Tampa Bay spending wisely in free agency

From left, free-agent pickups Jeff Garcia, Cato June and Kevin Carter paid off big in '07 for the Bucs. Tampa Bay did not spend more than $3 million in bonus money on any free agent last season. The Bucs are taking a similar approach this season. Getty Images

They walked into Macy's at the start of free agency with $44 million and made one big purchase. Then, Bruce Allen and Jon Gruden collected a massive amount of change and left.

We don't see or hear much from Allen and Gruden this time of year (after all, they grew up in the Raiders' bunker mentality), but it's not hard to figure out where they've been the past couple of weeks. They moved on to Target and Wal-Mart, and they're going to keep right on shopping.

It took a few years for them to really figure out their approach to free agency. But Gruden, the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Allen, the general manager, developed a plan that worked well last year, and they're sticking with an approach that makes a lot of sense.

Aside from making Jeff Faine, formerly of New Orleans, the league's highest-paid center at the start of free agency, the Bucs have been bargain shoppers. They've been one of the league's most active teams, but it seems that they mainly are stocking up on canned goods for the winter.

Part of that has to do with the fact the Bucs and a lot of other teams viewed this free-agent class as one of the weakest ever because so many teams locked up their own players with new contracts or the franchise tag. But a bigger part of this philosophy might be that it worked so nicely last year.

That's when the Bucs refused to spend more than $3 million on any one signing bonus as they brought in the likes of quarterback Jeff Garcia, fullback B.J. Askew, linebacker Cato June, defensive end Kevin Carter and defensive end/linebacker Patrick Chukwurah. Only Chukwurah, who was hurt much of the year, didn't work out as envisioned. The rest of the free agents all played key roles as the Bucs won the NFC South.

That hasn't always been the approach for Gruden and Allen. Take their free agency class of 2004. They paid big money for aging tackle Todd Steussie, running back Charlie Garner and tackle Derrick Deese.

Those moves turned out to be disastrous, and the salary cap implications ran deep for a couple of years. But the Bucs learned their lesson, and what they have done in the past few weeks may help them become the first team in NFC South history to win back-to-back division titles.

They gave Faine a $37 million deal that was the largest contract ever given by the franchise to an outsider, but not a lot of risk is there. Faine already has established himself as one of the league's better centers and might be the ingredient that makes a good offensive line great. There's far less risk with all the other free-agent signings because the Bucs are taking a very safe approach, spending wisely and buying in bulk.

Instead of putting all their stock into one big-name player (with a big contract) at any position, the Bucs are stockpiling reasonably-priced guys just about everywhere. But the philosophy is especially obvious at the skill positions.

Take running back, for example. The Bucs already had Earnest Graham, last year's leading rusher. They re-signed Michael Bennett, a backup, and Cadillac Williams told reporters last week that his injured knee is progressing and he hopes to play in 2008. But that didn't stop the Bucs from going out and signing Warrick Dunn, who'd played for the team for five years before leaving for Atlanta in the 2002 offseason. Dunn's 33, but at worst is a very good third-down back. At best, if Williams isn't ready, Dunn will compete with Graham and Bennett until one of them steps forward as the feature back. By the way, the Bucs still have interest in re-signing Michael Pittman, who also could fit into that competition.

Or take tight end, where Alex Smith is safe as the starter. But the Bucs weren't content to sit still. They went out and signed Chicago's John Gilmore, whom they plan to use as a blocking specialist, and Ben Troupe, who could slide into the starting role if anything happens to Smith.

But, more than any position, take quarterback for a read on how the Bucs believe in stocking the pantry to its limits. Garcia went to the Pro Bowl last season. The Bucs also think they've got a couple of young prospects in Luke McCown and Bruce Gradkowski. The Bucs went out and traded for Chicago's Brian Griese, a former Tampa Bay starter. Then, there's Chris Simms. He's a former starter, but hasn't played since having his spleen removed in 2006. There's hope that Simms will be healthy enough to play this season, but that hasn't stopped the Bucs from reportedly trying to talk Jake Plummer, whose rights they hold, out of retirement.

The approach has been similar on defense, as the Bucs signed linebackers Leon Joe, Matt McCoy and Teddy Lehman, ends Marques Douglas and Jimmy Wilkerson and defensive back Eugene Wilson. And the Bucs aren't done. They have some interest in defensive tackle Rod Coleman and fullback Chris Wilson. They'll pitch the fact that the Bucs are a winning team, and living in Florida (no state income tax) isn't so bad, either.

But, if the Bucs don't get Coleman and Wilson, they'll just move to the next guys on their list. Gruden and Allen have made it clear they're not going to overspend. They'll use some of that salary cap space to lock up some of their own guys (Garcia, Askew and cornerback Phillip Buchanon are likely candidates for contract extensions).

Sure, there's nothing flashy here. But too many teams make the mistake of thinking they're one player away from the Super Bowl, then get that guy and come up short. The Bucs may look like they're just throwing a bunch of darts. But if you keep on throwing, you're going to hit some bull's-eyes.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.