Now that the heat is off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — for now — it's time to turn some attention to the next offseason.
Yes, the 2009 offseason. Believe me, the Bucs are already thinking about how to spend their money in free agency. One of the key components of that logic for Tampa Bay will be to assess current players that will be free agents next season and determine if they want to keep them.
You saw that logic on display just a couple of months ago. The Bucs re-signed Michael Bennett to a contract instead of allowing him to test free agency. They released defensive ends Greg Spires and Kevin Carter, but re-signed Carter later for a lesser contract.
General manager Bruce Allen has made it clear that signing key players that will be free agents in 2009 is a priority this offseason. However, none of those signings have happened yet. They still could. Remember that the Bucs awarded cornerback Ronde Barber an extension during training camp two years ago.
So which players have the best shot of staying? Bucsblitz.com has the current list of Bucs free agents in 2009 and provides the half-dozen players that will draw the most interest on the free agent market, plus the likelihood they'll be in Tampa Bay beyond 2008.
Graham is slated to make just $510,000 in base salary in 2008. As early as January Allen told the media that Graham was a player the Bucs definitely wanted to award a contract extension. In February at the combine Graham's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, told me that talks were "ongoing." At the Bucs' first OTAs before the draft, Graham told the St. Petersburg Times that his absence had "nothing" to do with his contract.
Hmmm. It's all very interesting. The Bucs have not had difficulty with Rosenhaus in the past (he previously represented Spires and those negotiations went fine when the Bucs and Spires agreed to an extension). Graham is a South Florida native who would love to stay in Tampa Bay. Graham also knows there's a good chance he'll be the starter this year and, while he won't get a lot of money, he definitely wants some security.
This will be a storyline throughout the offseason until a deal is done, and I believe a deal will get done. Given Carnell Williams' precarious situation and Graham's production in Jon Gruden's offense last season, the Bucs will likely negotiate a two or three-year extension with some guaranteed money. I think it will happen by training camp.
QB Jeff Garcia
Garcia wants a new contract because he knows it will likely be his last in the NFL. His two-year agreement runs out after the season and he's due $3 million, one of the lowest salaries in the NFL for a starter. He made some noise about the deal during the first OTAs, but I fully expect him to be at every OTA and mini-camp until training camp. Plus, I don't see a holdout.
Extending Garcia for a year or two would seem a given until you realize that backup Brian Griese has three more years on his contract. To some, the line of succession is already set and the Bucs can simply hand Griese the job next season when Garcia's contract expires.
Garcia will be 40 next January. His reckless style of play might keep the Bucs from extending his deal beyond this season. With the way the Bucs go through quarterbacks, they may give him an extension anyway. If there's no extension by training camp, don't expect Garcia to get one.
Buchanon flat out thrived under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive backs coach Raheem Morris last season. It's little wonder the Bucs didn't put up a fight when Brian Kelly wanted to buy out his deal.
What is interesting is that the Bucs now have a group of corners that includes Barber, Buchanon, Eugene Wilson and first-round pick Aqib Talib. That's a solid group of corners, and Barber and Buchanon were on the league's No. 1 pass defense a year ago.
Buchanon will count about $3 million against the cap. He's a quiet sort in the locker room, so it's hard to gauge his interest in staying. But he's been a solid locker room addition and played well as a starter. I could see the Bucs extending his deal, but likely during the season, once they see if Buchanon's 2007 wasn't a fluke and how Talib develops. The Bucs have, at the least, options if they choose not to keep Buchanon or if he chooses to test free agency.
I think he may be on shaky ground. Yes, he had a great 2007. But he had a great 2005 and followed it up with a poor 2006. What the Bucs desire from that position is John Lynch-like consistency, something Phillips has never provided.
This is the key season for Phillips' career in Tampa Bay. The Bucs will provide him competition in the form of last year's second-round pick, Sabby Piscitelli. The Florida native will get plenty of looks in the preseason, and if he plays well, he could steal some playing time from Phillips.
Phillips will count nearly $2 million against the cap in 2008. The vet will likely cost them more if they choose to keep him. If he has another standout year, the Bucs will make an offer. But if Piscitelli gives the Bucs enough reason to believe he can take over, Phillips will be looking for a new team come 2009.
FB B.J. Askew
Askew, when healthy, is a solid fullback who had above-average receiving skills and can even run the football in a pinch. In other words, he's Mike Alstott without the train whistle and cool nickname.
The Bucs like him and have no other fullback on the roster that can challenge him. Even if the Bucs don't extend his deal — though I believe they will — he'll be a prime candidate to be re-signed before free agency begins.
QB Luke McCown
Here's my take on the QB situation — Chris Simms is a goner, as is Bruce Gradkowski. That leaves McCown to beat out fifth-round pick Josh Johnson for the No. 3 job, which I think he will do. Johnson will then go to the practice squad.
If the Bucs don't extend Garcia, why would they extend McCown? Well, he's about 10 years younger, has a bigger arm, more mobility and the Bucs like his playing style. Yes, they wish he would make quicker decisions. But his play last year in Garcia's place spoke well of his ability to grasp Gruden's offensive concepts and implement them in a game.
The Bucs won't extend McCown, but if Garcia does leave I could see them re-signing McCown to a one-year deal as insurance.
Other potential free agents
S Will Allen: He's been a nice special teams performer, but he's lost his starting job and if the Bucs wouldn't re-sign Kalvin Pearson for special teams, what makes anyone think they'll re-sign Allen?
OT Anthony Davis: He's a solid backup at tackle or guard. He could stick around in 2009. With the Bucs' offensive line, you never know.
WR Chad Lucas: He's going to get plenty of chances to prove to the coaching staff that he can be their next deep threat. But if he can't, he'll be gone by the regular season opener.
QB Chris Simms: No chance in you-know-where.
FB Byron Storer: Did well as a spot starter, but he's limited. But as a backup he would do just fine. He'll be an exclusive rights FA, so he won't be going anywhere.
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.