NFC South: Bruce Allen

I heard one of the best summaries of what's happened to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in recent years on Tuesday.

"You talk about consistency and the way of doing business. That's gotten lost over the years," Derrick Brooks said, shortly after the Buccaneers announced he will be inducted into the team's Ring of Honor and his jersey will be retired. "It really has. The sense of direction, how you go about doing things. All of those things have really gotten lost and can't be defined. What is the Buccaneer way?"

But Brooks believes that, with new coach Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay can get back to being a well-defined and successful team.

"Now, I think you can have an answer and get a visual of what that is," Brooks said. "That's what I think he brings. Is that going to turn into Super Bowl championships or 12-win seasons? I don't know, but I think Coach Smith being the right guy at the right time gives us a good start. He brings a lot more experience in this situation than what coach [Tony] Dungy did in 1996 because he has a better football team. You can tell by some of the offseason movements how they're going about their business. It's not overly splashy, but it's definitely been effective. Now, it's about bringing all this stuff together and keeping everybody on the same page."

I think Brooks is right. I like everything I've seen out of Smith and general manager Jason Licht so far. There's a sense of order that's reminiscent of the Dungy days. That order seemed to gradually get lost as the Bucs went through coaches Jon Gruden, Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano and general managers Bruce Allen and Mark Dominik.

Smith should know the Dungy way and how to succeed in Tampa Bay. He was the linebackers coach on Dungy's original staff in Tampa Bay. Smith went on to become defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams and the head coach of the Chicago Bears.

Brooks said he's confident Smith is the coach to get things back on track in Tampa Bay.

"It's not so much the X's and O's, more so the Jims and the Joes," Brooks said. "I think he's shown my yes is yes and my no is no. It's not a guessing game with him."
Lovie SmithKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCoach Lovie Smith and the Bucs expect to compete for championships starting this season.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- There is a very good reason why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been one of the NFL's most active teams in free agency.

"We thought it would be unfair to ask the fans to be patient with us," general manager Jason Licht said at the NFL owners meetings.

Fire those cannons at Raymond James Stadium and start the parade down Dale Mabry Highway. So far, Licht and coach Lovie Smith, both hired in January, are doing and saying all of the right things. They have signed 11 free agents, highlighted by defensive end Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner and quarterback Josh McCown.

"We wanted to go out and sign as many good players as we could this year to help our football team and make it competitive this year, and strive to win a championship this year," Licht said. "Not go with, 'Hey, give us a couple years.' We want to do it as soon as we can. The fans deserve it. I found out in a two-month period that these fans are so passionate in Tampa. So we want players that are just as passionate as the fans."

Those fans should be ecstatic to hear Licht's comments. This is a franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs since the 2007 season, and hasn't won a postseason game since its Super Bowl victory more than a decade ago. The franchise had good intentions in the interim, but the results weren't pretty.

Plans were put in place at various times from the days when Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen tried to win with veterans, to the time when Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris decided to build through the draft, to the days when it looked like Greg Schiano didn't have a plan.

[+] EnlargeAlterraun Verner
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsLanding cornerback Alterraun Verner was part of an aggressive free-agent push by the Bucs this month.
But you can look at what Licht and Smith are doing and you see a firm plan that has a chance to work -- and work quickly.

"As you saw last year with Kansas City, sometimes a little change is healthy and successful," Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer said.

The Chiefs indeed are a good example of a team that turned around its fortunes rapidly. Kansas City was dreadful in 2012, but made the playoffs last season.

For any doubters who say McCown, a career backup, doesn't have what it takes to lead a team to the playoffs, let me remind you that Alex Smith was Kansas City's quarterback last season. I don't see a big difference between Smith and McCown.

Yeah, people can talk all they want about how this is a quarterback-driven league and you need a star at the position to be any good. There is some truth to that. But was Russell Wilson really the best quarterback in the NFL last season?

Of course not. Wilson did some very nice things, but there were bigger reasons why the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl. The defense and the running game had a lot to do with their success.

It's pretty obvious Licht and Lovie Smith are following a plan similar to Seattle's. Smith comes with a defensive background, and he inherited some good talent on that side of the ball. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy already are in place, and you could make an argument that a pass-rusher was the only thing Tampa Bay needed to be a dominant defense. That is why the Bucs signed Johnson, who had 11.5 sacks for Cincinnati in 2012.

On offense, the Bucs have overhauled their line. They parted ways with Donald Penn, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah, and replaced them with Anthony Collins, Oniel Cousins and Evan Dietrich-Smith. The running game should be in good shape, assuming Doug Martin is fully recovered from an injury that cut short last season.

I look at that and I see a team that might be ready to win now. I see a team with a plan that seems to make a lot of sense.

"Jason and Lovie have a plan, and that plan is that they want to win," Glazer said. "That's why we brought them in. We're all in the same boat. We want to win. They have a clear plan to get there, and that's why they were hired. We believe in the plan. We buy into the plan, and we're going to be supportive of the plan."

A few years back, the Glazers were often accused of not spending enough money to bring success. But recently, they have spent big money in free agency. This offseason, the Bucs went on another spending spree.

Licht and Smith frequently are being declared winners in free agency by the national media. They are also winning the news conferences by saying the right things.

Now, if they can go win some games in the fall, their plan could be a masterpiece.
There’s a very common assumption that veteran defensive back Ronde Barber either will return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or retire.

Those clearly are the two leading scenarios, but let me throw out one more that is purely hypothetical.

What if Barber wants to continue playing, but doesn’t particularly like the role (and maybe even the money) the Bucs are offering him? Could Barber, who has played his entire career in Tampa Bay, end up playing for another team?

Again, it may be a long shot that Barber, an unrestricted free agent, would consider going elsewhere. But there’s one situation out there that makes a lot of sense. In some ways, it could make more sense than Tampa Bay.

With last week’s signing of safety Dashon Goldson, it became pretty obvious Barber’s not going to be the starting free safety he was last season. And it’s probably safe to assume he’s not going to transition back to being a starting cornerback. With the Bucs, Barber is probably looking at a role as either the third safety or the nickel cornerback.

What if he wants to continue starting?

Remember, Barber is a guy with a lot of pride. And there’s one logical landing spot for him.

The Washington Redskins are desperate for a starting free safety. They have very little salary-cap room, but might be able to coax Barber into playing for the veteran minimum (or close to it) in exchange for a chance to remain a starter. And let’s keep in mind the Redskins were a playoff team last season and look like a contender to be one next season. It’s been a while since Barber’s been on a playoff team, and that could make this scenario tempting.

There are a few other tidbits that could make Washington tempting. Former Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris is Washington’s secondary coach. Washington general manager Bruce Allen held the same role in Tampa Bay during a good chunk of Barber’s career. Oh, and Washington coach Mike Shanahan already took one icon (John Lynch) out of Tampa Bay back when he was coaching Denver.

Again, I still think chances are good Barber will either return to the Bucs or retire. But, with each day there's no word from Barber or the Bucs, the more I think this hypothetical Washington scenario is at least worth pondering.
A look at the NFC South’s best and worst from the past five NFL drafts, one team at a time.


Best choice: Doug Martin. I usually like to wait more than a year to judge a draft pick. But I think we can go ahead and label Martin, who the Bucs drafted at No. 31 last year, a success. He rushed for more than 1,400 yards and gave the Bucs the kind of every-down running back they were looking for.

Worst choice: Dexter Jackson. He was the parting gift from former general manager Bruce Allen and former coach Jon Gruden. Taken in the second round (58th overall) in 2008, Jackson was a colossal bust. Expected to be a game-changing return man and a speed receiver, he appeared in only seven career games with the Buccaneers.

Verdict pending: Josh Freeman. Taken with the 17th overall pick in 2009, Freeman appeared to have entered franchise-quarterback territory in 2010. But he then took a major step back in 2011. Last season, he started off very well and put up big numbers, but slumped badly down the stretch. That prompted coach Greg Schiano to say the Bucs would like to add competition at quarterback. I still think Freeman has the talent and the intangibles to get the job done. But he has to show that with certainty as he heads into a contract year.

Observation deck: Bucs-Redskins

August, 29, 2012
Tampa Bay’s 30-3 loss to the Washington Redskins on Wednesday night didn’t make for great viewing.

Blame much of it on Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano. But, more importantly give Schiano lots of credit for making one of his best decisions since taking over the Buccaneers in January.

The Tampa Bay starters did not play. Instead, they stood on the sidelines after going through a full practice at Georgetown University earlier in the day.

It’s not unusual for an NFL coach to use his starters lightly or sit some of them in the final preseason game. But Schiano took this to an extreme. He even sat long-snapper Andrew Economos and a few guys that are likely to be key backups.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. After watching Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph go down with a season-ending knee injury last week, Schiano wasn’t taking any chances. He wants his starters healthy for the regular-season opener, which comes Sept. 9 against Carolina.

That game is going to be a lot more important -- and, hopefully more entertaining -- than the preseason finale.

Some quick observations from Wednesday night’s game:
  • The Bucs still are trying to figure out how they’re going to replace Joseph. Jamon Meredith started at right guard, but I don’t know if that means he’ll be there for the Carolina game. Meredith surrendered a sack and was called for two penalties in the first half. The Bucs are experimenting with their options at that spot. Ted Larsen, who got the start at center, and Derek Hardman, also are possibilities from the current roster. But the Bucs also could scan the waiver wire for help in the coming days. After watching all the backup offensive linemen, I’d suggest the waiver wire might be the way to go.
  • Defensive tackle Wallace Gilberry might have helped his chances of landing a roster spot. He batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage early in the game. The Bucs are expected to use Gerald McCoy and Roy Miller as their starters. Amobi Okoye is expected to be part of the backup rotation, but he’s missed a lot of time with an injury. Gilberry likely is in the mix with Gary Gibson and Frank Okam to be part of the rotation.
  • I remember a preseason or two back in the 1990s when third-stringer quarterback Scott Milanovich was the most popular quarterback in Tampa Bay. After watching Brett Ratliff get the start and play the entire game, I don’t think starter Josh Freeman or backup Dan Orlovsky have anything to worry about. In fact, I think there is at least a chance the Bucs could follow the path a lot of other teams have taken in recent years and go with only two quarterbacks on the regular-season roster. In fairness to Ratliff, he got no help from his offensive line.
  • Broadcaster and former Buc John Lynch might have stirred up some speculation when he said the Bucs should try to sign tight end Chris Cooley, who recently was released by the Redskins. Usually, I try to shoot down speculation about the Bucs signing guys in their 30s because that really doesn’t fit the profile of a team that’s doing most of its building through the draft. But I’m with Lynch on this one. I think the Bucs could use a little more depth to go with Dallas Clark and Luke Stocker. If Cooley’s healthy, he might be worth a shot. I think he’d be a better lockerroom fit than Jeremy Shockey, who still remains unsigned. General manager Mark Dominik said during a fourth-quarter interview with the broadcast team that there had been contact with Cooley's agent, but said the team is now aggressively pursuing the veteran tight end.
  • Rookie safety Sean Baker still might be a long shot to make the 53-man roster. But he intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble Wednesday night. That might help Baker land a spot on the practice squad.
  • Nice to see Bucs’ co-chairman Joel Glazer hugging Raheem Morris before the game. Morris coached the Bucs the last three seasons and is now Washington’s defensive backs coach. Morris had a good relationship with ownership, but it was obvious to all that a move had to be made as the Bucs lost their final 10 games of last season. I’m just guessing here, but I doubt any members of the Glazer family were exchanging hugs with Washington general manager Bruce Allen, who once held the same role in Tampa Bay.

Around the NFC South

July, 9, 2012
Let's take a look at some of the top headlines from around the NFC South.
  • After getting released by Seattle and sitting out all of last season, Lofa Tatupu said he’s excited about competing for the starting middle linebacker job in Atlanta. Tatupu could end up in that role. But he also could be just an insurance policy. The Falcons would like to see second-year pro Akeem Dent emerge as the starter after the departure of Curtis Lofton. They didn’t invest a lot up front in Tatupu, giving him a $600,000 signing bonus and a $750,000 base salary. But Tatupu can make the contract worth a lot more if he can get back to being anything like the player he was in Seattle. He’ll earn a $40,625 bonus for every game he’s on the active roster this season. He also has a playing-time incentive that could take his 2013 base salary from $1 million to $2.25 million.
  • Speaking of Atlanta linebackers, Matt Hansen reportedly suffered a knee injury that could keep him out for the season. Hansen came close to making the team as an undrafted free agent last year before he was released. He was brought back this year and was expected to compete for a spot as a backup outside linebacker and special-teams player.
  • At least one fantasy football guru has Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin as the top-rated rookie running back. Although Trent Richardson may have something to say about this, it makes sense. At the very least, Martin will share carries with LeGarrette Blount in an offense that’s likely to run a lot. At best, Martin will get the bulk of the carries behind what should be a good offensive line and he’s also expected to catch a fair amount of passes out of the backfield.
  • Although he was fired as general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bruce Allen, now with the Redskins, had some high praise for the Glazer family. Allen described the Glazers as an “extremely honest and loyal family’’ and also said they have a burning desire to win.
  • The Bucs obviously are trying to increase their ticket sales, but vice president of business administration Brian Ford said he’s been encouraged by season-ticket renewals. The Bucs have sold out only two home games that last two seasons, but there's some optimism that the coaching change and addition of some new players could help attendance climb.
  • The New Orleans Times-Picayune has punter Thomas Morstead at No. 18 on its list of the team’s top 25 players. Morstead did not make my list of the top 25 players in the NFC South. But we’ll unveil another member of the Saints at No. 10 a bit later Monday.

Tampa Bay reunion in Washington?

April, 10, 2012
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers released Tanard Jackson on Tuesday, but I have little doubt he’ll end up with a new job very shortly.

Yes, Jackson’s had some off-field issues, and they might have factored in as Tampa Bay goes through a housecleaning with the arrival of new coach Greg Schiano. But Jackson has talent, and the rest of the NFL knows it.

Some teams might be scared off by the off-field issues, but some teams might be willing to take a shot on Jackson. As NFC East colleague Dan Graziano points out, the Washington Redskins might be at the top of that list.

Washington defensive backs coach Raheem Morris was Jackson’s head coach in Tampa Bay the past three seasons, and his secondary coach before that. The two have a strong relationship, and Morris has stood by Jackson in the past.

Jackson also has another strong tie to the Redskins. Washington general manager Bruce Allen was Tampa Bay’s general manager when Jackson was drafted.

Buccaneers' plan hasn't changed

March, 14, 2012
TAMPA, Fla. -- Here’s the final price tag on Tampa Bay’s free-agent shopping spree: $141,055,554.

That’s the total value of the contracts the Buccaneers gave receiver Vincent Jackson, cornerback Eric Wright and guard Carl Nicks, and $67 million of that is guaranteed.

It’s tempting to say it’s a new day in Tampa Bay, but that slogan was used once (back when the Glazer family bought the team in the mid-1990s) and it doesn’t accurately portray what’s happened in the past 24 hours.

Yeah, the Bucs have spent way more than they did in salary to the entire team last season, but they really aren’t steering clear of the plan they’ve talked about since general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris came to power in 2009. Morris is gone now and has been replaced by Greg Schiano, but the Bucs are still insisting they have been -- and will continue to be -- a team that builds primarily through the college draft.

This was not a sudden surge off course.

[+] EnlargeCarl Nicks
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCarl Nicks, a veteran who has multiple Pro Bowls to his credit, is one of the big names Tampa Bay secured in free agency.
“It was the perfect time,’’ Schiano said. "It was the perfect storm. Everybody is new.’’

What the Bucs needed was a quick shot of energy into their building plan. That tends to happen when you go 4-12 and have sold out only two home games in the past two seasons. But that’s really not the main reason the Bucs are spending money this year after not spending a lot last year.

“We’ve stayed the course,’’ Dominik said. “When we talk about this football team and how it’s built, part of the reason we’re here today was we’ve built a nucleus of young players and we’re in a position now for those young players now to grow with some veterans from other organizations that can really help this team continue to grow as an entire unit.

“It’s not every day that Vincent Jackson, Eric Wright and Carl Nicks are going to hit the free-agent market. It’s a unique year. That’s kind of the way we projected back in 2010. A lot of people talked about why weren’t we more active in free agency last year. The way that the timing was, the CBA, the uncertainty and the lockout ... this felt like the time to add the players to this football team that could grow with us not only during the season, but in the offseason, and become a team together.’’

It might be hard to picture after watching the Bucs lose 10 straight games to end last season, but Dominik is serious (and perhaps right) when he talks about Tampa Bay’s young nucleus. Get defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price healthy and back on the field. Give defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers their first full NFL offseason, and get quarterback Josh Freeman back on the track he was on in 2010.

Then, throw in Nicks, Jackson and Wright, and it’s not that difficult to picture a bright future for the Buccaneers. We’re not talking about the kind of 30-something free agents who were common in the days of former coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen. We’re talking about three free agents still in their primes, with Jackson the oldest at 29. All three were wanted back by their former teams, which faced some salary-cap challenges. The Bucs, who entered free agency with almost $43 million in cap space, didn’t have the same constraints, and they capitalized.

They got the best receiver in free agency, perhaps the best guard in the NFL and a very solid cornerback.

“I’m a big believer in quality,’’ Dominik said.

But the shopping trip isn’t going to continue. Dominik said the Bucs will continue to monitor free agency and implied there could be some minor moves here and there, but the team’s focus now moves onto the NFL draft at the end of April.

The Bucs have the No. 5 overall pick and are likely to get a quality player there.

Take that guy and all the other young talent on the roster. Throw in Jackson, Wright and Nicks, and maybe the Bucs have figured out the formula for something they’ve been lacking for nearly a decade -- sustained success by a team that’s grown up together.

Carl Nicks on deck for Buccaneers

March, 13, 2012
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn’t waste much time celebrating their acquisition of prized wide receiver Vincent Jackson on Tuesday night.

They didn’t have time because they had to get to the airport to pick up New Orleans guard Carl Nicks. The Bucs are expected to go hard after Nicks, who did receive an offer from the Saints that he termed "respectable." But the fact that Nicks was willing to fly to Tampa late Tuesday night for a Wednesday visit at One Buccaneer Place is a pretty strong indication that Tampa Bay has given signs it may be willing to make Nicks the league’s highest-paid guard.

The Bucs still have plenty of cap room and the fact that Jackson jumped to Tampa Bay so quickly could be a sign that it’s about to become a destination spot for free agents. The fact that Florida doesn’t have a state income tax is also a selling point, but giving free agents the impression that new coach Greg Schiano is on the verge of turning the franchise around makes the Bucs even more attractive.

Landing Nicks after Jackson would be a huge coup for the Buccaneers. Jackson was viewed by almost everyone as the top receiver in free agency. Nicks is viewed by many as the premier guard in the league.

Jackson is 29 and Nicks is 26, so it’s pretty obvious the Bucs are targeting free agents that are still in their prime. That wasn’t always the path taken back when the Bucs last were a strong player in free agency. Former coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen often signed players in their 30s and the results were mixed.

That’s one reason the franchise adopted a policy of building through the draft under current general manager Mark Dominik. That philosophy is still in place. But, after sitting still in free agency last year and going 4-12, the Bucs realized they need to supplement what they build through the draft with some free agents.

NFC South: Free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Atlanta Falcons

Key free agents: CB Brent Grimes (franchise tag), LB Curtis Lofton, DE John Abraham, WR Harry Douglas and C Todd McClure.

Where they stand: The Falcons put the franchise tag on Grimes but would like to sign him to a long-term contract. That would improve a salary-cap situation that’s already decent. Keeping Lofton and Douglas, who have been developed by the current coaching staff, is also likely to be a priority. Although Abraham led the team with 9.5 sacks last season, his age and salary expectations work against the possibility of his return. Unless Abraham’s price tag drops significantly, the Falcons seem likely to let him walk. McClure could opt to retire. But if he wants to play, it’s likely the Falcons would welcome him back.

What to expect: After a quick and embarrassing exit from the postseason, owner Arthur Blank made it very clear that simply making the playoffs isn’t good enough. Blank expects to contend for a Super Bowl title. The Falcons went all in last year when they traded up to draft receiver Julio Jones and paid big money to free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards. Look for them to take a similar approach this year. The Falcons are usually good for at least one major move an offseason, and this year we could see two or three. Don’t be surprised if the Falcons go hard after Houston linebacker Mario Williams because they need a pass-rusher to replace Abraham. Without a first-round pick, the Falcons also probably will use free agency to fill a big need at left tackle. There aren’t a lot of options, but tackle Marcus McNeill could be a target if he is released, as expected, by the Chargers. The Falcons could even make a play for New Orleans guard Carl Nicks. His presence would make life easier for any left tackle, and pulling him away from the Saints also would weaken a division rival.

Carolina Panthers

Key free agents: TE Jeremy Shockey, LB Dan Connor, G Geoff Hangartner, LB/DL Antwan Applewhite and QB Derek Anderson.

Where they stand: The Panthers seem to be uncertain whether Shockey plans to retire or keep playing. If he wants to play, they’d gladly take him back because he’s a nice complement to Greg Olsen. They also are likely to make a strong attempt to keep Hangartner, who did a nice job after Carolina had several guards injured last preseason. It’s similar with Applewhite, who was signed during the season and made nice contributions. But the Panthers seem prepared to let Connor test free agency because they can’t promise him playing time with Jon Beason returning from injury as the starting middle linebacker. Anderson could return, but the Panthers likely will at least explore the possibility of looking for an upgrade as Cam Newton’s backup.

What to expect: Don’t expect a lot. The Panthers had their big splurge coming out of the lockout last summer, and they’re paying the tab for that now. They will have to release players and restructure contracts just to get below the cap before free agency starts. Linebacker Thomas Davis, who is coming off his third torn ACL, is a prime candidate for release or restructure. Although the team clearly wants to improve its defense, don’t look for any major moves in free agency. The team simply doesn’t have the cap room to make any big deals. The team might sign a midlevel free agent or two, but major upgrades will have to come through the draft.

New Orleans Saints

Key free agents: QB Drew Brees (franchise tag), G Carl Nicks, WR Marques Colston, CB Tracy Porter and WR Robert Meachem.

Where they stand: The past three years have been the most peaceful and prosperous in franchise history. But the peaceful part already has ended this offseason. In addition to getting into trouble with the NFL for a bounty program, the Saints are dealing with contract issues that are beyond challenging. They used the franchise tag on Brees and that’s going to cost them around $15 million. Even if they do reach a long-term agreement with Brees, his cap figure for this year could climb above $15 million. Either way, the Saints are going to have major cap issues. They’ve already restructured the contract of defensive end Will Smith and may do the same with linebacker Jonathan Vilma or perhaps even release him and some veterans. The Saints are going to have so much cap space tied up in Brees that they’ll have a hard time keeping their other free agents. Nicks would seem to be the priority with Colston close behind. But keeping even one of them would be a victory for the Saints.

What to expect: General manager Mickey Loomis always has been aggressive and daring, and he might have to be even more creative than usual because of the cap situation. The Saints simply aren’t the type of team to sit still. They had flaws exposed in a playoff loss to San Francisco, and they’re asking new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to fix their defense. The problem there is a lot of the current personnel doesn’t fit all that well in Spagnuolo’s scheme. Loomis needs to find a way to get at least one more pass-rusher up front and needs to add an athletic linebacker or two. He also may have to fill more needs if the Saints lose as many free agents as most expect. This team lacks a first-round pick in the draft, so Loomis will have to make some big moves when it comes to releasing players or restructuring contracts just to give the Saints a shot at being a little bit active in free agency.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key free agents: K Connor Barth (franchise tag), CB Ronde Barber, RB Earnest Graham, LB Geno Hayes, S Sean Jones, DE Michael Bennett (restricted) and RB LeGarrette Blount (exclusive rights).

Where they stand: The Bucs begin coach Greg Schiano’s tenure in a unique situation. They’ve got a ton of cap room and need improvement in lots of areas. But they’ll deal with what they have between now and the start of free agency. A decision on Barber probably will come very soon. Schiano has indicated he’d like the veteran back, but Barber could choose to retire, which also would create a major need at cornerback. That position also could be an issue later in March when starting cornerback Aqib Talib is scheduled for trial on an assault charge. Talib could go to prison or face a suspension from the NFL, but his fate will be unknown at the start of free agency. Hayes didn’t have a great season last year, but he has upside, and the new staff might want to keep him. The Bucs are likely to let Graham walk because of his age. A return by Jones is possible at a reasonable salary, but the Bucs still need to look to upgrade at safety.

What to expect: The exact amount will depend on how many of their free agents are brought back, but the Bucs are likely to have somewhere around $50 million in cap space at the start of free agency and that will put them near the top of the league. After barely dipping into free agency last year, the Bucs were able to carry over extra cap room, and general manager Mark Dominik has publicly said the team plans to be more active in free agency. But fans need to keep that in perspective. The Bucs aren’t going to suddenly return to the days when Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen regularly shelled out money for big-name players in their 30s. The Bucs started a youth movement three years ago, and there are some parts in place. Now, it’s time for them to supplement those parts. They’ll be active in free agency, but they’ll be focusing on players still in their 20s. They’ll also be focusing on improving the supporting cast of quarterback Josh Freeman, who they believe can become great. Look for them to add a speed receiver, perhaps someone like Mario Manningham (Giants) or Eddie Royal (Broncos). The Bucs also want to improve at running back, where Blount is a one-dimensional power runner. They could look for a pass-catching specialist or opt to look for a complete back who could even replace Blount as the starter. On defense, the Bucs probably will try to upgrade at linebacker. If Barber and/or Talib aren’t back, the Bucs will have to make a move or two at cornerback and probably wouldn’t hesitate to pay big money to someone such as Cortland Finnegan (Titans).

Raheem Morris joining Redskins

January, 11, 2012
A little over a week after being fired as head coach by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Raheem Morris has another job in the NFL.

Morris reportedly will join the Washington Redskins as defensive backs coach, under Washington general manager Bruce Allen, who previously held the same role with Tampa Bay. Allen and former coach Jon Gruden were fired after the 2008 season. Gruden instantly was replaced by Morris, who had been the defensive backs coach on his staff, and Allen was replaced by Mark Dominik.

Stepping back to coaching a secondary might be the best thing for Morris at that time. He excelled in that role previously and can begin rebuilding his reputation.

At 35, Morris still has a lot of coaching years in front of him. A year or two as a defensive backs coach might put him back into a spot where he can get another job as a head coach or as a defensive coordinator.

Forbes: Tom Benson a top 10 owner

November, 3, 2011
Forbes put out its annual list of the 10 best and 10 worst owners in the NFL, and I’m thinking the NFC South didn’t get a real fair shake.

The division got one owner on each list, and I’m not sure I agree with either selection.

New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson came in at No. 8 on the best list. There’s no question Benson’s reputation with fans has improved in recent years. That’s largely because the Saints have been successful, the Super Bowl is coming back to New Orleans in 2013, and the Saints have committed to stay for the long haul. But there are still a lot of New Orleans fans that haven’t forgiven Benson for reportedly looking to relocate the team. Forbes cites a 13-percent increase in franchise value over five years as one of the reasons for Benson’s selection, and also points to the team’s five-year winning percentage (61 percent).

[+] EnlargeTom Benson
Brett Davis/US PresswireSaints owner Tom Benson has been through several ups and downs with the franchise.
If Benson is on the list, I think Atlanta’s Arthur Blank and Carolina’s Jerry Richardson also deserved strong consideration. Neither has ever made any noise about relocating their teams. Blank also learned from some early mistakes and has his franchise in the best shape it’s ever been in. The Falcons have had three straight winning seasons. Prior to that, they never had back-to-back winning seasons.

Richardson’s popularity with fans took a big hit as the Panthers have struggled in recent seasons. He was roasted for being “cheap’’ as he prepared his franchise for the labor lockout, and no employees lost their jobs. Richardson was extremely instrumental in eventually getting a new labor agreement. Once that was in place, he came out spending more than he ever has, and the future appears bright because the Panthers finally have a franchise quarterback in Cam Newton.

The only NFC South representative on the list of the league’s 10 worst owners is Tampa Bay’s Malcolm Glazer. First off, it should be noted that Glazer hasn’t been in good health for several years and sons Bryan, Joel and Ed handle the operations of the team. I know there’s a disconnect between Tampa Bay fans and the Glazers, but I don’t really understand it. The Glazers might not be the best owners in the league, but they’re far from the worst.

For those of you who weren’t around before the Glazers, and those without long-term memories, let me remind you of what things were like when Hugh Culverhouse owned the team. The Bucs were almost always horrible. They played in the old Tampa Stadium and always had one of the league’s lowest payrolls.

The Bucs have a low payroll these days, but Glazer did spend big for a while before former coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen showed that shuttling in high-priced free agents every year doesn’t bring consistent success. The Bucs are building through the draft these days, and the team appears to be on the upswing.

Plus, when Glazer still was heavily involved, he helped the Bucs get Raymond James Stadium, which still is one of the league’s finest facilities. He brought in coach Tony Dungy, who made the franchise consistently respectable for the first time. When Dungy couldn’t quite get over the hump, Glazer made a trade with Oakland to bring in Gruden.

The Bucs turned around and won the Super Bowl. The Glazer era has been much more prosperous than the Culverhouse days.

NFC South mailbag

August, 18, 2011
Before I begin getting ready to make the quick trek to Raymond James Stadium to watch Thursday night’s game between the Buccaneers and Patriots, let’s run through some items from the NFC South mailbag.

Josh in Ohio wrote to say thanks for the history lesson on the Bucs and said the team has too bright a future to be receiving undue criticism.

Pat Yasinskas: Agreed. I think the Bucs clearly are headed in the right direction. I think what some fans are failing to realize is that the team currently is using a very calculated plan that goes away from what Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen did (spend money on free agents and use them as patchwork) and getting back to something closer to the formula Tony Dungy and Rich McKay used (build through the draft and keep your core players for the long term). Although there's no real meddling in football operations, ownership is more involved in forming philosophies than fans realize. I think the Glazer family realized the Gruden/Allen formula wasn’t one that brought consistent success. I believe the Glazers might have instructed Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik when they were hired that they were to follow this kind of plan.

Ryan in Tampa asks if the Bucs might take a shot on Terrelle Pryor since backup quarterback Josh Johnson can become a free agent after the season.

Pat Yasinskas: I’m not sure what Tampa Bay’s scouting department thinks of Pryor. I know some other scouting departments around the league have mixed opinions. Some think he can develop into a decent NFL quarterback over time. Others think he might have to move to tight end or receiver to have a chance in the NFL. I’m sure the Bucs, like every other team in the NFL, have done their homework on Pryor. If they see a fit at the right price, he might be worth a shot.

Dan in Omaha says I’m wrong in calling Cam Newton’s first performance “solid." He says Newton is a project and Jimmy Clausen should be the regular-season starter.

Pat Yasinskas: As always, you’re free to disagree with me. But I thought Newton was solid. I didn’t see him throw any interceptions (and I saw Clausen have one returned for a touchdown) and several of his throws were either dropped or on target, but broken up by good coverage. I thought Clausen had some good moments as well. But, hey, it doesn’t really matter what you and I think. The decision will be made by Ron Rivera and his staff. From everything I’ve heard, they likely will go with Newton as their opening-day starter if he doesn’t make a bunch of major mistakes in Friday’s preseason start at Miami.

Lloyd in Baton Rouge, La., says he’s worried about the Saints’ tackle situation and became even more worried after the release of Jon Stinchcomb.

Pat Yasinskas: It’s a legitimate worry, but sometimes you have to get younger to get better. Stinchcomb’s play dropped off last year and the Saints must feel as if Zach Strief or Charles Brown can be an improvement over him in the long haul. I know people also criticize left tackle Jermon Bushrod and say he’s nothing special. There’s some truth to that, but he must be doing something right. The Saints have done pretty well in the two seasons Bushrod has started. Plus, Sean Payton has a pretty strong offensive mind and his system is built more toward having the strength of the offensive line on the interior.

Chugs in Memphis asks why it seems like the Saints are bringing along rookie defensive end Cameron Jordan so slowly.

Pat Yasinskas: The Saints seem to be bringing all their rookies along slowly, except for running back Mark Ingram. If you look at recent history, that’s not all that unusual for New Orleans, which is in a different situation than a team like Tampa Bay that relies on immediate help from the draft. The Saints didn’t play Malcolm Jenkins all that much as a rookie and he became a star last season. Last year’s top pick, Patrick Robinson, didn’t play a great deal as a rookie, but there’s hope he can blossom this year. That said, I still think you might start seeing more of Jordan, especially if Will Smith is suspended for the first four games of the season.

Matthew in Atlanta asks for my early impressions on Julio Jones.

Pat Yasinskas: Nothing but positives. A lot of times, colleges and NFL teams inflate a players’ size on the roster. Jones is listed at 6-foot-3. I was introduced to him in the cafeteria at Flowery Branch and stood face to face with him. I’m almost 6-3 and definitely felt like I was looking up at Jones. Out on the practice field, he was more impressive. I saw him making plays in the deep game and in some shorter routes. I also didn’t see any of the drops he supposedly had a problem with at Alabama. In the preseason opener, he was electric, gaining first downs the first three times he touched the ball. You can’t ask for a better start than that.
TAMPA, Fla. -- For all those Tampa Bay Buccanneers fans who keep wondering when the Bucs are going to start that free-agent spending frenzy, here’s a news flash. It’s probably not happening.

Although the Bucs admit they’re still looking at some free agents, don’t expect a bunch of huge signings. Maybe one or two big ones or maybe not. Or maybe several mid-level ones.

But a major influx of players is not part of the plan, general manager Mark Dominik said after Friday night’s practice.

“We’re sticking with our plan of how we want to put this thing together and be a long-term contender,’’ Dominik said. “The important thing for me, the important thing for coach [Raheem] Morris and for the ownership is to keep the continuity together.’’

The Bucs have been doing that. They re-signed guard Davin Joseph. They also have kept tackle Jeremy Trueblood and linebacker Quincy Black. Some other free agents, such as Cadillac Williams, still could return.

“There’s been some great big deals out there and Davin’s a part of that, but at the same time point, we look at our football team and make sure that we are budgeting correctly to make sure the guys that are on our football team don’t become free agents one day,’’ Dominik said.

That’s a philosophy that differs sharply from the previous regime of coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen, who often brought in veteran free agents and had little success in the draft. But Dominik’s statements should make fans think back to the 1990s, when general manager Rich McKay and coach Tony Dungy followed a philosophy of drafting players, developing a core and keeping the key players for the long term. That seems to be the plan Dominik and Morris are following.

“We all fell in love back in the 90s with that group of guys and we’d like to keep doing that,’’ Dominik said. “We see the contracts that are going around the National Football League right now, you’ve got to budget accordingly today to make sure you can take care of your team tomorrow and that’s what we’re doing.’’
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have said they’ll make an announcement Wednesday about the next inductee to their Ring of Honor.

They won’t officially say who it is yet, but the St. Petersburg Times is reporting that it’s former tight end Jimmie Giles and they’re citing former quarterback Doug Williams as the source. I’ve got no problem with Giles going in as the third member of the Ring of Honor after Lee Roy Selmon and John McKay. Giles was a very good tight end. The Glazer family, which owns the team, works together to select members of the Ring of Honor and team co-chairman Bryan Glazer serves as the front man for those efforts. The Glazers are making a smart move by going by some degree of chronological order.

If he had skipped ahead to Derrick Brooks, guys like Giles, James Wilder, Paul Gruber and Hardy Nickerson would have to wait for years. Once Brooks goes in, it’s going to open the gates for the rest of the big names from Tampa Bay’s golden age -- Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden and Ronde Barber. By the time all those guys get in, Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams might be ready to follow.

The Bucs didn’t have a glorious history before Dungy came along, but it’s important to recognize guys like Giles now and Brooks and friends can wait a few years. The guy who may be waiting the longest is Doug Williams. You could make a case Williams should be the next guy going into the Ring of Honor, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

After winning the battle of public opinion in his long-ago feud with former owner Hugh Culverhouse, Williams was back in the good graces of the franchise for a time. He worked in the team’s personnel department and was close with Gruden and former general manager Bruce Allen.

But Williams left due to a strained relationship with Mark Dominik after he became the general manager. Williams might not have the fans on his side this time. He’s taken public shots at the Bucs and Dominik, while the franchise has stayed quiet about Williams. Even while Williams still worked for the team, he created an awkward moment when the Bucs announced Selmon as the first member of the Ring of Honor. Williams spoke at that news conference and it was kind of bizarre. Instead of talking about Selmon, he spent almost all of his time talking about the 1979 team.

The franchise probably is going to stay quiet on Williams for a long time. He was an important part of the franchise’s early years, but he’s burned some bridges. Unless those are repaired, Williams probably won’t be going into the Ring of Honor.