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Bucs set their sails towards free agency

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A look into what position The Tampa Bay Buccaneers need to address.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2018 free agent signing period set to begin on March 14th and the legal tampering period underway today, the Buccaneers have another opportunity to bolster their roster prior to the NFL Draft. With Ryan Fitzpatrick resigned, Mike Evans extended and the likes of Demar Dotson, Chris Conte and Josh Robinson having their options picked up, the Buccaneers still have some decisions to make.

Will Brent Grimes return to play? Does the coaching staff and front office feel his potential cost is worthy given his play? Do they have their eyes set on another corner whom may be younger and still ticking upward play wise like E.J. Gaines?

Many questions are floating about the seas with Bucs fans that shall soon be answered. Rumors of a slow signing period for this team have been floated out over the twitter-verse but can Jason Licht honestly afford to sit on the owner’s wallets and potentially find himself walking the plank at the end of this season? Let’s take a look at what I would do to address some needs ahead of the draft during free agency to keep Dirk Koetter and Jason Licht steering this ship into battle beyond 2018.

Running Back

The running back position at the moment is shell of itself with Peyton Barber, Jacquizz Rodgers, and newly signed Dalton Crossan on the roster. With running backs seemingly being a dime a dozen in the draft you may say address the position then but one look at this free agent class and one can assuredly have their mind changed. Here are some additions that the team should take a look at.

  • Jerick McKinnon - McKinnon excelled this past season as a dynamic pass catching back who at times showed signs of being able to shoulder the load on his own. The Buccaneers could certainly use a multifaceted type of back and McKinnon offers just that. His ability to make defenders miss in space, catch the ball out of the backfield and shift between the tackles is something Charles Sims never quite managed to do consistently. McKinnon would offer the team a big play threat out of the backfield that they have lacked for quite some time. 2017 Stats: 570 yds rushing (3.8 ypc) , 421 yds receiving (8.3 ypr) and 5 total touchdowns. 2017 Pro Football Focus Grade: 83.9 on 527 snaps.
  • Carlos Hyde - Hyde has consistently dealt with injury issues as the 49ers lead back and in turn is doubtful to return to San Francisco in 2018. In 2017 Hyde showed signs of being a true 3 down back with an explosion in reception opportunities that saw him exceed his career reception totals in one season. Hyde isn’t a big threat to make players miss in the open field, reflected by his abysmal yards per reception. Hyde’s health risk should keep him from demanding a fat contract but his track record as a bruising runner is worth taking a look at while working in a potential rookie back and potentially splitting short yard carries with Peyton Barber. 2017 Stats: 938 yds rushing (3.9 ypc), 350 yds receiving (5.9 ypr) and 8 total touchdowns. 2017 Pro Football Focus Grade: 50.3 on 783 snaps.
  • Isaiah Crowell - Crowell has been the lead ball carrier in Cleveland the last few seasons while splitting reps with Duke Johnson. Crowell has shown the ability to carry the ball between the tackles, catch passes outside and has shown to be a credible pass protector. The oft trailing Browns has resulted in limited carries with a lead for Crowell however the offensive line has provided necessary holes when Crowell’s number has been called. Something to watch for with Crowell is some fan sensitivity around comments Crowell made towards the police. Crowell would not be brought in to be a lead back, he’d simply be proven depth with a solid enough track record for spot starts. 2017 Stats: 853 yds rushing (4.1 ypc), 182 yds receiving (6.5 ypr) and 2 total touchdowns. 2017 Pro Football Focus Grade: 62.8 on 536 snaps.

Offensive Line

The offensive line as a whole has been quite offensive to watch. With Kevin Pamphile, Evan Smith and Kevin Gettis all currently UFA’s, the team has some work to do to fill the voids left by their expired contracts. Throw in the rough play from J.R. Sweezy this past season coming off an injury and there’s plenty of reason for this staff to look to sure some things up as quickly as possible. Here are a few intriguing options for Licht and company to look at.

  • Andrew Norwell - The top available lineman in free agency, Norwell would be a major get for the Buccaneers. Stealing a top lineman from a division rival and inserting him into quite possibly the weakest guard spot in the league would drastically improve the interior of the line. Assuming Marpet is staying at center, Norwell would help sure up a side of the line, leaving the potential for a Quenton Nelson draft pick to solidify the line for the next few years. 2017 Pro Football Focus Grade: 88.7 on 1,066 snaps.
  • Jonathan Cooper - Cooper, former 7th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, has dealt with issues staying on the field in Dallas. While on the field, Cooper has been part of a structured unit that helped lead to strong rushing attacks while playing both left and right guard in his four years in Dallas. Cooper started all 13 games he played in this past season in what was his most consistent year with the team. His season came to an end with a sprained MCL that required surgery in January. Cooper is expected to make a full recovery and be ready for OTA’s. Early rumors have Cooper resigning with Dallas but given the recent injury and overall history for Cooper, he could be a low risk high reward target on the offensive line if he looks beyond Dallas. 2017 Pro Football Focus Grade: 67.0 on 835 snaps.
  • Ryan Jensen - Jensen saw a potential career changing move take place that saw him slide into the center position for the Ravens, resulting in him starting all 16 games for the Ravens. Jensen would be an interesting target as a player, who at 27 years of age, could be signed and expected to play at a relatively high level for several years or more. More interestingly would be the potential for Ali Marpet to return to his drafted position of guard where he showed signs of being a special player. Given statements made by the front office and coaching staff, Marpet is expected to be the center moving forward but a move back to guard has never come close to being written off. 2017 Pro Football Focus Grade: 74.9 on 1,085 snaps.

Defensive Line

The defensive line has been a major focal point for fans over the past few years as Gerald McCoy has repeatedly been asked to shoulder the load and provide the interior pass rush while his counterparts on the edge have struggled to capitalize on one on one opportunities. This needs to be the off-season between the draft and free agency that this line is fixed. The team is currently looking at Will Clarke, Justin Trattou, Clinton McDonald and Sealver Siliga all walking into free agency as UFA’s. There are several scheme versatile options for the team to look into.

  • Sheldon Richardson - Richardson saw himself move teams, and coasts, across the U.S. to Seattle for the 2017 season. Playing a role as a rotational interior tackle, Richardson played a role in 34 defensive tackles and tallied a lone sack on the season. Still young at 27 years old, Richardson could provide some rotational depth and pass rush alongside McCoy and spelling him from time to time at the 3-tech spot. Should the team look to garner more 3-4 fronts, Richardson’s scheme diversity could come in handy. 2017 Pro Football Focus Grade: 83.8 on 654 snaps.
  • DaQuan Jones - Jones is another interior lineman that has the size and skill-set to play in a 4-3 or 3-4 front. Jones had his most productive season to date in 2017 as a starter for the Titans totaling 3.5 sacks. Jones is at his best eating up blockers and filling holes in the run lane, something he was consistently asked to do in Tennessee. His sack numbers slightly increased with the presence of Dick LeBeau and a more aggressive scheme, don’t expect a high impact pass rush from Jones but if the team does move to a 3-4, he certainly can be looked at as a target.
  • Dontari Poe - Poe is coming off a 1 year deal that landed him in Atlanta where he stuffed the run game and accounted for 2.5 sacks. Plugging the middle in a 3-4 is something better suited for Poe than McCoy, who would slide to an interior end spot in a 3-4. In the base 4-3, Poe would be a body eater who potentially would help free up McCoy for more one on one opportunities. Poe will command a big contract and tying up that much money to the interior line would only make sense if the team is expected to run nearly an exclusive 3-4 look. If Poe is a real Buccaneer target, expect a full on scheme change to follow.
  • Aaron Lynch - Lynch has had some issues with maturity dating back to college but seemed to have landed himself in a prime position with the 49ers racking up 12.5 sacks in his first 30 games. Since then, injuries have hit and his production has come to a complete hault. Lynch is a Florida native and finished his college career at USF. A versatile pass rusher, Lynch can play outside in a 3-4 and with his hand in the dirt in a 4-3. A change of scenery and some injury luck could right the ship for Lynch. A low risk option who should command a low contract. 2017 Pro Football Focus Grade: 78.7 on 157 snaps.
  • Alex Okafor - Okafor has shown some success both as a 4-3 end and a 3-4 pass rusher with his sophomore year in the league being his best, tallying 8 sacks for the Cardinals. Scheme versatility is always a plus and with the Buccaneers showing a good blend of both looks, an edge rusher like Okafor offers the team another option with a healthy Noah Spence to blend looks even more. Okafor totaled 4.5 sacks in 10 games this past season. 2017 Pro Football Focus Grade: 84.7 on 486 snaps.
  • Kony Ealy - Following suit with Norwell, Ealy signing would again take away a player from a division opponent. Ealy has succeeded in Carolina as a rotational end displaying some pass rush potential with back to back 5 sack seasons in 2015 and 2016. This past season Ealy struggled to find the quarterback, tallying a lone sack on the season. For a team that’s as inept as the Bucs at getting to the quarterback, some new bodies are needed and Ealy potentially returning to a 4-6 sack a year player would be a start on the edge. 2017 Pro Football Focus Grade: 74.6 on 451 snaps.

Corner Back

The corner back position is the last that we’ll look at here and it has been right up there with the defensive line as the worst unit on the team. Brent Grimes future with the team is up in the air with him being a free agent (**Update, Grimes has resigned with the Bucs**) , Vernon Hargreaves looked to have turned the corner this past season then got injured and the team is set to lose Robert McClain to free agency as well. A starting caliber corner is needed desperately at this moment and the overall options are scarce.

  • E.J. Gaines - Gaines would be my top target to replace Grimes at the moment. Gaines is a young corner at 26 years old and already has 36 starts under his belt. Following up on his best season in the league, Gaines offers the team a long term replacement for Grimes who is not under contract. The Bills are expected to attempt to resign him but free agency has been a target for the young corner who is set to receive a significant pay raise. 2017 Pro Football Focus Grade: 85.9 on 654 snaps.
  • Rashaan Melvin - Melvin should be a familiar name for Bucs fans as he was originally signed with the team as an UDFA in 2013. Melvin played his way to a career year in 2017 and is set to reap the benefits of his hard work. Melvin, standing 6-2, would bring a physical presence outside and offers some height that was missing in 2017. Melvin started all 10 games he appeared in last season, picking off a career high 3 passes and defending another 13. 2017 Pro Football Focus Grade: 85.7 on 552 snaps.
  • Malcolm Butler - Superbowl hero to Superbowl zero, Butler’s 2017 was about as strange as it gets as he was an afterthought in New England’s game plan to finish the season. Butler has 47 starts, 8 interceptions and 43 passes defended since the start of the 2015 season. Butler can play both zone and man while having decent size and strength. Butler will be in high demand as rumors lately point towards New Orleans having high interested in the former New England corner. 2017 Pro Football Focus Grade: 81.0 on 1,038 snaps.

As free agency starts and we further enter the draft season, Buccaneer fans can expect a lot of focus to be put on both sides of the line, defensive back and running back. Look for the team to be smart this free agent period, spurned by many signings lately I would expect the team to be critical in their analysis of players as to how they fit into the locker room and the scheme itself. As a fan myself, I like many hope to see many holes filled in some way shape or form prior to the draft. As always, Go Bucs!