It’s been over nine weeks since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the field. Since then, we’ve all settled into football purgatory. Every year as the offseason progresses, it feels like the next step can’t come fast enough. The College Football Championship and a bittersweet Bucs-less postseason kept us at bay briefly, but there are many more months to survive before we find ourselves back at Raymond James Stadium for the 2015 NFL Season. The offseason tends to be mostly infested with rumors, baseless reports, a billion mock drafts, and varied professional terms for guessing.
In one week, we finally get to see tangible actions. The Scouting Combine is fun to look at, but it doesn’t mean much. Free agency? That’s a different story entirely. On March 7th, the floodgates of free agency will be opened. Being the most active team in free agency for two years straight isn’t exactly something you want, but it’s unavoidable for anyone who plays horrendously enough to earn the #1 Pick in the NFL Draft. That draft is still almost two months away.
With free agency looming, one of the biggest indicators of just how frenzied it might be has passed. The glory of the franchise tag has been laid down like a brand on high profile players throughout the league, but teams like Tampa Bay are more interested in the ones that didn’t get labeled with that tag. There are a myriad of blockbuster names about to hit the market. Some of them are dreamy, but unnecessary. Others would be amazing, but won’t be worth it.
Finally, some are the perfect combination of filling a need, fitting into the budget, and settling in just right. The Bucs will enter free agency with upwards of $35 million of cap space, not even taking into account what could be generated if current players who underperformed last season were cut. This makes a blockbuster acquisition well within the realm of possibility. Here’s a look at ten of the top NFL Free Agency prospects going into next week, how they would fit for the Bucs, and the likelihood of it actually happening.
Demarco Murray, Running Back
Let’s start by dreaming. Possibly the most sought after blockbuster free agent is the wondrous Demarco Murray. Last season, Murray took the Dallas Cowboys further than any of us were willing to admit was possible for the Kings of 8-8. On the back of his record-breaking season, they plowed forward and walked into the playoffs as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Murray broke all of those records with one of the most consistent offensive lines in the league, which is a luxury that Tampa Bay does not have. Despite this, even with a flawed line, Murray would be an instant upgrade from the inconsistency and lackluster play that has come from Doug Martin and company.
Running back isn’t a dire need in Tampa, but you can’t ignore how amazing it would be to watch Murray running out of the Tampa backfield. Murray wants to be back in Dallas, but he’s being hindered by the reckless spending in recent years by Jerry “MoneyBagz88” Jones. Murray would have to take a pay cut to stay, and the Buccaneers have enough cap room to make him a realistic offer. With other needs outweighing this, it’s not likely we’ll see Demarco Murray in pewter and red come the 2015 season. It sure would be nice, though.
Verdict: Keep on dreaming, brother man.
Mike Lupati, Offensive Guard
We go from unnecessary luxury to absolute necessity. The Buccaneers may not absolutely need Mike Lupati, but they need to do something with the offensive line. This year’s free agency isn’t exactly overflowing with linemen, but Lupati is the one name that keeps popping up. Lupati has made the Pro-Bowl for the last three consecutive years, and he’s proven himself in San Francisco. Lupati may not be a sparkly “all eyes on me” pickup in free agency, but he makes a lot of sense. While Tampa has the cap room to play with, they may be leery of how they structure contracts on a lineman after the way the Anthony Collins experiment went.
Lupati is just the right balance of youth and proven experience. He’s arguably one of the best left guards in the league, but that butts heads with the prior acquisition of veteran Logan Mankins. In a way, Lupati could be everything Tampa wanted Mankins to be. He doesn’t have a significant history of injuries, and at only 27 he’s got good years ahead of him. Expect the Buccaneers to make a strong push for Lupati, but they shouldn’t be giving him an outrageous contract. The number may be high, but if Licht plays it smart it’ll come with less long-term financial risk. The bottom line is that Mike Lupati would help the Buccaneers’ line, but there’s also this magical thing called the NFL Draft that they may use to address the line’s flaws.
Verdict: Bet on it, but don’t bet much. Maybe an over/under would be good.
Mark Sanchez, Quarterback
Everyone expects the Buccaneers to select either Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota with the first pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Barring a blockbuster trade (like the Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy, and a billion picks one I’ve been praying for), Tampa Bay will be using that pick. However, they could be looking to address defensive needs with it. Like they have in the past, the Buccaneers could instead look to a proven veteran in Mark-
Okay, I can’t even keep a straight face while I’m writing this. The free agent market for quarterbacks this year is slim, to say the least. Mark Sanchez is better than his stigma suggest, but not by much. Without the perfect system, you’re begging for a buttfumble. The fact that Mark Sanchez is even on lists of solid free agency prospects at quarterback scares me. It’d be like signing Josh McCown- wait, and the Browns did tha- oh. Please, we don’t need more fuel for our own Factory of Sadness.
Verdict: Dear lord, please no. So, it’s about 50/50.
Randall Cobb, Wide Receiver
A bit like Demarco Murray, Randall Cobb is a dreamy option to be picked up at wide receiver. The Buccaneers aren’t hurting at wide receiver, but you have to believe that newly acquired offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter would love to plug a young bull like Randall Cobb in beside weapons like Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. Cobb is incredibly explosive by nature, and his potential use as a surprise runner or a punt returner only magnify his value. The scary thing is that Cobb is only 24 years old, but he’s about to be entering his fifth NFL season.
Cobb is younger and more versatile than the two amazing receivers, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, who already had their teams call professional dibs with the franchise tag. Cobb looks like he could have star production, but he’s always been surrounded by other threats and caught balls thrown by Aaron Rodgers. He’ll have to fight the stigma of questioning if he can compete without that around him, but if the price is right Randall Cobb is absolutely ideal to round out the Bucs’ receiving corps. Cobb could be a long term investment, and that would be smart considering that V-Jax isn’t getting any younger.
Verdict: Worth it, but Packers will probably stab you when you get close.
Brett Kern, Punter
You read that right. I said punter. Not exactly a “blockbuster free agent,” but it’s absolutely a need. As far as free agent punters go, Brett Kern is pretty much the best bet. Kern has been proven in his time with Tennessee, and he’s consistently put up solid punting averages. If he can handle the punting workload that the Titans give him, he could definitely handle any offensive meltdown the Bucs could have. Kern is a very “if the price is right” choice. If things fall into place, why not? If they don’t, no big deal. A young undrafted free agent could just as easily come in and fill this spot later in the offseason, so there’s zero pressure on getting Kern.
Verdict: I’ll take “Things you’ll only buy on clearance” for $400, Pat.
Greg Hardy, Defensive End
Of all the choices in free agency, Greg Hardy may come with the most question marks. In a vacuum, Hardy is an ideal choice. He’s one of the most explosive defensive weapons in the NFL today. Described by some as a sack artist, the idea of having Gerald McCoy and Greg Hardy coming at you could shake the boots of even the most brave NFL quarterback. Hardy is only 26, and you don’t have to look far to see evidence of his ability on the field. In the very first game of the 2014 season against the Buccaneers, Hardy managed to fight through multiple players to sack Josh McCown hard from behind and cause a fumble.
What’s the problem? That was Greg Hardy’s only sack in the 2014 NFL season. After the second game, Hardy was placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List amidst controversy about a domestic violence case involving his girlfriend. In July 2014, Hardy was convicted of those charges, but he proceeded to appeal the verdict and demand a jury trial. When said trial rolled around last month, the victim was nowhere to be found, unable to be contacted, and had apparently reached a civil settlement with Hardy. Prosecutors were forced to have the charges dismissed due to the lack of cooperation, but the controversy doesn’t vanish. You can’t deny Hardy’s talent, but his character is worrisome. Combine this with a still undetermined potential suspension, and it makes picking up Hardy a much more difficult choice.
Verdict: If character matters like Lovie says it matters, they won’t sign this wifebeater.
Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle
The NFL’s “Dirtiest Player” is yet another that would not be necessary, but you can’t help imagining the impact he’d make paired up with Gerald McCoy. Suh is the kind of player, well- oh what’s a good analogy. He’s sort of like the guy who would kick a player when he’s down and stomp on a former NFL MVP Quarterback’s already damaged calf with what appears to be pure malice. Okay, he’s exactly that guy. Suh isn’t shy about the way he plays, but there was a passive nature in the Buccaneers’ defense at times last season that Suh would immediately affect.
If anyone could try to keep Suh in check, it may just be Lovie Smith. The thing is that Suh may be one of the highest priced options available, and with the needs that the Buccaneers have he may not be worth the cost. Despite his past, including an incident with current Tampa Bay Center Evan Dietrich-Smith, Suh’s playing ability speaks volumes. He would instantly increase the fear factor of the Bucs’ defense, but at what cost? Even for a team that boasts a Hall of Famer like Warren Sapp, his tendency towards penalties, fines, and even suspensions may be too much for the Buccaneers to bite.
Verdict: That team in Oakland that acts exactly like Suh plays has more money than us.
Byron Maxwell, Cornerback
To some Tampa Bay fans, watching the Seattle Seahawks defense thrive has stung a little for the last few years. The main reason for that is former Buccaneer defensive end Michael Bennett, also referred to as “the one that got away.” The ability to acquire Maxwell, a key cog in the fabled Legion of Boom, would be a moral victory for those fans. Maxwell’s value doesn’t stop at being a consolation prize for the mistakes of the past. He’s also a clean valuable cornerback. There are no controversial legal issues surrounding him, and he’s proven he can play.
The question of whether or not Maxwell can thrive outside of the Legion of Boom is a big one, but there’s plenty of film to evaluate. As receivers avoid Richard Sherman like the plague, they tend to focus more on Maxwell. He’s more than held up his end of the bargain when it comes to that. His potential acquisition could hinge on the potential Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier see in Maxwell working as the nickel corner, but his skill is clear. Maxwell is only 26, has experience, and has little to no downsides. He won’t come cheap, but he won’t have near the pricetag that someone like Darrelle “CapKiller” Revis would.
Verdict: Maxwell is a great choice, but Tampa Bay won’t be his only potential suitor.
Rolando McClain, Inside Linebacker
Demarco Murray helped the Dallas Cowboys offense reinvent itself this year, but Rolando McClain was one of many important pieces that completely reshaped their defense. Things started clicking in Dallas, and part of it was due to the reemergence of McClain. Unfortunately, the man isn’t with his issues. McClain has left football in the past, been arrested multiple times (though not since April 2013), and he fought injuries that may still linger. He’s not a perfect prospect, but he’s shown he can play.
The first difficult with McClain is keeping him focused, but with men like Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David to lead by example, he’ll have no shortage of character surrounding him. Keeping him healthy would be the next task, which wasn’t exactly a strength for the 2014 Buccaneers. Despite these flaws, McClain would become a force within the Bucs’ defense. His issues will net him a lower price tag, and few teams will be interested in high risk deals. If the Buccaneers see enough evidence of the turnaround in his life, McClain could be a bargain on the inside.
Verdict: McClain might be a good bet, just don’t bet on him starting with a long contract.
Devin McCourty, Safety
Are you surprised it took me this long to arrive at a player currently with the New England Patriots? Tampa Bay is no stranger to dealing with the current reigning Super Bowl Champions. Look no further than the coordination last season in the Buccaneers acquiring Logan Mankins. McCourty may be frustrated with New England as he seemed to be expecting to be hit with a franchise tag, but the Patriots opted instead to call dibs on their kicker. All things considered, McCourty is going to be a hot prospect headed into next week.
The 27 year old former first round pick is not only one of the best free safeties around, but he may also be one of the most versatile. Between McCourty’s past playing as a cornerback and his ability to adjust in the center of the Patriot’s backfield, he’s a highly rated option. McCourty also happens to be as intelligent as he is agile, and this would be a major upside for the Buccaneers. The only downside to McCourty is the illusion that, since he won’t be with Bill Belichick, he’ll magically suck. Yeah…no. The only real problem is that I’m not the only person drooling at the idea of Devin McCourty on their team’s defense. McCourty wouldn’t be cheap, but he could be worth every penny.
Verdict: Unless the Bucs are outbid, McCourty coming to Tampa is a very real possibility.
All in all, Tampa Bay could be in for a free agency period equally as active as they did in 2014. There are plenty of options, and they will likely looking for young bargains like were found in men like Bradley McDougald last season. Don’t panic if you see the Bucs signing names you’ve never heard of, because last season the ones you knew about became the biggest problems. With the Glazers looking like they’re taking an interest in creating a team that has more positive buzz, a blockbuster free agent signing could be on the agenda. Some are more likely than others, but very few would surprise me at this point. Don’t underestimate the Lovie-Licht Connection.