72 hours later, are the Bucs behind?

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a big splash on the first day of free agency, but since then have continually missed on other targeted free agents. Why? Bucsblitz.com analyzes that question, plus considers whether the Bucs have already fallen behind their NFC South rivals as the first full week of free agency begins.

Jeff Faine. Jimmy Wilkerson. John Gilmore.

That constituted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' free agency class after the first three days of free agency, traditionally the most busy in terms of player movement.

But what may be more disturbing for Buccaneers fans are the amount of players the Bucs have failed to lure despite nearly $44 million in cap space.

Drayton Florence. Ben Troupe. Devery Henderson. Aaron Stecker. Demorrio Williams. Alge Crumpler. Rod Coleman. Randall Gay.

That's just a smattering of some of the players the Bucs have either met with the past three days or shown a reported interest in. They all went other places. Some, like Williams and Gay, bypassed scheduled meetings with the Bucs to sign with other teams.

Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen has asserted all offseason that the Bucs have it all — a great facility, lots of cap room, no state income tax, a winning team and a well-respected coaching staff. The infrastructure is in place, as Allen likes to say.

But few are coming aboard. Why?

Actually, there are two questions to answer. The first is …

Why are the Bucs whiffing on most of their targeted free agents so far?

I can think of three. First, free agency is about targeting players that can help your team, not necessarily about throwing money around. There is more control of that in free agency than there is in the NFL Draft. The Bucs have been good at that in the past. You may like Asante Samuel, but the Bucs may not like the price tag it would take to get him or how he might fit in their system. So the Bucs target other players. Sometimes the most expensive item on the menu isn't the best dish. They'd rather spend their money on players that they know fit their scheme rather than a player that MIGHT be a good fit.

Second, everyone has money in the NFL now. It's not just a few teams that can compete anymore. Take Troupe. The Bucs probably thought they had him since Troupe met with them first. The Bucs had him in Tampa all day Saturday and couldn't get a deal done. Part of the reason has to be the sudden interest in Troupe, prompted by the realization by some teams that they had a need at tight end and the money to spend. Troupe, according to his agent, suddenly became a hot commodity and now has at least four other meetings set up.

Third, when the money is generally the same, the free agent will look at the situations and compare them. Say the Bucs were offering the framework of a deal to Florence that was similar to Jacksonville's offer, the team he signed with. It's not about the money anymore — he's going to get paid. Now it comes down to the situation. I'm not saying the Bucs made Florence an offer. What I'm saying is that if money's not the issue, the situation becomes a key factor. And the Bucs have gone from worst to first to worst to first the past four years and have a 38-year old starting quarterback. That inconsistency and the age of a player at the game's most crucial position can be factors in a free agent's decision making.

The Bucs are a patient group. They're also a bit frugal, the $37.5 million deal they gave Faine notwithstanding. Allen and Gruden's history suggests they won't overpay for a player most of the time, which means they're not going to get into bidding wars. Fine. But that leads us to question number two …

Have the Bucs fallen behind their NFC South rivals

Tampa Bay stole Faine from New Orleans. But the Saints have been pretty busy themselves. The Saints essentially stole Gay from the Bucs, who was to meet with the corner on Monday. I doubt signing with the Saints was a hard sell. Gay's a Louisiana native. But the Saints also re-signed two players the Bucs had eyed in Henderson and Stecker, signed DE Bobby McCray away from Jacksonville and re-signed LB Mark Simoneau and DT Brian Young.

Patriots CB Randall Gay signed with the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Sure, there are no big-ticket items there. But the fact that the Saints were able to sign three players the Bucs had an interest in is telling of how the Saints perceive themselves in the division. The Saints believe they're not far away from being contenders again, see Tampa Bay as their chief competition and aren't about to let any more of their players go to the Bay area. And don't forget — the Saints have about $30 million in cap space themselves, so they can compete financially.

Atlanta pulled off a big deal itself on Sunday, finally getting Michael Turner to sign on the dotted line after three days of courtship. Turner was unquestionably the top back on the market. They've also pulled off some minor deals, including signing S Erik Coleman away from the Jets, TE Ben Hartsock away from the Titans and CB Von Hutchins away from the Texans. There are also rumors the Falcons could be trading CB DeAngelo Hall at some point, which could lead to a boon of draft picks or players.

Carolina? They've actually been less busy than the Bucs, as they've focused on keeping their own players. They've added former WR Muhsin Muhammad and former Browns CB Ricardo Colclough, but that's all so far. The Panthers don't have a lot of cap space.

Taking what the Bucs have done on its own, one would surmise that they are behind in the free-agent chase. They've hosted a dozen players in three days and only signed three. That's a 25 percent success rate and not a good one when you have plenty of cash.

But when you compare the Bucs to the rest of the division, it's harder to make that point. Aside from Turner and Faine, what have the other teams in the division really done? They've focused on need and not on throwing money at free agents without much regard for their football team or the future. Sure, the Saints have signed more players. And the Falcons have the shiny new running back.

But the Buccaneers still have plenty of money to spend, a talented roster and draft picks. Their moves may come this week in the form of players like Patriots safety Eugene Wilson or Lions linebacker Teddy Lehman, or potentially down the line in trades.

But have they fallen behind yet? No.

But they can't afford to keep missing much longer.


Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. An award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers Association, he appears frequently on Scot Brantley Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.


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