FAB 2. Why Would Any Free Agents Come To The Bucs?
With high expectations as one of the darlings of the national media as a trendy playoff pick, the Buccaneers were perhaps the most disappointing NFL team in 2017.
As soon as the Bucs finished filming Hard Knocks for HBO during training camp they received some hard knocks from Minnesota, New England, Arizona, Buffalo, Carolina and New Orleans on the way to a 2-6 start to the season. One year after Dirk Koetter’s 9-7 debut the honeymoon was quickly over in Tampa Bay.
The Glazers even flirted with the idea of firing Koetter and bringing back Bucs Ring of Honor coach Jon Gruden, but Gruden opted for more money and a different challenge with his former team, the Oakland Raiders, instead. So Koetter was kept and he and his coaching staff were put on notice to turn the ship around and head back to winning waters or they’ll all have to walk the plank after the 2018 season.
That could apply to general manager Jason Licht, too. The Glazers picked up his fifth-year option last summer, but now he’s in a contract year and desperately needs another great draft and free agency haul.
Which brings me to this topic. Who would want to come to Tampa Bay this year via free agency? What’s the appeal?
What free agent would want to walk into the pressure cooker of a situation at One Buccaneer Place when there could be a regime change next year with a new head coach and new offensive and defensive schemes?
The Bucs could indeed have trouble luring some free agents this offseason – or maybe not.
Despite coming off a disappointing 5-11 season and another last place finish in the NFC South division, Tampa Bay still has quite a bit going for it as a free agent destination.
The biggest reason may be Koetter himself. Think what you want about his coaching job in 2017, Koetter became only the second head coach in Bucs history to win in his first season at the helm in Tampa Bay other than Gruden. Koetter had a 9-7 record in 2016, and that’s a fact that will be used in recruiting pitches at One Buccaneer Place.
“Hey, we were on the cusp of making the playoffs in 2016 and then perhaps we didn’t handle the high expectations that well at the start of last year, and then Jameis Winston got hurt,” someone like Licht, Koetter or director of football administration Mike Greenberg could say to the agent of a defensive lineman, offensive lineman, cornerback or running back in free agency in just a few weeks.
Koetter admirably kept the Bucs playing hard despite the team’s bad start, which ended the team’s playoff hopes in early November. Tampa Bay lost by six points in overtime at Green Bay and then had three straight losses by three points apiece to Detroit, Atlanta and Carolina before a come-from-behind season-ending win over NFC South champion New Orleans that showed a great deal of character.
“We just need YOU to help us bounce back and get us over the hump,” Licht, Koetter or Greenberg could say to a prospective free agent. “Your key [insert: sack, block, interception or touchdown run] could have helped us with this game and that game and that game and this game last year.”
The mindset of most NFL players is one of sheer confidence. Every free agent believes that he could be the difference-maker – or at least he should – and a pitch like that appeals to a player’s ego.
Koetter has also produced a Top 10 offense in two of his three years calling plays in Tampa Bay, accomplishing that feat in 2015 with the league’s fifth-ranked unit, and again last year, ranking ninth overall in total yardage. Those statistics have some meaning not only to the offensive linemen and running backs that Tampa Bay would court in free agency, but also to defensive players because it shows that balance can easily achieved if the Bucs defense can fill some holes in free agency and the draft.
Helping matters offensively is the fact that Koetter has promoted wide receivers coach Todd Monken to the full-time role of offensive coordinator with his primary job to increase touchdown production in the red zone. But that’s not the only appealing move on the coaching staff.
Koetter is already winning the offseason by moving on from former defensive line coach Jay Hayes, whose unit only produced 20 of the team’s 22 sacks last year. Firing Hayes was a move that PewterReport.com called for at the end of the season and wholeheartedly endorsed when it happened over last weekend. Parting ways was Hayes shows the Bucs’ existing players and potential free agent signings that Koetter is not going to settle for mediocrity, and that he will hold his coaches just as accountable as his players.
But Koetter is not the only sales pitch, of course. There are a host of very talented players on this team that make the Bucs a threat to make the playoffs in 2018 and beyond.
Winston, wide receiver Mike Evans, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, and linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander have all made the Pro Bowl, and wide receiver DeSean Jackson and tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard are star players, too. There are teams with less talent in the league that can’t make their roster a selling point. Tampa Bay can.
Who wouldn’t want to live in sunny Tampa, Fla. where it’s beach weather about eight months out of the year? Raymond James Stadium always has the top playing surface as voted on by NFL players each year, and the climate and natural grass in Tampa Bay is yet another sales pitch in free agency.
Yet the biggest pitch the Bucs can make is in dollars and cents with their salary cap room, which is expected to swell to nearly $75 million once the team cuts running back Doug Martin and defensive tackle Chris Baker. The Bucs are in the top 10 when it comes to salary cap space and Licht has plenty of money to pursue some of the bigger names in March.
Although the Bucs plan on spending tens of millions of dollars by re-signing some of their own free agents, such as cornerback Brent Grimes, wide receiver Adam Humphries and Brate, and extending the likes of Alexander and offensive linemen Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith, there will still be plenty of cap room to spend in free agency. Greenberg has a sterling reputation around the league, and agents know that their clients won’t need to restructure or take pay cuts in a year or two because of his successful salary cap management.
Money talks in free agency, and free agents can keep more of their own money in Tampa Bay without paying state income tax. Florida is one of three states that have NFL teams (Washington and Texas are the others) that don’t collect state income tax.
If the Bucs are going up against the Vikings for the same free agent, that player would get to keep 9.85 percent more of their money by choosing to play in Florida rather than Minnesota. Free agents signing in New York or New Jersey to play for the Jets, Giants or Bills will have to play 8.82 percent more in state income taxes in New York and 8.97 percent more in New Jersey. California has four teams – the Chargers, Rams, Raiders and 49ers – and if a free agent wants to move to that state to play for any of those teams he can expect to pay a whopping 13.3 percent in state income taxes, which are the highest in the nation.
The Bucs have a decided advantage in free agency from a financial standpoint with no state income tax and a properly managed salary cap with plenty of room thanks to Greenberg and Licht. Tampa Bay also has a warm, tropical climate and a tremendous playing surface at Raymond James Stadium. But the existing star players and even Koetter himself must also be considered draws in free agency.
No, the Bucs aren’t a player away from going to the Super Bowl, and can’t win that argument with free agents against competing teams that have already been to the playoffs. But, there are still plenty of lures Tampa Bay can use to reel in some much-needed free agents next month.