Bucs make big money moves
The Bucs' first splash of free agency hit the news wires hours before the new league year officially began: the team came to terms with DE Michael Johnson, formerly of the Bengals. Johnson had a career year in 2012, putting up 11.5 sacks, causing the Bengals to slap him with the franchise tag last season. While he only put up 3.5 sacks last year, Johnson still played very well overall, creating a ton of pressure and - importantly - stopping the run, a true three-down defensive end. PFF gave him a rating of 25.9 for 2013, the second highest among 2014 free agents behind the franchise tagged Greg Hardy's 27.0. For reference's sake, third and fourth on that list was Brian Orkapo with 24.9 and former Buc Michael Bennett with 24.2.
Johnson played at the right defensive end spot throughout his tenure at Cincinnati, who selected him in the third round of the 2009 draft. This suggests that Adrian Clayborn better learn to play LDE pretty quickly if he wants to make an impact in his contract year. The deal brings to Tampa that edge rusher Lovie Smith has openly coveted - assuming, of course, Johnson passes the physical he'll take this morning. The contract will pay Johnson $43.75 million over five years, with $24 million guaranteed.
It wasn't the last big name that the Bucs signed yesterday, though; the team also snagged top free agent corner Alterraun Verner. Verner, a fourth-round draft pick by the Titans in 2010, had a career year in 2013, grabbing a personal-best five interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, while breaking up 23 passes. He was rewarded for his efforts with a trip to the Pro Bowl and a place on the All-Pro second team, and now with a high-end contract in free agency.
Unlike the last big splashy corner the Bucs signed as a free agent, Eric Wright, Verner's contract is a fair one for both team and player, being a four-year deal worth $26.5 million, $14 million of which is guaranteed. Verner projects to be an excellent fit in Lovie Smith's scheme, and with his contract paying around $6.5 million a season, will be able to provide something like 80% of the production Darrelle Revis might have given, for around 40% of the salary.
Speaking of Revis, as of now the elite CB is still on the Buccaneer roster; but the Verner move all but sealed the inevitable parting. There had been 'strong' interest from the Browns and Raiders to trade for Revis early on in the day, but Mr. Island refused to take a pay cut as part of any trade negotiations; it's now practically a certainty that the Bucs will have to release him by 4pm EST.
While the Bucs had been expected to pursue a defensive end and a corner in the first two rounds of the draft, they've now managed to get arguably the two best prospects at those positions available in free agency, so the team can look to address other needs come May.
Bucs sign key depth
It wasn't all splashy-splashy for the Bucs, though. The Bucs also signed two players who figure to, at the very least, provide solid depth, and at most could be key contributors to the team.
DT Clinton McDonald was third in sacks on the Super Bowl-winning Seahawks team in 2013, notching 5.5 sacks as a rotational player. A three-technique who has the potential to play some nose tackle, he gives the team a real legitimate option at 3-tech if Gerald McCoy goes down, something the team haven't had during McCoy's tenure with the team. The signing adds some depth to what was a very thin defensive tackle rotation last season, and gives Lovie and Leslie Frazier some very exciting options for third down and rush-nickel packages by lining McDonald up next to McCoy.
The other external signing the Bucs made was tight end Brandon Myers, who comes to the Bucs after seeing out a one-year contract he had signed with the Giants last off season. He had previously spent four years with the Raiders, who had drafted him in the sixth round of the 2009 draft. As a TE, Myers struggles as a blocker, but has caught 126 balls for 1328 yards and eight touchdowns over the past two seasons. He brings a similar skillset to presumptive starter Tim Wright, giving the team some much-needed depth at a position that saw three players placed on IR in 2013 in Luke Stocker, Nate Byham and Tom Crabtree.
McDonald signed a four-year, $12 million contract with $4.75 million guaranteed; Myers a two-year, $4 million deal, with $2 million guaranteed.
Bucs re-sign four of their own
The Bucs also re-signed four of their own players. The team re-signed their two exclusive rights free agents, returner/reciever Eric Page and CB Deveron Carr. Both have received one-year deals, and will have to earn a roster spot in camp.
Another Bucs corner, Danny Gorrer, was also given a one-year deal. Gorrer had appeared to improve in the 2013 offseason, as the opening preseason game against the then-defending world champion Ravens saw Baltimore's first two possessions end on a Gorrer interception, and a third-down Gorrer pass break-up. That pass break-up would cost Gorrer dearly, however, as he was injured on the play and subsequently missed half the season. When he returned, his play didn't match what he had flashed in the preseason, though it's fair to wonder if that injury was lingering. The one-year deal gives him the opportunity to prove himself to the new regime.
Finally, Jamon Meredith was signed to a two-year deal. Meredith bounced around the league for three years as an offensive tackle before coming to the Bucs in 2012, where he was pushed inside to replace Ted Larsen, who had proved ill-equipped to fill Davin Joseph's shoes. Meredith has started 20 games over the past two seasons for the Bucs, 12 as right guard in 2012, and 8 last season as left guard, though he was eventually benched in the closing weeks of the season. While he's unlikely to be a starter unless those ahead of him on the depth chart are injured, his versatility and ability to play at tackle or guard makes him a useful back up for the team.
Bucs bring in five on visits
With Lovie Smith having previously been the Bears' head coach, it was unsurprising to learn that the Bucs had interest in four of his former charges. Well, two of those four will be visiting One Buc Place.
QB Josh McCown, who played well in Jay Cutler's absence last season, will be visiting the Bucs first, though he already has visits to the Texans and Jets lined up. McCown was signed by Smith after a two-year stint at the Panthers; he had previously been a part-time starter for the Raiders and the Cardinals. According to former Pewter Report editor Charlie Campbell, McCown intends to visit all three teams first before deciding where to sign.
Former Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman will also visit the Bucs. Despite the Verner signing, "Peanut" Tillman would still play a valuable role for the team. Tillman was always a solid corner, but truly flourished under the final two seasons of Smith's tenure with the Bears, being selected to the 2011 and 2012 Pro Bowls and being named to the 2012 All-Pro first team. Tillman may be older, and coming of injury, but would still be able to contribute significantly to the team as a third corner on the field, and as an experienced vet in the locker room.
The team will also bring in two offensive linemen. Former Bengals tackle Anthony Collins has already been strongly linked to the Bucs, and FOX's Peter Schrager is reporting that he will indeed be visiting the team. Collins is the best offensive tackle left in free agency, and is likely to be in high demand if the Bucs aren't able to work out a deal for him. Meanwhile, former Green Bay guard/center Evan Dietrich-Smith will also visit the Bucs. As with current Buccaneer center Jeremy Zuttah, Dietrich-Smith is a viable starter at any of the interior OL spots, so signing Dietrich-Smith would not mean that Zuttah's position with the team is untenable.
Collins would likely demand a similar contract to that Donald Penn currently has, and it would be surprising if Penn remained with the team if Collins is in fact signed. When you look at Collins' skill set compared to Penn's, and add to that the fact that Dietrich-Smith and Zuttah both are somewhat under-sized compared to some linemen, all signs appear to point to the Bucs shifting to a zone-blocking scheme, as Sander pointed out on Twitter last night.
Lastly, Jason La Canfora reports that Patriots back up linebacker and special teamer Dane Fletcher will also visit the Bucs. Though Fletcher is an inside linebacker, he's unlikely to bring enough to the table to seriously push Mason Foster, should he be signed.
Bucs who will no longer be Bucs
Special teams stalwart and do-all utility linebacker Adam Hawyard has agreed to a three-year deal with the Washington Redskins. Hayward played all three linebacker spots during his seven-year tenure with the team, and served as the team's special teams captain the past two seasons. He started a career-high five games in 2012 at strongside linebacker, when Quincy Black suffered what has subsequently appeared to be a career-ending neck injury. Hayward will be reunited with his former head coach Raheem Morris, who is currently the Redskins' defensive backs coach.
Another special teams ace and linebacker, Dekoda Watson, will be moving on from the Bucs. Watson, who was drafted in the seventh round back in 2010, was a back up for most of his first three years with the team, before being named the nominal starter at strongside linebacker in 2013. Despite some early splash plays, Watson couldn't lock down the starting job, eventually starting fewer games than Jonathan Casillas, even though Casillas finished the year on injured reserve. The writing was on the wall for Watson when the team opted to re-sign Casillas to a one-year deal earlier this week. Watson has visits lined up with the Jaguars and Bills.
Super Bowl-winning kicker Lawrence Tynes, who was signed as a short-term replacement for the injured Connor Barth, was released by the Bucs yesterday. Tynes never suited up for the team due to contracting MRSA in the lead up to the 2013 season, which resulted in one of the more shameful embarrassments of Dominik's last year - the placing of Tynes on the "non-football injury" list rather than IR in a bid to escape accepting any culpability for the infection.
What the rest of the NFC South have been up to
The Saints pulled off a move that will haunts Bucs fans for years to come by signing former Bills free safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year contract. The deal, which is worth $54 million with $28 million guaranteed, will pair Byrd with sophomore safety Kenny Vaccaro, who played well as a rookie. The duo will be a force to be reckoned with on the back-end of that New Orleans defense, which the Bucs will obviously be facing twice a season. Byrd's father, Gill, is the Bucs' cornerbacks coach. The team have also decided not to release Darren Sproles outright, due to the number of teams expressing interest in trading for the speedster - a fact that Sproles apparently was first informed of by ESPN's twitter account.
The Falcons have been nearly as busy as the Bucs. The team released Tony Gonzalez, who despite being ostensibly retired has yet to file retirement papers with the NFL, and Pro Bowl free safety Thomas DeCoud. They also re-signed defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux, and center Joe Hawley, who finished 2013 as their starting center.
They also brought in three new players, right guard Jon Asamoah and defensive end Tyson Jackson from the Kansas City Chiefs, and former Dolphins nose tackle Paul Soliai. With Babineaux having played 3-4 end before, and Jackson and Soliai obviously coming from 3-4 teams, it seems clear what the future of the Falcons of the defense is. The NFC South has now gone in two years from featuring all 4-3 defenses to having two of each base formation.
The Panthers have been quiet so far in free agency, but they have been named the 'favourites' to land former Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks. This has two consequences: firstly, Steve Smith is on the trade block, with the Bucs being named as one potential landing spot; and secondly, and much more importantly, it means there will now be a twice-yearly on-field meeting between Hakeem Nicks and Akiem Hicks.
The best of the rest
Chiefs receiver/running back/returner Dexter McCluster, who the Bucs were reportedly pursuing, has instead signedwith the Tennessee Titans. The Titans will pay McCluster $12 million over 3 years, with $4.5 million guaranteed.
Former troubled Buccaneer cornerback Aqib Talib has been signed to a hefty contract by the Denver Broncos, who appear to have made it their M.O. to take away the Patriots' toys. The contract will pay Talib $57 million over six years, with $26 million guaranteed. I, for one, am glad the Bucs never invested as much in Talib. The Broncos also signed former Browns safety T.J. Ward.
Another Raiders free agent has signed elsewhere for a 5-year, $35 million contract: defensive end Lamarr Houston, with the Chicago Bears. The Bears subsequently released Julius Peppers; don't be surprised if you hear rumblings that the Bucs may take a look at him, given that Lovie Smith was the one who lured him to Chicago. (Imagine that - Julius Peppers and Steve Smith on the Bucs? That would scarcely have seemed remotely possible when the Bucs-Panthers rivalry was in its heyday).