With the conclusion of the Super Bowl, the 2017 NFL season has officially come to a close as well. In the first two parts of my Bucs offseason series, I broke down the current roster and each player’s contract situation. With that done, it’s time to dive head first into free agency. On March 14th at 4pm, the 2018 NFL season will officially begin and the excitement of the NFL free agency frenzy will too. Before that happens, I wanted to take a look at the positions of need for the Buccaneers and see who could be on their radar come mid-March. The areas that I’ve chosen to concentrate on is the defensive line, the secondary, running back and offensive line. I’ll give a few examples at each position that should be available as unrestricted free agents and then give my thoughts as to who I’d personally like to see in Tampa. Before I name the players that I feel could help improve the team, I will give the reasons why I feel like there is a need at that particular position and what players they could potentially need to replace. With that said, let’s begin this with the defense.
There is no doubt that the Bucs d-line needs help. They finished dead last in the league in sacks for 2017 and have to improve their pass rush. As much as I hate to say it, they need to start by releasing recently re-signed defensive end Will Gholston (26). He’s a run stop specialist that only finished with 36 tackles and failed to produce any sacks last season. He’s due to make $6.5 million next season but his release would count zero towards the salary cap. They need to replace him with an edge rusher whether it’s in free agency or the draft.
Another release that seems imminent is that of defensive tackle Chris Baker (30) (Editor’s Note: This happened. Jon had it in advance. I suck at timely editing). He signed with the Bucs last March on a 3-year/$15.75 million contract after totaling 101 tackles and 10.5 sacks in his last two seasons in Washington. In 2017, he finished with just 33 tackles and a half a sack. Pretty disappointing playing next to McCoy who commands a double team on just about every down. Baker’s release will free up another $4.875 million in cap space and will count zero towards the salary cap.
Those two roster moves would create openings in two of the four “starting” defensive line positions with DE Robert Ayers (32) and DT Gerald McCoy (29) being the other two spots, although Ayers could be on the block as well after a nonproductive season. DT Clinton McDonald (31), DE Justin Trattou and DE Will Clarke (26) are all unrestricted free agents and could possibly return next year. DE Ryan Russell (26) is a restricted free agent and should be back as well. That leaves situational pass rusher Noah Spence (24), run stopper Stevie Tui’kolovatu (26) and DE Channing Ward (25) to round out the rotation. So here are my suggestions for filling those potential open spots in free agency.
POSSIBLE FREE AGENTS
DE Ezekial Ansah (28)- 6’5″/275lbs: “Ziggy”, as he’s also known, has had 44 sacks in 5 seasons but he also missed 5 games in the last two seasons. In 2017, he had 12 sacks in 14 games but nine of them came in 3 games. His market value is around the $13 million a year mark so he would be costly to sign, especially if a bidding war breaks out.
DE Kony Ealy (26)- 6’4″/275lbs: After 14 sacks in his first 3 seasons in Carolina, he went to the Jets and disappointed with just 14 tackles and 1 sack in 11 games in 2017. Maybe bringing him back to the NFC South will revive his career. He would be a cheaper alternative for the Bucs as far as edge rushers go in this free agent class.
DT Sheldon Richardson (27)- 6’3″/295lbs: His career got off to a fast start totaling 16.5 sacks in his first 3 seasons as a Jet, but he’s only had 2.5 sacks in the last two years. However, he does have 284 tackles in his 5 seasons. With a market value of around $12 million, I’m not sure that the Bucs would be interested in dropping that much coin on another defensive tackle. Especially one that hasn’t been producing much as a pass rush lately.
DT Dontari Poe (27)- 6’3″/346lbs: He was on my free agent target list last season as well, but the division rival Atlanta Falcons ended up signing him. It may have been a blessing in disguise as Poe underperformed in 2017 with only 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks while earning $8 million. As bad as that sounds, it was still better than Baker performed for Tampa. Another lackluster year may have driven the price down on the unrestricted free agent because his estimated market value is now around the $6 million mark. Since Baker was due almost $5 million next season, it doesn’t sound like a bad trade-off to me. Plus we get the added bonus of stealing him away from the Falcons.
DE Michael Bennett (32)- 6’4″/275lbs: Even though he’s under contract with the Seahawks until 2021, there has been talk of him possibly not returning to Seattle next season. He’s only due $1.65 million as a base salary for next season and his release would clear up some cap space for them. Gerald McCoy was lobbying for him hard at the Pro Bowl. He’s played in all 16 games in five of the last six seasons while totaling 48 sacks. He had 8.5 sacks in 2017 which is more than all of the Bucs defensive ends combined. Bringing him back to Tampa would also be a smart P.R. move for the Bucs as most fans feel like they never should’ve let him get away in 2013 to begin with.
DE DeMarcus Lawrence (26)- 6’3″/265lbs: He had a monster 2017 with 58 tackles and 15 sacks in 16 games. So much so that his estimated market value is now around the $14 million mark. There’s the strong possibility that the Cowboys place their franchise tag on him for 2018 in which case this can’t happen. But if they don’t, he could be a nice addition to this Buccaneers pass rush even with the high price tag.
Part of the Bucs pass rush problem was due to injuries. The same was the case for their secondary. They saw key members like Vernon Hargreaves and Jude Adjei-Barimah go down with season-ending injuries. CB Ryan Smith, who was probably fifth on the depth chart ended up starting the last month or so of the season. With players like Brent Grimes, Keith Tandy and Robert McClain becoming unrestricted free agents and Adjei-Barimah a restricted free agent, there’s a possibility that there could be plenty of holes to fill back there. Hopefully, the Bucs can re-sign all or most of them for next season. I also don’t expect the Bucs to bring back safety T.J. Ward. He was signed after being released by the Broncos in Week 1 last season and was another free agent that Bucs fans were excited about and became a disappointment finishing with 43 tackles in 12 games. The Bucs will need to find a replacement for him in free agency. If they can’t bring back Grimes for the right price, they’ll probably look to free agency to replace him as well. So here are a few players that I feel could possibly come in and help this secondary be better.
POSSIBLE FREE AGENTS
CB Trumaine Johnson (28)- 6’2″/213lbs: Yes, he would be costly. The Rams paid him almost $14 million in 2016 and nearly $17 million in 2017 after a career-best 71 tackles, 7 interceptions and 17 passes defensed in the 2015 season. After 15 picks in his first four seasons, he’s only had 3 in his last two seasons while earning nearly $30 million. His “lack of production” could have driven his price down since his estimated market value is now around the $11 million mark. The problem is that the Bucs have been getting by easy paying their #1 corner Brent Grimes less than $7 million a year. Johnson would cost them a lot more, but it gives them a big lockdown corner to play opposite Hargreaves going into the 2018 season.
CB Kyle Fuller (26)- 5’11″/190lbs: He’s had 188 tackles, 8 picks and 41 passes defensed in his first 3 seasons in Chicago, including 69 tackles, 2 interceptions and 22 passes defensed in 2017. He’s got decent size and is still young with room for improvement. He only made about $3 million last year and he’ll be due a raise, but it shouldn’t be anything like the money they’d have to pay for some other top free agent cornerbacks.
S Lamarcus Joyner (27)- 5’8″/190lbs: I don’t put a whole lot of stock in PFF (Pro Football Focus) and their rankings, but they did have him as their 3rd ranked safety for 2017. He’s a versatile athlete and also saw time at nickel corner for the Rams. He had 49 tackles, 3 interceptions and 9 passes defensed in just 12 games while earning just $1.6 million in L.A. last season. He will be one of their top priorities this offseason and could be a candidate for their franchise tag, but should he hit the open market he should be on the Bucs radar.
S Eric Reid (26)- 6’1″/213lbs: He primarily played strong safety for the Niners in 2017 and saw some action at weakside linebacker as well. He finished the year with 67 tackles, 2 interceptions and 4 passes defensed and was paid almost $5.7 million. He has an estimated market value of around $8.5 million as a 2018 unrestricted free agent and should be in high demand.
CB Malcolm Butler (28)- 5’11″/190lbs: Despite being surrounded by rumors and controversy from the Super Bowl, he still remains the #1 free agent cornerback for 2018. He made $3.9 million in 2017 and is due a huge contract after totaling 190 tackles, and 8 interceptions over the last 3 seasons. He now has an estimated market value of $13 million as a free agent so he will be costly, but the Bucs have some cap room to play with to make a play for him. After the coaches decision NOT to play him in the big game, it doesn’t appear that the Pats are interested in re-signing him.
S Tre Boston (25)- 6’1″/205lbs: After three lackluster seasons with the Panthers, he signed a one year “prove it” deal with the Chargers for $900k. It paid off as he totaled 79 tackles and 5 interceptions and also finished as PFF’s top coverage safety for the season (whatever that means). Now the question is can the Chargers keep him around or will he hit the open market? He now has an estimated market value of about $8 million heading into free agency.
So that’s my look at the defensive side of the 2018 free agency prospects for the defensive line and the secondary. The Bucs have a lot of work to do to improve this side of the roster, especially if they end up losing some guys to free agency. However, with just over $70 million in cap space currently available and an additional $17 million after releasing a few players, the team should have plenty of money to play around with. Even if they do somehow sign all 5 of the players listed here, there’s only a $17 million difference between what they could be paying this class to what they paid the 5 players being replaced last year. Licht knows that this could be his last year in Tampa and he needs to make something happen. Sure they have the 7th overall pick, but he will need to make some serious noise in free agency to turn things around. Replacing Ayers, Gholston, Baker, Grimes and Ward with Bennett, Lawrence, Poe, Butler and Boston would be a good start. Is it wishful thinking? Of course! Could it happen? Maybe. But we won’t know until after March 14th. Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!