Are Bucs still a serious free-agent player?

What have the signings of Luke McCown and Ryan Sims, along with the franchising of WR Antonio Bryant, done to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' cap room in 2009? Matthew Postins examines the issue, along with expert comment from Scout.com's Adam Caplan and Tom Marino.

Free agency is still a week away, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been busier than usual this offseason.

Last week Tampa Bay committed to QB Luke McCown for two more seasons, perhaps signaling that the lanky signal caller is their QB of the future. Earlier this week, the Bucs signed DT Ryan Sims to a reported four-year deal. And, in the biggest news so far, the Bucs chose to put the franchise tag on WR Antonio Bryant.

So how much does all of this wheeling and dealing impact the Bucs' salary cap space for 2009? Not much, according to Scout.com's Senior NFL reporter Adam Caplan, who reported this on Thursday: "Despite placing their franchise tag on WR Antonio Bryant, a league source told Scout.com that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have plenty of salary cap space left.??After the move, which will cost $9.88 million against the cap, Tampa Bay will still have $33-$35 million left available to spend."

Now, understand that Bryant won't necessarily make $9.88 million in 2009. The franchise tag guarantees Bryant that salary, but only if he signs. The Bucs now have the right of first refusal on Bryant. If another team chooses to sign Bryant in free agency, the Bucs can either match the deal or get two first-round picks in return. Plus, the Bucs and Bryant could still work out a long-term deal, which would likely reduce his cap figure for 2009.

Our Scout.com NFL personnel guru, Tom Marino, confirmed that Bryant's salary would increase the Bucs' salary load to $93 million, well under the projected salary cap of $123 million. Remember that the salary cap numbers are certain to fluctuate for most teams until the opening of free agency.

But Marino did sound a warning.

"Their problem is that of the (Bucs) 11 remaining free agents (three starters) two made over a million, two made over 2 million, two made over 3 million, one made over 5 million and one made over 10 million. … If they were to replace the players on their list for roughly the same numbers that would put them almost right on cap with virtually no wiggle room."

Indeed, Marino's math is pretty accurate. Those numbers would add up to approximately $27 million. And that doesn't include the rookie salary pool, which hasn't been determined yet.

However, that scenario likely won't occur. The Bucs have already said goodbye to QB Jeff Garcia (who made $5 million a year ago). McCown's contract effectively replaces Garcia's. McCown signed a $7.5 million deal for two seasons, with a $2.5 million base salary and a $2.5 million signing bonus. His $5 million is already included in Caplan's earlier figure.

Sims made a little over $1 million last year and reportedly signed a four-year deal. He likely won't make more than he made in 2008.

Of the remaining nine free agents, Bryant and DT Jovan Haye are the most likely players to score long-term contracts.

S Jermaine Phillips will likely receive a richer deal in free agency than the Bucs would be willing to pay (he counted $2.5 million last year). The Bucs will save money by moving third-year safety Sabby Piscitelli into his slot. The Bucs will also likely part with S Will Allen, who made more than $1 million last year and can be replaced on special teams by Elbert Mack, who also makes less.

And that $10 million number Marino referred to? That number belonged to little used DE/LB Patrick Chukwurah. Caplan referred to his cap figure in yesterday's free agency blog:

"Part of that big number can be attributed to DE/OLB Patrick Chukwuhrah who had over $10 million in likely to be earned incentives which weren't achieved. The source notes that the money will be resolved as a cap credit once the league recalculates the cap numbers prior to the start of free agency next week.?Chukwurah signed with Tampa Bay late last season and didn't suit up for one game."

This will be a challenging offseason for new GM Mark Dominik. First, I see him cutting ties with the marginal talent leftover from the Gruden-Allen era, and there's more than you think. Fortunately for Dominik, one of Allen's best talents was writing cap-friendly contracts, so any deep cuts Dominik chooses to make won't hurt their cap room that much.

I see players like Allen and TE Jerramy Stevens in other uniforms in 2009. Phillips will get more money elsewhere, perhaps even CB Phillip Buchanon. DE Kevin Carter is simply not reliable enough anymore to spend $3 million on in 2009.

Dominik's job before his promotion was director of pro personnel. That means that while the rest of the franchise was watching the Bucs, he and his scouts were watching every other NFL team. He's credited with finding Haye three years ago, following the DT's career even after he was drafted by Carolina. Dominik will spend a lot of time during free agency mining for players that he scouted while watching other teams.

Plus, one has to wonder if the crop of Bucs free agents are good fits for the new offensive and defensive schemes that will be employed. Defensive coordinator Jim Bates will change the defensive scheme. The Bucs will attack more and will require beefier tackles inside to execute his run scheme. The Bucs don't have beefy tackles. Offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski is an unknown quantity because he has very little coordinator experience. His assistants ran the offense at Boston College.

Finally, there's the economy. Everyone watched the free agency market in baseball grind to a near-standstill during the winter. On the heels of massive layoffs by General Motors and more bleak economic news, will NFL teams be willing to spend, spend, spend? Will fear over their ticket sales allow them to spend? Plus, there's an uncapped year looming in 2010 and every NFL teams is worried about spending too much now when you could spend whatever you want in a year.

The Bucs won't overspend. No one will in this economic climate.

And that will be much more challenging than negotiating a new deal with Bryant. Believe me.


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