The deadline for teams to place franchise tags passed on Monday, and several intriguing, potentially-impactful players were not tagged, setting up what should be a series of bidding wars for their services once the NFL free agency period begins next week.
There’s no doubt the Bucs should be in the thick of at least a few of those battles. If we are to believe the Glazers’ “we will spend what it takes to win” mantra, they have to be.
It would be pointless to try to name all of the positional groups that the Bucs could use an upgrade. Name it, and the Bucs could probably use help. But not many people thought that a player like S LaRon Landry would have been available this offseason. Instead the Redskins placed the franchise tag on TE Fred Davis, and Landry instantly becomes the top free agent safety on the market. Landry is worth keeping an eye on in Tampa Bay, given Sean Jones’ pending free agent status, Cody Grimm’s recent injuries, and Tanard Jackson’s disappointing play coming off of suspension.
Perhaps the biggest name on the market and maybe the Bucs’ radar, Vincent Jackson, was not tagged by the Chargers and will be a highly-sought commodity as the top wide receiver available, should Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith not strike a deal with him in the next week. There could be some risk with Jackson, as he will be in his thirties for most of the duration of any new contract and he has been arrested twice for DUI. However, game-changing wideouts don’t grow on trees, and Jackson has piled up 1000+ yard receiving seasons 3 of the past 4 years. His ability to get down the field would provide an instant boost to a passing game that finished in the bottom five in the NFL last year in catches of 20+ and 40+ yards, as well as helping take pressure off of Mike Williams. There will undoubtedly be a large market for Jackson, especially in the northern divisions. He would be a terrific fit on contenders like Baltimore and Chicago, and could draw strong interest from Minnesota, who tried to acquire Jackson by trade in 2010. The trick for Mark Dominik will be to convince Jackson to come to a team in seeming disarray with a historically bad defense, new coaching staff, and an ownership group who has been questioned strongly by its fan base as to its willingness to commit financially to putting a winner on the field. A hefty contract, terrific weather, no state income tax, and a talented, big-armed quarterback will have to be selling points.
The Saints’ inability to work out a long-term deal with QB Drew Brees meant not being able to protect G Carl Nicks, WR Marques Colston, or WR Robert Meachem. Although the Saints have until the start of free agency to hammer out a deal with all of these players, one has to wonder if the pending allegations of Saints’ players and coaches being involved in a bounty scandal will hamper the Saints’ ability to work on those deals. Although Nicks does not seem to be a particularly strong target for the Bucs, given the money already invested in Davin Joseph, Donald Penn, Jeff Faine, and Jeremy Zuttah, Meachem and his 16.1 yards per reception would be a feasible backup plan should Jackson land elsewhere.
Two other premiere wide receivers to avoid the tag were Mike Wallace and Mario Manningham. Manningham should get a lot of attention as one of the top options behind Jackson in this year’s market, especially since Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker, and Steve Johnson are no longer available. Wallace is a restricted free agent and the Steelers have until March 13 to place a tender on him, which will almost certainly be the highest one they can use – a first round tender. Thus, if the Bucs want him, they would have to sign him to an offer sheet that the Steelers don’t match, then send the Steelers the fifth pick in the draft. If it were between acquiring Wallace and drafting a player like Justin Blackmon, it would make a lot of sense to nab Wallace. However, the Bucs have a lot of other needs to address and a ton of options with the fifth pick, so such a move seems unlikely.
Atlanta’s decision to tag CB Brent Grimes means Cortland Finnegan’s value just increased, and Falcons’ MLB Curtis Lofton can become a free agent. Lofton has proven to be a steady and productive tackler in the middle of the Atlanta defense for the past few years, but should be in line for a significant pay increase as arguably the top inside linebacker available. Lofton is a feasible option at middle linebacker for the Buccaneers, who have the flexibility to move current MLB Mason Foster to weakside linebacker to replace free agent Geno Hayes. Such a move would not be foreign to Foster, who played all three linebacker positions in college.
Another would be Stephen Tulloch, who was the Lions’ leading tackler last season. The Lions placed the franchise tag on DE Cliff Avril, making Tulloch fair game if he and the Lions cannot agree on a new deal this week. Tulloch, like Lofton, is young (27, Lofton 25), and is known more for being a hard hitter than for his coverage skills. For a defense like the Bucs that’s lacking both fundamentals and physicality, Tulloch could bring both to a young and still impressionable defense.
And speaking of Finnegan, the Titans felt it was more important to place the tag on S Michael Griffin. It’s entirely possible the cornerback will command a higher salary than the five-year, $48.75 million that CB Jonathan Joseph received a year ago from Houston. Grimes going off the market takeos away one of the few realistic alternatives for teams should they not land Finnegan, so the bidding could get hot and heavy.
The question is: how many of these players will Tampa Bay seriously pursue? One thing is for certain, it’s time for the Glazers to show they are committed to spending what it takes to win. The talent is out there.