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 last five areas (and if you missed the first part of this article, you can link to it at the end of this article):
6. GET HEAD COACH JON GRUDEN A CONTRACT EXTENSION — BUT NOT A LONG ONE.
Before you get drunk on reaching the playoffs again, remember that the Bucs have followed each of their winning seasons under Jon Gruden with a losing season. In 2003 they went from 12-4 and a Super Bowl title to 7-9. In 2006 they went from 11-5 and a division championship to 4-12.
|Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden. (Getty Images)|
The roller coaster must stop, and the Glazer family has to send a clear message to Gruden — and, frankly, GM Bruce Allen — that it has to stop.
There's no reason to risk a Lovie Smith-esque situation where Gruden coaches out his contract without one, making him a free agent in 2009. The Glazers should offer Gruden a one-year extension through 2009, but nothing more.
After the 2005 season many thought the Buccaneers had made progress after two straight losing seasons. It turned out to be a mirage, as the defense got old fast and the offense sputtered mightily due to injuries. Gruden nearly lost his grip on the locker room.
A five-game turnaround, to me, signals progress. But how much? There are still serious questions about this team at key spots. They're incredibly young at some spots, like offensive line. They're getting older at others spots, like wide receiver.
Yes, half their roster is home-grown now, and that's a promising development as well. But will it signal a more consistent, winning football team on the field? That's what I would be asking if I was a Glazer.
The Glazers should say this to Gruden:
"We like the direction this team is going in, but we felt burned by what happened in 2006. We think you're the right guy to lead this franchise further into the future, but we need to see more consistency out of this team. So we're going to extend your contract to 2009, and if we like what we see in 2008, we'll talk about a longer deal."
Jon Gruden seems to respond to pressure. He did this year. So put the heat on him again. And if he falters in 2008, the Glazers can make a change without being on the hook for two or three more years of payments to Gruden.
7. DETERMINE THE CENTER SITUATION.
What situation, you ask? Well, veteran John Wade — a player I like, respect and thought did great work this year with a young offensive line — has two more years left on his deal. But they're voidable. That means he could become a free agent.
The Bucs are on the record as saying they think Dan Buenning, who started at left guard as a rookie in 2005, is their center of the future. They love Buenning's physical makeup. He has 21 pounds on Wade and they would love to put that kind of girth in the middle between Davin Joseph and Arron Sears.
But is Buenning ready for this? He played at center in the preseason, but didn't play a lick during the regular season. He watched Wade from the sideline.
|Tampa Bay center John Wade can void out his contract this year, making him a free agent. (Getty Images)|
Should the Bucs let Wade go, they could be making a big mistake. Buenning is untested at the position, and you never know how a player will react to a position change until he's in that position in a live game. Buenning may get it done. Or he may falter.
It's a gamble, to be sure. And given where the Bucs are as a team right now, I'm not sure if that's the right gamble yet.
If the Bucs choose not to keep Wade, they'll have to re-sign Matt Lehr or sign a veteran center in free agency. And, frankly, the market for free-agent centers looks pretty thin right now.
That's another reason I'm for keeping Wade and letting Buenning duke it out with him for the job in training camp. But part of that decision will be up to Wade.
8. RE-SIGN TIGHT END JERRAMY STEVENS.
A year ago I would have probably written something like this about Stevens:
"Stay away. Stay far away from this guy."
But now I think the Bucs must try and keep him for a couple of reasons.
|Tampa Bay tight end Jerramy Stevens needs to remain a Buccaneer in 2008. (Getty Images/Chris Graythen)|
But, with only Alex Smith under contract, depth becomes a concern if Becht does leave. Stevens can probably be had for less than $1 million, as he caught only 18 passes in 2007.
But it's the quality of his finish that makes me think the Bucs should re-sign him.
Stevens caught 10 of his passes during the season's final five weeks — once he finally had the fallout from his Arizona DUI arrest and conviction behind him. He did miss one game due to a NFL suspension. But when he returned he caught eight passes for 103 yards and three touchdowns in the season's final two games.
Stevens is a massive target whose hands are better than advertised. He's not the best blocker on earth, but he can get the job done when required.
If he's re-signed it will be his second year in Gruden's offense. And it appears to me that players tend to have better numbers the longer he's in their offense. The playbook is so complicated that it appears that players need more than a season to get comfortable, especially if they're free agents. Plus, Gruden trusts players he's been around longer and he even admitted that only in the season's final weeks did he develop a comfort level with Stevens.
Stevens is the type of free agent the Bucs like — cheap and with upside. Stevens seems to like it in Tampa Bay and the offense, late in the season, agreed with him. The Bucs should seek to extend their arrangement.
9. FIGURE OUT THE RETURN GAME.
Poor Mark Jones. He was doing such great work before he got hurt against Detroit.
Jones had put a headlock on the kickoff and punt return positions for the Bucs and was having the best season of his career. Jones averaged 11.9 yards per punt return. Had he finished the season and qualified for the league rankings that would have put him fourth in the NFL. He averaged 28.6 yards per kickoff return. That would have been fourth in the NFL. Those are Pro Bowl type numbers.
After Jones' injury, both return games sputtered, the punt game especially. The Bucs had to force Phillip Buchanon, Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway into that role, players Gruden trusted but didn't want to risk. Their averages were paltry compared to Jones.
|Tampa Bay kick returner Micheal Spurlock scored the first kickoff return for a touchdown in team history. But is he the right guy for the job in the long term? (Getty Images/Sam Greenwood)|
But Spurlock has returned fewer than 20 kickoffs in his career. He fumbled in the NFC Wild Card playoff game. And he is of little help in the punt return game.
Gruden has openly complained for years that he wants more explosive players in the return game. The Bucs seem to trot out dozens of players every year, only to settle on reliable veterans that are better off not being involved in the return game.
Every team is searching for its Devin Hester now, and the Bucs need to be proactive. They need to find their big-play returner this year. Fortunately, one could hit free agency — Houston's Andre Davis.
You remember him, right? He's the only that returned that kickoff for a touchdown in the second half of the Bucs' 28-14 loss to the Texans.
Davis was second in the NFL in kickoff return average at 30.3 yards. He also scored three times, including twice in one game. He can even give you some receiving stats, too.
But he's a gamebreaker the Bucs should investigate if he's a free agent. Spurlock is good. But Davis is better.
And Jones is probably out, as he injured his patellar tendon, just like Carnell Williams. Don't expect Jones to be ready for training camp.
10. MAKE A SPLASH IN FREE AGENCY.
Yes, the Buccaneers did some good things during the free agency period last year. While none of their moves were splashy, most were successful.
But if this team is to make strides toward the Super Bowl, it needs dominant players. The kinds of players that are going to cost the Bucs some money.
They have $23 million in cap space, so money isn't the issue. The issue is whether the Bucs use that money to sign impact players or not.
By early April, the Bucs want fans to be buzzing about signing players like Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth and Chicago's Bernard Berrian — both of which I feel are solid fits for the Bucs — and not about the players they failed to sign.
The Bucs have the infrastructure, as GM Bruce Allen said on Thursday. Now, they have to get busy.
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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. He can be heard occasionally during the offseason on the Scot Brantley Show on WHBO-AM 1470 in Tampa-Clearwater.