Who's out there: Addressing the defensive line via free agency

The worst time of year is upon us. After Super Sunday has come and gone, don’t expect any excitement for the rest of the month in the sporting world. The NBA’s seemingly pointless regular season will seem longer than ever. Hockey will continue to be hockey, March Madness won’t quite be ready and most of us will be left wondering why NASCAR stories are printed with the sports instead of in the automotive section.

Thank goodness for free agency, where NFL owners get to play real life fantasy football leading up to April’s draft.

The Buccaneers have glaring weaknesses on their depth chart, and while most of Tampa Bay debates whether or not the looming uncapped season will encourage or discourage ownership from spending money, only the Glazers truly know.

However, should they open their checkbooks and dive into the free agent pool, worthy candidates are available to address one of the Bucs’ greatest weaknesses, the defensive line.

It’s important, with a young head coach and youth scattered all over the offensive side of the ball, to not only strengthen the defense, but to get it younger as well. And there are four free agents currently available that the Bucs should be seriously looking at, all under the age of 30.

Marcus Spears, DE, Dallas Cowboys

On paper, Spears is nothing special. With only eight sacks in his five-year career, he hardly jumps off the stat sheet. However, he played in a 3-4 defense in Dallas, a scheme which focuses on the speed of the linebackers to pressure the quarterback. The three down lineman are predominantly there for run support. And I should add, most importantly, he’s only 26 years old and he would be inexpensive to sign, making him a suitable player to take a chance on by getting him into camp and seeing what he’s capable of.

Darryl Tapp, DE, Seattle Seahawks

At 25, Tapp is the youngest of the available defensive free agents worth considering. He developed a reputation in Seattle as the guy who steps in whenever he is needed and fills in admirably for injured players. In 2007, he started all 16 games and recorded seven sacks and 49 tackles, the same amount of tackles he had in 2009 despite starting just five games. Again, he's young and inexpensive, which historically seems right in the Glazers’ wheelhouse.

Vince Wilfork, DT, New England Patriots

Wilfork is coming off his worst season since his rookie year, but the reason is likely not that the 28-year-old is over the hill, but that he missed the help he was used to getting from guys like Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel, cornerstones of Bill Belichick’s defense that were no longer around. At 6 foot 2, 325 pounds, Wilfork is a two-time Pro Bowler and won Super Bowl XXXIX with the Patriots. At the combine before his rookie season, he told reporters, "Playing in Florida would be a dream come true," meaning the Bucs could likely get the Florida native at a discount.

Will Smith, DE, New Orleans Saints

With 49 tackles and 13 sacks in 2009, Smith was one of the biggest reasons for the Saints’ NFC dominance. If the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV this Sunday, it could free Smith to seek a big contract elsewhere, crossing the ring of his professional wishlist. However, if the Colts prevail, he would likely resign with the Saints to take another stab at the crown in 2010. At 28, his 13 sacks were a career high. Though his 49 tackles was his lowest output since his rookie year, it’s likely due to other teams playing from behind against the Saints’ prolific offense and not running the ball. In the previous four years, Smith recorded 60-plus tackles three times.

I know what you’re thinking. What about Julius Peppers? I was reluctant to include the 30-year-old Peppers in the discussion simply because of the size of the contract he’ll demand. In a down year in 2009 he still recorded 10.5 sacks, and he’s failed to record double-digit sacks only twice in his career, both times because of injury. For the right price, Peppers would make a great addition. After all, he’s kind of a freak.

Additionally, there is potential for the Bucs to make a key trade for an unhappy Giant, Osi Umenyiora. The 28-year-old defensive end said this week that he would retire if he didn’t start in 2010. The Giants seem to be a team heading in the wrong direction, so a trade for either draft choices or young talent would make sense for both squads, particularly if the Bucs think he could be a player to put their defense back into the top-ten, where it spent most of the decade.

As the offensive unit grows and matures, watch for the defense to get younger and follow the trend. How will the Glazers handle the looming uncapped year? They may not even know just yet. If they can put frugality aside, the right pieces are out there to build a perennial playoff contender.
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