Free agency is the NFL's tool to get better fast — or at least that's how it is perceived by most fans. But it can work the other way, becoming an albatross around a team's neck if the wrong moves are made.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered free agency this past offseason with a bevy of salary cap room for the first time in years. While many expected the Buccaneers to go out and sign a big-ticket player, the Buccaneers opted to go after mid-tier free agents that better fit their team concept. The Buccaneers were further undermined by the fact that most teams in the NFL had cap space to work with, thanks to the relief found in the new collective bargaining agreement, which significantly raised the salary cap.
So how did the Buccaneers do? Here's my grade book for 2007 free agency. Grades are for players that were signed during the free-agent period with the intention of making the 53-man roster, or free agents that were signed afterward that made the 53-man roster. My grades also include the two significant trades the Buccaneers made during the offseason.
B.J. Askew, FB: 13 catches, 122 yards.
Teammates rave about his blocking, and after Jon Gruden abandoned the idea of having Michael Pittman as the fullback, Askew has shown what a real fullback can do. He had a lot to do with those big rushing outputs against St. Louis, Carolina and Arizona. He has pass-catching ability, too, which is a plus. His 13 catches are already a career high. He's softened the blow of losing Mike Alstott and he may have a job long-term if Alstott ends up retiring. Grade: B.
Phillip Buchanon, CB: 36 tackles, two interceptions, 8 pass breakups.
Buchanon may be the best free agent signing of the bunch, frankly. The Bucs re-signed him on March 2 and he has taken to Monte Kiffin's Cover 2 scheme as if Tampa Bay is where he should have been his entire career. He's helped mask Brian Kelly's injury woes, and has even made a case to take Kelly's starting job. He's made few mistakes, has the speed to stay with anyone in coverage and plays the ball well. He's also assumed a share of the punt-return duties. The Bucs are certainly glad they didn't let this guy go. Grade: B+.
Kevin Carter, DE/DT: 46 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble.
No one expected Carter to be a star when he signed. The Bucs wanted him for valuable depth and his versatility, and from that standpoint Carter hasn't disappointed. He's been used outside, then inside, on consecutive plays. He's assumed a leadership role with younger players and his steady play makes him perhaps the most reliable player on the defensive line. Yes he's getting on in years, but for now he's worth the investment. Grade: B.
Patrick Chukwurah, DE: 7 tackles, 1 sack, one fumble recovery; 2 special teams tackles.
He's missed six of nine games due to injuries, though he's expected to be back after the bye week. He was supposed to be the starter at right end to start the season. Now he may be Gaines Adams' backup when he returns. He's turning into a loss this season. Grade: D.
Torrie Cox, CB: 6 special teams tackles; 2 kickoff returns for 20.5-yard average. Now on injured reserve.
He missed the first four games due to a NFL suspension, but made six special teams tackles in three games before blowing out his knee against Jacksonville. The Bucs have enough depth at special teams to absorb Cox's loss. Grade: C.
Sammy Davis, CB: 14 tackles, one pass breakup.
The Bucs cut him at the end of preseason, but brought him back when they needed depth. A solid corner who is most likely going to help on special teams the rest of this season. He signed for the minimum, so the Bucs are getting the former first-round pick cheap. Grade: C.
Jeff Garcia, QB: 170-of-258 passing, 1,967 yards, 9 TDs, 3 INTs.
The last two seasons the Bucs have had to change quarterbacks at the bye. Not this year. Garcia has done a great job running Gruden's offensive system. His toughness and leadership have won over the team and the fans. Plus, his veteran savvy has probably led to at least two wins the Bucs might not have. He'd like to have the fumbles against Detroit back, along with the interceptions against Jacksonville. But you can't minimize his impact on a team that sorely needed consistent play at the game's most important position. Grade: B+.
Cato June, LB: 79 tackles,1 interception, 1 pass breakup.
He's had games where he's disappeared — most notably Indianapolis — but overall he's been productive. He's handled subbing for Derrick Brooks at WLB on passing downs well. He's third on the team in tackles. But I think everyone expected a few more breakout plays by now. One must keep in mind that he's Brooks' future replacement. Grade: C+.
Matt Lehr, OL: Backs up center and guard positions.
He probably sees some time on special teams, but he won't play unless John Wade, Arron Sears or Davin Joseph get hurt. And you don't want them to get hurt, if you ask me. Lehr didn't impress me at all in training camp or preseason and he had fumbling issues. Grade: D.
Luke Petitgout, LT: Played four games before a knee injury put him on injured reserve.
He had done a fine job solidifying the left side of the offensive line before the knee injury. I think in a small way he was responsible for the offensive line's early success, as most of the younger players raved about Petitgout's knowledge and skill. So it's probably no surprise that he's been hanging around the locker room. But this is Petitgout's second major injury in consecutive years, and one has to wonder if he's now worth the $15 million the Bucs invested. Grade: C.
Jake Plummer, QB: On reserve/did not report list.
Easily the most ill-conceived move the Bucs made all offseason. They obviously panicked when Garcia went to visit the Raiders and pulled the trigger on the trade for Plummer, even though they knew Plummer had said he intended to retire. Plummer has not backed off that stance, and the Bucs are now trying to get some of his signing bonus money back. They gave up a seventh-round pick for this mess. Grade: F.
Ryan Sims, DT: Traded to Tampa Bay on May 1. 3 tackles.
He's been a gameday inactive most of the season. He came to camp a bit out of shape and never impressed. The best thing he did for the Bucs was to re-work his contract to severely reduce his salary cap drag. He's signed through 2008, but I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't back next year. Grade: D.
Jerramy Stevens, TE: 8 catches, 78 yards.
He came in handy when Alex Smith missed a few games due to injury. But when Smith is healthy, he isn't much of a factor outside of blocking. I thought the Bucs might use him more. Grade: D.
Greg White, DE: 23 tackles, 2 ½ sacks.
He's been one of this year's pleasant surprises. White went from Arena Football star to member of the defensive end rotation in less than a month. He also made the Bucs think twice about starting Gaines Adams last week. He's been a great find for the Bucs this season and gives them great depth on the right side. Grade: B-.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.