After a 4-12 season, it seems only natural to want to blow up the entire team, to replace everyone with an upgrade. With that being said, however, there were many players (on the offensive side of the ball, at least) who played well enough that they should keep their jobs heading into the next season, or at least be allowed to compete to keep them.
There are still holes on the offense though. The majority of those holes are from severe underperformance, rather than expiring contracts, but those holes are there nonetheless.
Luckily, this is a deep free agent class on both sides of the ball. It is not as deep as last year's pool, but that is only to be expected. That being said there are upgrades available at nearly every position, and options should be examined. With over $60 million in free cap space, the Buccaneers have the room to be major players in free agency.
Having gone through both our current roster and a list of all potential free agents, I've narrowed the list of free agents down to ones that make sense for the Bucs, both in what they need and what they are likely to want.
So let's examine our options at offensive skill positions, and see what makes sense:
Our QB play this year was, like much of the team, a disappointment. Freeman regressed in many regards, but his 2010 season is evidence that he is capable of much more. He has the potential to be a top 10 QB in the NFL when at his best, with a strong and relatively accurate arm and the ability to extend plays by shrugging off would-be tacklers. It is far too early to consider starting options, but his backup position is wide open as Josh Johnson likely will not be back. Johnson is an unrestricted free agent, and is likely to be looking to sign somewhere he's allowed to compete for a starting job.
There are many veterans on the market though, that would provide a solid option behind Freeman should anything happen, as well as valuable mentoring. There are four veteran options that make sense for the Bucs: Kyle Orton, Josh McCown, Drew Stanton and David Carr. Of those, Orton is likely to sign somewhere to be a 1-A QB, where he can push a starter or perhaps even win the job himself. All of these quarterbacks have started games, and three of them have extensive starting experience. McCown and Carr are clearly in the veteran backup portions of their careers, but both have been quality starters at some point in the past. While they no longer have the ability to be "The Guy," they are more than capable of stepping in and winning games should something happen to Freeman. Stanton is a bit harder to read as he's had less starting experience and has mostly been a backup throughout his career. However, he's had some good games when thrust into the limelight, and should Freeman have to sit out a few games with an injury, Stanton would make it possible to believe those games aren't automatic losses.
Runningback is a hotbed topic for the Bucs faithful, as it underproduced in 2011. Some of that was due to underutilization of LeGarrette Blount, some was due to poor coaching, but the majority of it was due to the appalling incompetence of our defense, who at some points looked like they could be beaten by a high school JV squad. Being constantly down multiple possessions made it hard for us to stick to our running game even when it was being productive. Blount had a good yards per carry average, but Kregg Lumpkin was a disaster as a 3rd down back.
Hightower has spent his entire career in a RB committee, and is a strong pass-blocker and pass-catcher. While he's coming of a torn ACL, he's worth kicking the tires on if he's sufficiently recovered enough. Kevin Smith is a bit more of a high-risk/high-reward player. While he has been very injury prone in his short career, he has also proven to be very productive when healthy. He pass blocks well, is a threat out of the backfield, and can run the ball as well. Slaton is a bit of an enigma at the moment. He played well early on for the Texans, then started fumbling a lot, got injured, and never really seemed to recover. He spent last season with the Dolphins but was nothing truly special. That being said, he's a 26-year-old RB who (last I saw) had good speed and catching ability in Houston. If he's even remotely capable of returning to that form he's worth doing some due diligence on. Finally, there's Caddy. A fan favorite here in Tampa for many years, he was shown the door last year despite having been a very capable 3rd-down back in 2010. His replacement was nowhere near his caliber. Now Caddy is nowhere near the player he was early on in his career; knee injuries have robbed him of the extreme physical talent that made him special as a young player. Even with his lesser talent, however, Caddy is a solid veteran who is extremely capable out of the backfield and as a blocker. He has a high work-ethic, and was mentoring Blount in 2010 despite Blount having taken his job less than halfway through the season.
Our TE corps left much to be desired in 2011. Kellen Winslow struggled to gain any separation from defenders, while highly-touted rookie Luke Stocker was a non-factor for the majority of the year. The interchangeable 3rd options aren't really even worth mentioning, as they were less useful than Stocker, who finished the year a whopping 12 catches for 92 yards and 0 TDs....so that's saying something.
There are some good options in free agency this year though. The ones best suited for the Bucs are John Carlson, Martellus Bennett, and Kellen Davis. All are relatively young (28, 25, and 26 respectively), and all should come relatively cheap as well, which is always a bonus for the Bucs. Carlson has been hampered by injuries the last few years, including last year when a shoulder injury caused him to miss the entire season. Carlson was made a first-round pick a few years back by the Seahawks though, and still has the potential to be at worst a solid receiving TE. Bennett has been a disappointment in Dallas. Blessed with incredible talent, he has struggled to put it together on the field. While he has been a very capable run blocker, his pass-catching skills are oddly absent. Like Carlson he has potential, and at 25 is more likely to reach it. Kellen Davis was not a large factor in the passing game last year (big surprise, as Mike Martz's offense rarely uses a TE in a productive way), catching only 18 passes for 206 yards. He was a big factor in the red zone though, as 5 of those catches were for touchdowns. While Davis doesn't have the ceiling of Carlson and Bennett, he also doesn't have as many downsides. He's not injury-prone like Carlson, and he hasn't been a real disappointment like Bennett. While he's never caught many passes and averages only 100 yards per season, he played behind Greg Olsen for two of his three seasons, and has played in an offense where the TE is an afterthought. In a more TE-friendly environment, who knows what he'd be capable of.
Finally, there are the receivers. After a strong 2010 showing the perceived production took a nosedive. While Mike Williams still caught 65 passes (equaling his 2010 total), he only gained 771 yards and had an apparent problem with drops. Arrelious Benn could be put into a similar category of disappointment, because even though he surpassed his 2010 totals in the 3 major categories (catches, yards, TDs), it was nowhere near the expectations that we had for him. Preston Parker was the only real bright spot on the WR corps. Despite many believing he shouldn't even make the final roster, he was a reliable slot receiver who contributed 554 yards and 3 TDs on a poor offense.
There are some upgrades available, as well as some receivers who can fill the Bucs' lack of offensive speed. Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston are clear upgrades over everything we have at WR. While neither are truly burners, Jackson is still a legitimate deep threat while Colston has had extremely reliable production. Mario Manningham and Pierre Garcon are similar receivers. They are fast, but have been somewhat unreliable over their careers, having problems with drops and inconsistency. Finally, Braylon Edwards is a name that no one mentions, but is at least worth some consideration. He is a big target who can excel in the red zone. Last year he played sparingly for the Niners because of injury and didn't produce much even when healthy, but he played dirt-cheap there ($1 million for a 1-year contract) and would be in line for a similar contract this year as well. Going back to 2010, he had a very good season with the Jets, posting 904 yards and 7 TDs despite playing opposite a receiving weapon like Santonio Holmes for most of the season, and appeared to have severely lessened his propensity to drop passes. If Edwards can recapture that form, he could be a big boost for the Bucs in the red zone, an area where the Bucs struggled last year, though obviously his being able to do so is nowhere near guaranteed.
I really don't see the Bucs picking up many free agents at offensive skill positions, mainly because they have a young nucleus that they are building around and it is far too early to kick them to the curb. Instead, I imagine some complementary pieces will be added.
Of all the players I mentioned, the player I would like the Bucs to sign the most is Vincent Jackson. He is a legitimate #1 WR, a deep threat despite a lack of elite speed, and would be a very large boost to our WR corps. Role-players like Manningham, Garcon and Edwards I would pass on because we already have a pretty capable corps, it just hasn't lived up to its potential yet. Like I said though, it's too early to replace them, and I think they'll get at least one more season to prove their value.
Of the rest, I think Josh McCown would be the best option as a backup QB, being able to teach Freeman some of the requirements of being a professional without providing significant pressure to bench him every time Freeman has a bad game. He also has the capability to step in and win games, as he showed this year with the Bears, stepping in and managing to hold his own despite not having Matt Forte.
I don't think the Bucs will bring in a FA RB, but if they do I think Kevin Smith would be the best option, followed closely by Cadillac. Smith may be injury-prone, but with the lessened workload inherent in a backup/3rd-down role his risk of being injured should be lessened as well. That being said, I think it more likely the Bucs rely on the draft to bring in a new 3rd-down back.
TE is a position where the Bucs don't truly need to do anything, as it's still feasible that Stocker develops into a better player. He was, after all, only a rookie last year. That being said, all three of the TEs I named (Carlson, Bennett and Davis) would be solid additions to the Bucs; TEs who can block, while also remaining threats in the receiving game.
I had planned on adding offensive linemen in this analysis, but since I think it's already on the long side I will be publishing that separately.