The Tampa Bay Buccaneers appear to be set up much better for long-term success after winning the NFC South in 2007. Unlike 2005, the Buccaneers have money to spend in free agency (at least $20 million) and a stable labor situation in the NFL (the league was negotiating a new agreement with the NFL Players' Union in the 2006 offseason, severely impairing the Bucs' ability to attract free agents). Neither of those are issues now.
So what are the team's top 10 priorities this offseason? Watch what the team does in these first five areas:
1. SETTLE THE COACHING STAFF — QUICKLY.
This looked like it was going to be a tall order just a few days ago. On Monday, head coach Jon Gruden gave his assistants about five minutes of his time and told them if they wanted to remain in Tampa Bay they should make an appointment with general manager Bruce Allen.
There is potential for two dozen members of the coaching staff to depart as free agents if their contracts are not extended. The Bucs are usually reticent to allow assistants to leave before their contracts expire. But the sheer number of assistants not under contract is disconcerting, especially after the jobs some of them did this year.
There is movement already. Offensive coordinator and line coach Bill Muir, wide receivers coach Richard Mann and special teams coach Richard Bisaccia have already re-upped. Offensive line assistant Aaron Kromer sounds as if he's not far behind. Running backs coach Art Valero has already accepted a job with the St. Louis Rams.
|Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is mulling a contract offer from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But some news reports are linking him to a possible job offer in Atlanta, if Pete Carroll is hired to take over the Falcons. (Getty Images)|
All of this could lead to a couple of issues. First, there's Gruden's contract, which is only good through the 2008 season. That could scare off some potential assistant coaches that won't want to be a part of a mass firing if Gruden isn't asked back beyond 2008.
The other is the offseason draft prep. The assistant coaches, supposedly, have a lot of input into the evaluation process and too many new assistants could signal a shift in the Bucs' draft paradigm. That could means the scouts will have more say in which players make the Bucs' final draft board and the scouting directors will get less input from the coaches, who supposedly know what type of players the team needs.
Without a coach like Kiffin, for example, how are the guys in the war room supposed to know who to evaluate? If it's Kiffin, you stick with looking for players that fit the Cover 2 scheme. But if Kiffin were to leave, a new coordinator might change the types of players his defense needs, creating a new set of parameters for scouts who have evaluated players using one set of parameters for months.
The Buccaneers need to get their staff settled and fast. The Senior Bowl is less than two weeks away and the Scouting Combine is in late February. There are issues that can only be settled with a full staff.
Unless you trust Gruden to make all the decisions?
2. IDENTIFY THE LONG-TERM REPLACEMENTS FOR CB RONDE BARBER AND CB BRIAN KELLY.
Kelly is in the final year of his contract, and given his injury problems the past few years it's unlikely his contract will be extended or renewed beyond 2008. Barber, meanwhile, has three years left under his current extension and there appears to be no slowing him down.
But the Buccaneers do have to concern themselves with who will replace both beyond the 2008 season. Phillip Buchanon, given his play during the 2007 season, will likely receive the first opportunity to take over Kelly's spot. In fact, it may not even be a contract issue. Buchanon did not relinquish the job when Kelly returned from injury in 2007 and he may not in 2008, relegating Kelly to the third cornerback role he accepted last season.
Barber is another matter. Many NFL experts consider him the best nickel cornerback ever, and his replacement may be playing at safety in Tanard Jackson. He possesses similar coverage, hitting and playmaking skills to Barber. But his play was so tremendous at free safety that the Bucs may not want to move him.
So then what? There really aren't any other suitable young cornerbacks on the roster to take over for Barber. So the Buccaneers will have to identify at least one during free agency or in the draft. Barber isn't getting any younger, and even though he's been extremely durable, he's bound to get hurt sometime. The Buccaneers must think ahead to 2009 or 2010 to make sure their level of play in the secondary doesn't take a sharp dip once Barber calls it quits, presumably after his current contract expires.
3. DETERMINE IF DT JOVAN HAYE IS THE ANSWER AT UNDER TACKLE OR IF A FREE AGENT SIGNING IS IN ORDER.
I really enjoyed watching Haye play this year. He came up through college football as an end and began his NFL career at end. But when the Bucs got a hold of him in 2006 they asked him to transfer his skills to the under tackle position. After a transition period, Haye got the most out of his skills, finishing with 97 tackles, six sacks and an NFL-leading four fumble recoveries.
|Tampa Bay defensive tackle Jovan Haye had a great year in his first full season as a starter in Tampa Bay. But could the Bucs find an improvement in free agency? (Getty Images/Thomas B. Shea)|
Haye has solid pass rush ability. Where I think he's a bit deficient is on running downs. The Bucs finished 17th against the run this year and the under tackle is a key component. The perfect under tackle — Warren Sapp — could stop the run and rush the passer without having to come off the field. Sapp also has at least 15 pounds on Haye, which means a player of Sapp's size is less likely to be pushed around by a 325-pound right guard.
And that could be a problem in the long-term if the Bucs want to return to stopping the run as they did several years ago.
Haye may eventually become that Sapp-like player, but the Bucs would have to bank on the potential flashed during just one season. Haye is a restricted free agent, so it's very unlikely he'll end up going anywhere.
The question is, can the Bucs do better?
At 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, Haynesworth has everything the Bucs could be looking for — size, height, quickness and natural ability. It's no surprise that the Titans had a great run defense with Haynesworth and an average one without him. Need proof. Here it is:
With Haynesworth (12 games): 75.5 yards per game.
Without Haynesworth (4 games): 142.3 yards per game.
That is why Haynesworth will be one of the most sought-after free agents this offseason, if he hits the open market. The Titans could re-sign him before free agency begins or slap him with the franchise tag, all but making him impossible to sign.
But if he's out there, and the Bucs are committed to signing "Tiger Woods" type players in free agency, Haynesworth has to be at the top of their list.
4. DECIDE WHAT THEY WILL DO AT RUNNING BACK WITHOUT CARNELL WILLIAMS.
Williams probably will not be ready for the start of training camp. There's a slim chance he could be ready by the regular-season opener. But it's more likely that Williams will begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list and be unavailable until midseason.
|Tampa Bay running back Earnest Graham will likely earn a contract extension during the offseason, according to Bucs GM Bruce Allen. (AP photo/Scott Audette)|
But beyond Graham, there could be serious problems. Michael Bennett is an unrestricted free agent. Michael Pittman has two years left on his deal, but they're both voidable years. Bucs GM Bruce Allen said Thursday he expects Pittman to become a free agent.
If that's the case, Kenneth Darby, who ended the season on the active roster, would be Graham's immediate backup.
With a young offensive line that is built to block for the run and an offense that seems more successful when it caters to the ground game, finding capable complements to Graham would seem to be a big need.
And it may be nothing more than re-signing Bennett and Pittman. They both offer the Bucs a different style of runner. Bennett is a speed demon with slashing ability, and the few times he carried the ball this season he showed flashes of big-play potential. With a full offseason in Jon Gruden's system, he said he felt confident he could make huge strides.
Pittman is the "Joker," as Gruden likes to call him. His chief attributes are blitz pickups and receiving out of the backfield. But Graham made so much progress with both facets this season that Pittman may choose to find another team.
If the Bucs re-sign neither of them, they're going to have to act during the offseason, because they cannot count on Williams being back by August (even though that's what they're hoping for). They'll either have to pursue a free agent or spend a high draft pick on a running back, the latter of which I assume the Bucs do not want to do because they still consider Williams their future.
Either way, the backfield bears watching.
5. IDENTIFY A YOUNG WIDE RECEIVER, EITHER IN FREE AGENCY OR IN THE DRAFT, TO GROOM TO REPLACE JOEY GALLOWAY.
The Buccaneers have two types of receivers — Galloway and everyone else. Galloway is the speed freak. The rest of them are big receivers with functional speed.
Galloway is the only game breaker. And he's getting old. He'll be 36 next year. He may play at the level he's playing at now for three more years. But if he suddenly breaks down — and he has several times during his career — the Bucs are in deep trouble. With no one to stretch the defense, the offense could stagnate.
Michael Clayton's inability to live up to his rookie production, plus Maurice Stovall's lack of progress his sophomore season, will force the Bucs to make a move at receiver. But which one? Free agency or the Draft?
In free agency, Randy Moss might be the big ticket item, assuming the New England Patriots let him get away. It's likely they won't. With no Moss, then the best pure deep threat is Chicago's Bernard Berrian. He can match Galloway's speed and yards per catch average. Plus he's improved his ability to shine in the intermediate passing game. The Bucs could sign him to a similar deal as they did Cato June, who will eventually slide over to replace Derrick Brooks at weak side linebacker. Berrian could be Galloway's heir and still help the offense now by providing another deep threat opposite Galloway. Imagine defenses scheming for that?
If the Bucs fail in free agency, they'll have to spend a high pick, perhaps their first-rounder, on a wide receiver. Some mocks already have them taking Oregon's DeSean Jackson, another speedy threat that can add value as a return specialist (another area the Bucs are in need of a game-breaker). Beyond that, most of the first-round talent at that position fits the personnel the Bucs already have. How many 6-foot-5 receivers can one team have?
It's clear the Bucs need a jolt in the passing game. And they're going to have to make finding that jolt a priority this offseason.
COMING TOMORROW: The Bucs' other five offseason priorities.
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. He can be heard occasionally on the Scot Brantley Show on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa from 3-6 p.m. weekdays.