Looking ahead at 2008's free agents

Well, all right Simeon Rice is a no-brainer. Every Tampa Bay fan knows he's a free agent after this season. But do you know who the rest of them are? The list numbers more than 20 players, and includes everyone from Bucs legends to up-and-coming players. Buccaneers Expert Matthew Postins ranks the Bucs' Top 5 2008 free agents

The NFL isn't just about what happens during the current season. Many times it's about planning ahead.

In many cases that comes down to two words — free agency.

When the Buccaneers seriously begin devising their plan to attack free agency next season, they will take into account not only what will be on the market, but their own potential free agents. Sometimes re-signing its own players is the best investment a team can make. Defensive tackle Chris Hovan — who will be a fixture on the Bucs' defensive line until 2011 — is a perfect example.

Hovan played 2005 on a one-year contract and rejuvenated his career with the Buccaneers. When free agency came around in 2006, Hovan must have remembered that because he signed a five-year contract with the Bucs. Who knows where the interior line would be right now without Hovan.

BucsBlitz.com compiled the entire free agency list for the Buccaneers currently under contract (thanks in part to the information provided at nflpa.org). Who are the Bucs' Top 5 in-house free agents in 2008? The answers follow.

1. Simeon Rice, DE (current salary $7,250,000)

Actually, Rice's cap figure is closer to $10 million when you take into account his salary bonus. But this choice is a no-brainer.

Look at Rice's numbers throughout his career and you'll see a productive player. Eight double-digit sack seasons, which is fifth all-time. He's second among active players in sacks (121) behind the New York Giants' Michael Strahan. He leads the Bucs in double-digit sack seasons with five (2001-05). He entered last season ranked 13th on the all-time sack list.

But last year marked the first real physical breakdown of his career. His season ended on injured reserve for the first time in Tampa Bay, as he missed the final eight games with a shoulder injury that required surgery. He finished last season with just two sacks, his lowest total ever. By all accounts, the surgery has gone well and Rice will be ready for training camp.

But Rice is also 33 years old, and one has to suspect that last year's physical breakdown may be a sign of 12 years of wear and tear, despite in the impossibly good shape Rice always appears to be in. While he's certainly not the locker room distraction in the neighborhood of a Warren Sapp or Keyshawn Johnson, Rice gets his fair share of unwanted attention (his suspension in San Francisco in 2005 immediately comes to mind). And now there's that pesky first-round pick, Gaines Adams, nipping at his heels.

Rice could have a big year in 2007, if you consider the "contract year" theory of professional athletics to be a valid one. If Rice comes to play in 2007 and makes it through the whole season, a double-digit sack total is again a possibility.

Rice is as self-aware of an athlete as you'll find. He's understands his situation clearly. At his age, he has just one last multi-year, multi-million dollar contract left in him. The only way to get that contract is to have a big year, something that would not only help Rice's ability to land that contract but also give the Bucs' anemic pass rush a jolt. I've always gotten the impression that Rice likes to be well paid, especially when you consider that he's never re-worked his deal for the Bucs.

No matter the numbers Rice puts up, I don't think he'll be back in 2008 in Tampa Bay. The Bucs seem ready to sever ties with him once his contract is up, and now that Adams is in town Tampa Bay has a young player in the Rice mold that they'll have wrapped up for five more years once Rice leaves.

2. FB Mike Alstott ($1.5 million)

The deal Alstott signed in March is for one year, and the Bucs will leave it up to him whether he comes back in 2008 or not. My bet is that Alstott will finally retire. He really seemed to struggle with his decision this offseason, and players that struggle with that decision once usually don't struggle with it again.

Should the arrangement go beyond 2007, Alstott would likely receive about the $1.5 million he's getting for 2007. And I doubt he'll want to play anywhere else at this stage in his career.

3. TE Jerramy Stevens ($600,000)

I'm basing this on the theory that players that leave their previous places of employment with their tail between their legs usually enter their new job with a chip on their shoulder. My instinct tells me that Stevens is out to prove that he's not a first-round bust. He also knows, like Rice, that a great 2007 will get him a longer, more lucrative, contract in 2008.

Stevens has all the athletic tools to be a top-flight tight end. He's tall (6-foot-7), quick and strong enough (260 pounds) to block, too. But his career high in receptions is only 45, set in 2005, and not the numbers of an elite tight end. Jon Gruden's offense can spotlight a tight end of Stevens' obvious physical traits, so he could definitely benefit, especially in the red zone. So long as Stevens concentrates on catching the ball and keeping his mouth shut, he has a chance to get a longer contract from someone in 2008.

4. DT Jovan Haye ($435,000)

Haye will likely be a restricted free agent next spring, since he has only three years in the NFL. But I think the Buccaneers are on to something with this guy. He seems to be a good fit at under tackle, though a bit undersized at 285 pounds. He really shone during mini-camp and defensive line coach Larry Coyer really seems to have taken to him. Haye is going to get his first legitimate shot at a starting job in the NFL and if he takes advantage of it and has a fine season, he'll be rewarded.

5. David Boston ($595,000)

If you look at the full list of 2008 free agents, the pickings are a bit thin. But I'll take Boston here because he's playing for his career this year. If he doesn't catch on in Tampa Bay, I don't believe he catches on anywhere. The Bucs cut Boston last fall because he wasn't 100 percent from years of leg injuries, but he seems to be completely healthy now. Gruden is dying to give the vet a real shot at a job, so expect to see Boston a lot during camp and the preseason. If he makes the team and can contribute 30-40 catches, he could see a multi-year deal come his way because next year's free-agent market appears as if it will be as lucrative as 2007.

Tampa Bay's 2008 free agents

FB Mike Alstott, DE Charles Bennett, WR David Boston, DT Darrell Campbell, LB Antoine Cash, G Jonathan Clinkscale, CB Sammy Davis, LS Andrew Economos, RB Lionel Gates, DT Jovan Haye (RFA), TE Keith Heinrich, WR Mark Jones, G Matt Lehr, S Donte Nicholson, S Kalvin Pearson (RFA), T Donald Penn, DE Simeon Rice, DT Ryan Sims, WR Kyle Smith, TE Jerramy Stevens, G Jeb Terry, WR Paris Warren (RFA), LB Jamie Winborn.

Note: RFA — Restricted free agent.

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. Included among his more than two dozen writing and editing awards are national awards from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors, and state awards from the Florida Press Club and the Florida Sports Writers Association, for his coverage of the Buccaneers since 2004.


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