If Tampa Bay doesn’t make the playoffs this year, you certainly can’t blame Bucs general manager Jason Licht for trying.
You also can’t blame the Glazers’ checkbook, which has been wide open this offseason – and in recent years – when it comes to the team acquiring veteran free agent additions that just could push the Bucs over the top and into the postseason – finally.
After adding wide receiver DeSean Jackson, defensive tackle Chris Baker, safety J.J. Wilcox and kicker Nick Folk this offseason in free agency, the Bucs just made another splash by signing former Denver safety T.J. Ward, a three-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champion on Sunday. Ward is expected to sign a one-year deal worth as much as $5 million if incentives are reached.
The Bucs have won the offseason before by spending lavishly in free agency, only to have offseason success fail to translate into enough regular season victories to matter.
Remember when former general manager Mark Dominik signed wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright back in 2012? The contracts for those three players alone totaled $140.5 million in initial value. Jackson was a hit, Nicks was a failure – perhaps only due to the fact that he acquired MRSA that ended his career – and Wright was a bust. Dominik would be fired two years later.
Even Licht tried to buy success when he and former head coach Lovie Smith went on a spending spree. Out of a free agent class in 2014 that included quarterback Josh McCown, left tackle Anthony Collins, defensive end Michael Johnson, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald and tight end Brandon Myers. Those deals totaled $99.25 million in initial value, and only McDonald and Myers, a backup, remained in Tampa Bay after just one year following the Bucs’ disastrous 2-14 season in 2014. McCown, Collins and Johnson were all busts.
Bucs GM Jason Licht and WR DeSean Jackson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
But Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg, who is Licht’s right hand man and the team’s capologist, have learned over the years and made better, more strategic, more impactful free agency signings since 2014 and overpaying for middle linebacker Bruce Carter in 2015.
The Bucs added cornerback Brent Grimes, defensive end Robert Ayers, Jr. and punter Bryan Anger last year, in addition to this year’s free agent haul. Those three, along with Jackson, Baker, Wilcox, Folk and now Ward, have given Tampa Bay the talent necessary to complement the likes of Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander, Noah Spence and Vernon Hargreaves on defense, and Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, Doug Martin, Ali Marpet and Cameron Brate on offense and make the playoffs this year.
The addition of Ward gives the Bucs another Pro Bowl-caliber player alongside Grimes to bolster the secondary and shore up a position that had the most question marks coming into 2017.
While Keith Tandy was marvelous at the safety spot over the last five games of the 2016 season, coming up with four interceptions in three late-season wins against San Diego, New Orleans and Carolina, he hasn’t been a starter for a full season yet. Tandy is in a contract year and is penciled in as the team’s starting strong safety, but didn’t wow the team in training camp or the preseason.
Battling Tandy for playing time was supposed to be Wilcox, who is known more for his hard hits and tackling from his days in Dallas, but he was traded to Pittsburgh on Sunday to make room for Ward. Now it figures to be Ward, who has the ability to play both positions, but will likely see more time closer to the line of scrimmage. Expect Ward to be inactive for Week 1, but wind up as the eventual starter at strong safety as soon as he learns Mike Smith’s playbook.
The Bucs re-signed Chris Conte to a two-year deal this offseason to man the free safety position, and also spent a second-round pick on Justin Evans. Conte had a good camp, but is not the elite caliber of player Ward has proven to be. Tandy could contend at both strong and free safety as the Bucs want to get their two best safeties on the field together.
Bucs S Chris Conte – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Evans needs a lot of time and work behind the scenes in practice before he is ready for anything more than special teams duty as a rookie. Cornerback Ryan Smith, the team’s fourth-round pick in 2016, was in that same boat last year. If Evans develops as the team hopes, he could be the future at free safety.
Evans’ rawness and lack of experience might be another reason why the Bucs elected to pull the trigger on Ward outside of the upgrade in talent and experience he brings. Because of his physical playing style, Conte has been injury prone and hasn’t played in all 16 games since 2013. He missed four games with Chicago in 2014 and has missed two games in each of the last two years in Tampa Bay.
An injury to Conte this season would have led to either forcing Evans into the starting lineup before he was ready, or prompting Tandy to move to free safety with Wilcox replacing him at strong safety. That scenario would have left the Bucs perilously thin at both safety spots, so trading for Ward makes sense as he is viewed as an upgrade over Wilcox.
Now the Bucs have five safeties, special teams ace Josh Robinson, on the roster this year because of the nature of the position as the 30-year old Ward has missed seven games over the last three years in Denver due to injury, including two last year.
Signing proven, Pro Bowl-caliber free agents that still have gas in the tank like Grimes, Jackson, Anger and Ward, along with competent role players like Baker, Ayers and Folk, reminds me of the free agent moves the Bucs made in 2001 when Tampa Bay added Pro Bowl quarterback Brad Johnson and Pro Bowl defensive end Simeon Rice along with the role players the team added in 2002 with the likes of wide receivers Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius, left tackle Roman Oben and others to fuel a championship run.
I’m not saying the Bucs will be making the Super Bowl this year like Tampa Bay did in 2002. This team hasn’t even made it to the postseason yet and has several players at key positions that have zero playoff experience.
Bucs S T.J. Ward – Photo by: Getty Images
But the addition of Ward, who had 87 tackles, eight pass breakups, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, one sack and one interception in Denver, solidifies the Bucs as a legitimate, playoff-ready team if they can avoid serious injuries at key positions.
Those expectations are crystal clear and possible – now more than ever.
Should the Bucs live up to expectations in 2017 and end the franchise’s eight-year playoff drought, the next big check the Glazers will need to write is to Licht in the form of a long-term contract extension for a job well done in not just the draft assembling Tampa Bay’s talented roster, but also in free agency.
This story was edited to reflect the Bucs’ trade of safety J.J. Wilcox to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, September 3.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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