FAB 2. Bucs Looking For Right Fit In Free Agency
NFL free agency doesn’t start until March 14, but it might start even sooner for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Any veteran not subjected to the waiver wire becomes an instant free agent the minute he’s released.
On the last day of February the New York Jets cut defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson. In case you aren’t familiar with Wilkerson, he’s 6-foot-4, 315 pounds, 28 years old and has 44.5 career sacks and 10 forced fumbles.
Sounds appealing to Tampa Bay, right?
Well, considering that Wilkerson was suspended by Jets head coach Todd Bowles for disciplinarian reasons for showing up to meetings late, missing practices and even missing his own birthday party, having a player like Wilkerson – although talented – in Tampa Bay is something general manager Jason Licht would likely want to avoid on the heels of releasing defensive tackle Chris Baker, who was not a good influence on the team’s younger players.
Without mentioning Baker by name, it was clear whom Licht was talking about when speaking with local writers at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this past week about team chemistry.
“We have a very, very good core group of players in terms of what they bring and add to the locker room and we need to add to that,” Licht said.
Licht did address the spat between Bucs players like middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and quarterback Jameis Winston getting in Baker’s face after the lazy defensive tackle didn’t appear to show much remorse after getting a costly offside penalty on fourth-and-1 that extended the Panthers’ game-winning touchdown drive in Carolina on Christmas Eve.
“You can’t go back and change the past, but you can learn from it,” Licht said. “Looking back on it now – I didn’t like it at the time – but I did like the passion and energy that I did see out of the young players wanting to hold people accountable. I loved it.”
The Baker signing scarred Licht and the last thing he wants to do is bring in another underachieving problem player like Wilkerson – no matter how much he needs to improve the team’s pass rush. The one thing that is non-negotiable for Licht is character. The Bucs still have a relatively young locker room and the last thing Licht wants to do is bring in any more bad influences, especially in a year in which the team needs to make a significant improvement in order for he and head coach Dirk Koetter to remain in charge in Tampa Bay past 2018.
How about some help in the secondary for Tampa Bay? New England cornerback Malcolm Butler is one the biggest and most recognizable names available in free agency. The hero of the Patriots’ Super Bowl XLIX victory in 2014 was a Pro Bowler in 2015 and a second-team All-Pro in 2016.
But head coach Bill Belichick wasn’t convinced that he was a top-flight cornerback and instead of signing him to a long-term contract extension, the Patriots signed free agent Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal. New England tendered Butler, who was a restricted free agent, a one-year deal with first-round draft compensation, and there was even talk about New Orleans either signing him to an offer sheet or trading for him prior to the 2017 season.
The fact that Belichick considered that spoke volumes, as did the fact that Butler was benched for the Super Bowl in favor of Eric Rowe, who started opposite Gilmore. Butler played one snap on special teams in the team’s 41-33 loss to Philadelphia in Super Bowl LII. Perhaps Belichick made a mistake and maybe Butler could have made a difference against the Eagles. But the fact he was benched and that the Patriots are letting him go in free agency are huge red flags that Licht, who worked under Belichick for several years, is surely taking note of.
Butler won’t be coming to Tampa Bay in March.
So what about former Buccaneers first-round draft pick Aqib Talib will likely be released by Denver in a cost-cutting move? Talib, who just turned 32, does have a little bit of tread left on his tires, as he had 31 tackles, seven passes defensed, a forced fumble and a pick-six last year.
But is Talib the kind of player that Tampa Bay wants serving as an example for young cornerbacks like Vernon Hargreaves III and Ryan Smith? I’m not sure, and I don’t think the Bucs are either.
Talib has probably matured a bit since his days in Tampa Bay when he was arrested for simple battery and resisting arrest after assaulting a cab driver in 2009. Two years later in his hometown of Dallas, Talib allegedly pistol-whipped his sister’s boyfriend and fired shots at the man, but the charges were dismissed over a lack of evidence. He was eventually traded to New England in 2012 because of his off-field issues.
In 2014 he signed a six-year, $57 million contract with Denver. While with the Broncos, Talib won a Super Bowl, but suffered a gunshot wound in 2016 at a nightclub in Dallas. The Bucs could use help at cornerback, especially if free agent cornerback Brent Grimes doesn’t re-sign with Tampa Bay or retires. But is Talib, a five-time Pro Bowler, worth the potential risk with such a young and impressionable locker room? Again, I don’t think Licht wants to go down that road.
I’m not advocating that he doesn’t sign Talib, I just don’t think that he will.
How about a player without any character issues? How about a player that Licht is very familiar with?
Of course I’m talking about Arizona defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, otherwise known as the “Honey Badger.” Licht took the lead in scouting Mathieu, who had failed drug tests at LSU and was eventually kicked out of school. The Cardinals drafted Mathieu in the third round and he turned out to be a model citizen and one heck of a safety and nickel cornerback in Arizona.
But injuries have been a real problem for Mathieu, who turns 26 in May, and he might be a salary cap casualty in the coming weeks. He’s missed 14 games in his five-year NFL career due torn ACLs in both knees – his left in his rookie season in 2013 and his right during the 2015 season. Mathieu had a record year in 2015 with 80 tackles, 17 passes defensed, five interceptions, one touchdown, one forced fumble and one sack.
That season earned him a long-term contract extension – a five-year deal worth as much as $62.5 million, including $21.25 million guaranteed. But if Mathieu is on Arizona’s roster by March 14, $18.75 million becomes guaranteed. That includes a $5 million roster bonus, the $5.75 million base salary in 2018 and the $8 million base salary the following year. The Cardinals only have $21 million worth of salary cap room and need to make some moves in free agency to compete in the NFC West.
But if Mathieu becomes a free agent don’t expect the Bucs to rush to sign him. The fact that Licht’s good friend and mentor, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, would release Mathieu is a bit of a red flag. While he has a knack for playmaking and a winning mentality that any team would love to have in the locker room, the film shows that Mathieu has lost a step. He spent the 2016 season trying to come back from his knee injury, but then injured a shoulder and ended the season on injured reserve for the third time in four years in Arizona. Mathieu played in all 16 games in 2017 for the first time in his career, but was a hesitant tackler due to his shoulder injury.
Former LSU linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Kwon Alexander, who has been courting Mathieu on Twitter, may not want to hear it, but I’m not sure the Bucs want to invest in an injury-prone safety who is only 5-foot-9, 186 pounds. Licht loved the Heisman finalist Honey Badger out of LSU, but I doubt he’s as infatuated with the current version, that has torn both of his ACLs and had a serious shoulder injury.
While Wilkerson, Talib, Butler and Mathieu are all tantalizing, big-name options for the Bucs at three positions of need – defensive end, cornerback and safety – they all come with some risks. Licht has had his share of free agents hits and misses, especially in 2014 when he and former head coach Lovie Smith gambled on a lot of big name free agents like quarterback Josh McCown, defensive end Michael Johnson, left tackle Anthony Collins and cornerback Alterraun Verner.
All four wound up being busts and costly the Bucs a tens of millions of dollars. Those players, in addition to Baker, have likely made the risk-taking Licht more conservative when it comes to free agency. Considering that free agency may be more risky than the draft when trying to find players who are the right scheme fit and locker room fit, that may not be a bad thing for the Buccaneers.
The Bucs have had some success with the big free agent splashes in the past, including quarterback Brad Johnson, defensive end Simeon Rice, wide receiver Vincent Jackson and Grimes even more recently. But Tampa Bay’s most successful free agent haul came in 2002 when the team signed a plethora of valuable role players, including defensive end Greg Spires, left tackle Roman Oben, left guard Kerry Jenkins, wide receivers Joe Jurevicius and Keenan McCardell, tight ends Ken Dilger and Rickey Dudley and running back Michael Pittman, who helped the franchise win its first and only Super Bowl.
Licht was asked about drafting for need versus drafting the best player available at the Combine on Wednesday and said: “Anytime you force a pick – anytime you force a pick – because of a need, you run a greater risk of it not working out. I’ve seen that happen a lot of times.”
The same methodology could be applied to free agency, too. Simply signing the biggest name or the top player at a position of need hasn’t worked out too well for the Bucs, evidenced by the acquisitions of Baker, running back Derek Ward, cornerback Eric Wright, linebacker Bruce Carter and the aforementioned names from the 2014 free agent class.
So who are some free agent names that the Bucs might consider? Carolina guard Andrew Norwell, Baltimore center Ryan Jensen and Chicago cornerback Kyle Fuller are some guys to keep in mind.
The Bucs do have a lot of holes to fill on their roster, but they need the right kind of players for sustained success – not just a quick fix. While Licht and Koetter appear to be in a precarious position in needing a big turnaround season in 2018 to stay in Tampa Bay, Licht’s mentality seems more about finding players who are the right fit for sustained success – not only this year, but down the road – than he is about job security.