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?

Former Jets DL Mo Wilkerson - Photo by: Getty Images
Former Jets DL Mo Wilkerson – Photo by: Getty Images

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.

Broncos CB Aqib Talib - Photo by: Getty Images
Broncos CB Aqib Talib – Photo by: Getty Images

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.

Cardinals S Tyrann Mathieu - Photo by: Getty Images
Cardinals S Tyrann Mathieu – Photo by: Getty Images

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.

Panthers G Andrew Norwell - Photo by: Getty Images
Panthers G Andrew Norwell – Photo by: Getty Images

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.

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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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Bucsfan1983

Good Fab 5 SR!

Sign me up for signing Ryan Jensen and Kyle Fuller!!

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Ken Grant

“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.”

THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS

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slaythembucs

Yet we may end up doing a the same thing!

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macabee

Free Agency Strategy *Bucs projected cap space for 2018 per OverTheCap (OTC) is 70.5mil. Additional Buc veterans expected to be cut – Ayers 6.0mil, Sweezy 5.2mil and Hawley 2.5mil = savings of 13.7mil + 70.5mil = approx. 84.2mil cap. This will change every time a player is cut, added, extended, or restructured. I believe this is the year the Bucs must make most of their team improvements through free agency. This administration does not have the time to develop drafted players that will make an immediate difference. I estimate they will spend 40 to 45mil of a projected cap more… Read more »

MudManVA

Mac-

I agree Marpet should go back to guard, and the highest priorities should he Norwell & Jensen. That would shore up the interior of the OL.

Target 1 top CB & 1 RB.

I would also look at a trade for Bennett from Seattle (which should be a lower middle round pick).

focus on Defense & 1 top RB in the draft.

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MudManVA

INDIANAPOLIS — The Seattle Seahawks are shopping Pro Bowl defensive lineman Michael Bennett in trade talks, a source tells ESPN.

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Freeman Strickland

It is a shame that the Bucs left cap money in the bank last year that would have bought more than it will this year. The Bucs had the money to go after LT Andrew Whitworth and DE Calaiis Campbell. They “pinched pennies” and passed on two Pro Bowl players. It is hard to see who is worth spending the money on this year who will have Pro Bowl impact.

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Will Moffatt

Big question I have is Fab 2. “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” Could you not say the same thing about Norwell?… Read more »

Pete Wood

Most of the Bucs misses in free agency were due to character flaws and a lack of work ethic. I don’t care how talented a player is. I don’t want to sign him if there are any red flags in either of those areas.

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matador

That applies in part to draft picks as well in cases like ASJ and Donovan Smith and Martin (not to mention Freeman and Talib and others in years past).

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Jonathan Goodfellow

If Chubb or Barkley are available at #4, would the Bucs consider a trade with Cleveland?

Potentially giving up a 3rd and a 5th (according to the draft chart I used this looks right). These two players are legit and I think the drop off is significant after them.

Yes I know the Bucs got holes to fill, but with the right pieces added in FA. I think I would consider this.

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Pete Wood

I hear you, but I’d rather trade down with the Bills. The Bucs have more needs than picks as it is. A trade with Buffalo could net us two more bites at the apple.

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FLBoy84

It’s a tough choice. Two more bites at the apple, but they aren’t the same quality apples that are at #7.

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Jonathan Goodfellow

I am not too sure where I stand, I think either would be good. I do not like the thought of us staying put at 7 though if Barkely, Chubb, and Nelson are gone. I dont think Vea is worth a top 10 pick. and I dont really think Minkah is a scheme fit/positional need (unless Bucs brass is 100% confident he can play outside CB) So for me the 3 best options are (in no particular order): Trade up to secure Barkely or Chubb. Stay put and grab Nelson Trade down Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes… Read more »

MudManVA

This draft should be focused on defense as the Bucs have huge holes on the line & secondary. The only exception pick should be RB in the 2nd or 3rd round. (Praying for Sony) Don’t reach just maneuver to set the picks up. The Bucs are drafts (yes drafts-plural) away from really filling holes with young talent, and unfortunately time is not on Koetter & Licht’s side. PR points that out every year. I’m a Licht guy and truly believe he’ll get the talent where it needs to be, but this team needs play makers on defense (outside of its… Read more »

matador

Licht has had four drafts already yet as you note we are multiple drafts away. That timeline is exactly re reason we should be overemphasizing the lines (OL as well as DL) this draft and potentially the next one. Winston is young build the team for the long term. The team and owners and fans have time, it’s not our fault if the GM sealed his own fate with poor, sometimes idiotic draft day moves and bad free agent shopping habits. Build from the inside out this is not fantasy football. Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet.… Read more »

Bucsfan1983

* Correction SR, Derwin James can bench press 450

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surferdudes

Fab 2, yes stay away from free agents who are let go from their teams for any reason other then becoming a cap casualty. Stay away from players that are over 30 just for a quick fix unless they’re willing to play for vet minimum on a one year deal. I can’t believe Seattle is looking for someone to trade for Bennett, and more stunned fans want him back. I hope Licht isn’t stupid enough to trade for a player he let go of years ago. Fab 3, as for saying the Bucs have had more luck with small school… Read more »

athans5

I normally love your Fab 5s SR, but this one was painful to read. Your mentality is the same reason the Bucs have been mediocre for so long. Why are you holding Talibs troubled past against him, has he been in any trouble since the Bucs days? He learned how to study film and is actually one of the best route recognition corners in the nfl, right up there with Sherman. He could teach our youth how to study film and anticipate routes. Remember after he picked Winston twice, he said he knew what routes were coming, that is film… Read more »

XpfcWintergreen2

Let’s see! Aqib Talib played for five years with the Bucs, two years with the Pats and four years with the Broncos. Outside troubles behind him. (?) He had 31 TKL, 7 PDEF and 1 INT for the 2017 season.

How much would he co$t the Bucs for one year? Why not ?

https://www.foxsports.com/nfl/aqib-talib-player-stats
_____________
Go Bucs!!!!

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vtrantb

I’ve been advocating for the Bucs to consider drafting UCF CB Mike Hughes in the 2nd round. He might not make it out of the first round. The guy is a lock down corner, runs sub 4.4, and is probably the best returner in college.

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vtrantb

Hughes had a 95 yard kickoff return in the last minute of the game to beat USF in that classic game last year

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cgmaster27

Bucs looking for right fit in free agency? Apparently a 27 year old DE that would fill a need isn’t the right fit for the Bucs. And Quinn was gone for a mid round pick. I”m a big Licht fan, but this is inexcusable.

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macabee

cg, the Bucs are 70mil over the cap, the Dolphins are 8mil under the cap. Be interesting to see how they handle this and get over the cap by the 12th of March – gotta be some massive cuts coming. If the Bucs were not aware (friend called a friend), I understand. But if they had the chance and walked away, that would be inexcusable. #JMO.

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cgmaster27

Got a good point Mac as maybe this trade was predicated on Quin going to an AFC team. We don’t know, but gees, I would hope that this is one Licht didn’t pass up on.

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Alldaway 2.0

This is concerning. The last time there was talk about the right fit of players there was a mass exodus of talent during the Schiano era. For example, Bucs went from a young WR corps with promise pre-Schiano to nothing and a cloud of dust outside of Vincent Jackson. Also like the Schiano era, there was an overemphasis of building the defense from the back to the front and too much stunting. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Bucs haven’t made the playoffs since Gruden was coach because of a lack of talent. Even in the playoff loss against the Giants the… Read more »

ehinote

Sony Michel will have the best draft value as a running back after all is said and done. The Bucs should draft the Notre Dame guard or the Washington DT in the 1st round and then grab Michel in the 2nd. He can do it all and has shown to be very durable.

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jshea7

Living in Ohio, ive been listening to a lot of fox sports radio, and i’ve heard multiple times from multiple hosts that this is going to be one of the worst free agencies as far as talent goes! I hope the bucs do not waste a lot of money on free agents. Play low ball and do not give too much money to a guy that is good but not GREAT just to fill a need! DE is not deep this year in free agency.. Build within the draft, pay the core players we have on the roster, and let… Read more »