touchdowns, while averaging 4.0 yards per carry in his seven-year career as the Patriots’ third-down back. More importantly, White has 369 career catches for 3,184 yards and 25 touchdowns. White had peak production in 2018 when he rushed for 425 yards and a TD along with 87 catches for 751 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. His production dipped without Brady on the roster last year, as he totaled 49 receptions for 375 yards and one score with 121 yards on the ground and two TDs. White made $4 million last year and could come to Tampa Bay for less for a chance to reunite with Brady.
A consistent pass-catching running back on third downs was missing from the Bucs offense last year, as Fournette, Jones, McCoy and Vaughn combined to drop over a dozen passes out of the backfield. White had two drops by comparison, and is an easy choice for me when it comes to signing an outside free agent to improve the offense in this area – although I was also considering bringing back wide receiver Breshad Perriman to replace Antonio Brown.
Mark Cook: Bucs Need The Experience And Talent RB White Would Bring
While pretty anti-climatic since we’ve even talking about adding him for over a month now, Patriots running back James White would be my free agent addition of choice. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is still the highest on my wish list in terms of Bucs players, but if we must pick someone from outside last year’s team then it has to be White.
Patriots RB James White and QB Tom Brady – Photo by: USA Today
Bringing in White would add a veteran presence to a room that is still extremely young with Ronald Jones II just in his fourth season and Ke’Shawn Vaughn entering his second year in the NFL. Vaughn is at a crossroads in terms of development, and the question is, can he make the jump and prove he is capable of handling the pressure of NFL football or not. While the organization raves about Vaughn behind the scenes, what he showed in actual game action was a stark contrast to what we hear about him in practice. White, who will be entering his eight season in the NFL, would be a great mentor to Vaughn and even Jones.
We all know if there is one glaring weakness on this football team it is the lack of having a pass-catching running back, who is also solid in pass protection, on the roster. White has totaled 369 receptions and added 25 touchdowns as a receiver in his career. And you can’t say enough about the instant chemistry he and quarterback Tom Brady would have from day one. The Bucs should still draft a running back, and I’m not opposed to them even doing it in the first round, but they need to bring White in, as he would solidify an offense that was already one of the best in the league last season.
Jon Ledyard: Bring Me Geno Atkins
The Bucs appear to be bringing back most of their interior defensive line, with the re-signing of Rakeem Nunez-Roches and the expected re-signing of Ndamukong Suh in the coming days. But neither of those players solve the Bucs need for a classic, penetrating defensive tackle with pass rush ability, someone the team can rotate onto the field on long and late downs. If he’s interested in pursuing a ring before he retires, Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins is the perfect fit.
Bengals DT Geno Atkins – Photo by: USA Today
Atkins played just 119 total snaps last season and didn’t record a sack, and will be 33 in a week. Figuring out his health is the concern, but the Bucs aren’t committing long term to him. Yet when healthy, Atkins is a force and is three years removed from a 10-sack season. For this to work, Atkins would have to be looking for a one-year deal to finish out his career with a chance to win a ring. After never winning a playoff game in his entire career, I would imagine the proposition would be an attractive one for the 11-year veteran, especially when you consider his perfect pairing with Suh and Vita Vea.
What Atkins, an eight-time Pro Bowler, provides the Bucs as a pass rusher is something they don’t currently have. Nunez-Roches offers very little as a rusher, and Suh and Will Gholston are more slow-burn, power rushers than quick slashers. Vita Vea is an absolute load for anyone to handle one-on-one, but even he doesn’t offer Atkins’ quickness or ability to cross the face of opposing offensive linemen. Atkins, who has 75.5 career sacks, is also one of the best defensive tackles I’ve ever seen at running games up front, something defensive coordinator Todd Bowles does often. I might need to write a standalone article on this one. Atkins is the outside free agent the Bucs need to target this week.
Matt Matera: Bucs Address Return Game, Improve It With Westbrook
The clear cut answer is a pass catching running back, but for the sake of shaking things up, I’m addressing the Bucs’ return game. With the news of Jaydon Mickens’ legal issues, his future on the team is in doubt. Mickens was the primary guy in the return game, so this opens the door for Jaguars receiver-returner Dede Westbrook. While he suffered a gruesome knee injury last season that limited him to just two games, he is on the road to recovery and should be ready to go by training camp. That’ll make him an inexpensive option in free agency that addresses a need while saving the big money for other players.
Jaguars WR Dede Westbrook – Photo by: USA Today
Westbrook is well versed at punt and kick returns, with a career average of 9.8 yards per punt return. He’s averaged as high as 19 yards per return in a season and has a touchdown on his resume as well. Mickens, who came into the league at the same time in 2017, has a career return average of 8.1, and his best year was an average of 10.6. Westbrook performed better in essentially every category.
The Bucs’ punt return game wasn’t up to par last season, averaging 5.9 yards, which ranked 25th in the league. However, there was an uptick in the postseason particularly on kick return, where Mickens averaged 24.5 yards between the NFC Championship and Super Bowl LV. I’d like to see that sustainability next season with Westbrook. Tampa Bay does have in house options in the return game with Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson, and many would love to see Miller get a chance with his speed. But if we haven’t seen it yet in two seasons, we may never get to. Westbrook could come in as a kick returner and allow Miller and Johnson the opportunity to step up on the receiver depth chart.
Taylor Jenkins: Bucs May Have To Replace A Beloved Tight End
As much as Bucs fans love tight end Cam Brate, his time with Tampa Bay may very well be coming to an end if he isn’t willing to take a significant pay cut. He was willing to restructure his contract in 2020, but I’m just not sure that he’ll be willing to give up as much as the Bucs need him to going forward. Brate has spent his entire seven-year career with the Bucs and I think genuinely likes being in Tampa but he may find soon that it just makes more sense financially to play elsewhere, somewhere that could possibly afford to pay him the $6.5 million, the $6.8 million and the $7.5 million that his contract will owe him over the next three seasons. He certainly deserves that money from someone after 29 touchdowns and over 2,400 receiving yards in his career, but it’s just far too steep for Tampa Bay’s situation right now.
Texans TE Darren Fells – Photo by: USA Today
In comes free agent tight end Darren Fells. Fells was just released by Houston after one year of a two-year, $6.3 million contract. Fells spent three seasons with Bruce Arians in Arizona from 2014 to 2016 where he racked up 536 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Over his past two seasons with the Texans, Fells has continued to prove that he is still a productive target, especially in the red zone 653 yards and 11 total touchdowns.
In addition to his abilities as a pass-catcher Fells can block, something that would be highly-valued in the Bucs’ third tight end spot behind Rob Gronkowski and O.J. Howard. Per Pro Football Focus, Fells received a pass blocking grade of 68.8 and a run blocking grade of 65.3 in the 2020 season, both above average marks for the position. And arguably most importantly will be his price tag. At nearly 35 years old and coming off of a contract that was due to pay him around $3 million per year, Fells could likely come to Tampa Bay far cheaper than the nearly $7 million annual average value that the Bucs owe Brate over the next three seasons.