Much to the chagrin of many of their fans, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have made it very clear they have a plan that involves building through the draft and largely ignoring free agency.
Other components of that plan involved developing the players the Bucs draft and, then, at some point, making sure they keep the ones they want for the long term. Whenever people point to how much salary cap space the Bucs have (at the moment it’s $29.5 million because only the top 51 cap figures count in the preseason and the Bucs have about $14 million in cap room when you count all their contracts, which is how it works in the regular season), the team quietly reminds you that money will be spent.
The implication is that the Bucs are going to extend the contracts of some of their key young players to make sure they never get near free agency. We’ve talked several times about how quarterback Josh Freeman has to be at the very top of that list.
He’s under contract through 2013, but you could make the argument that Freeman already has outperformed his rookie deal. His average per year pay is $5.24 million. That may sound like a lot to you and me, but it terms of quarterbacks, it’s not great pay.
He’s also the franchise and you want to keep him happy. It’s pretty much a no-brainer that the Bucs should offer Freeman a pile of money and try to lock him up for the long term. But, after Freeman, who else should the Bucs target for extensions?
When I first thought about it, not a lot of names were coming to mind. That’s when I pulled out my list of the contract status for every player on the team and started really thinking about it. Once I did, I came up with a pretty lengthy list. I’ll give it to you in order of importance -- at least in my eyes.
Running back LeGarrette Blount. He’s under contract only through this season and could be an exclusive-rights or restricted free agent until he’s played four seasons. But the Bucs don’t need to play those games. If Blount picks up where he left off last season, the Bucs should lock him up. He’s not quite the franchise, like Freeman, but he’s a pretty important part of the franchise. He’s only making minimum ($450,000) this year and you want to keep key players happy.
Receiver Mike Williams. He’s under contract through 2013. But, like Freeman and Blount, he’s already outperformed his rookie contract as a fourth-round pick. If Williams didn’t have two more years on his contract, I’d rank him ahead of Blount. I think Williams has already shown that he’s going to be a very good player for a very long time.
Defensive tackle Roy Miller. He’s only under contract through 2012 and he’s quietly become a very solid player. We still don’t know if Gerald McCoy and Brian Price are going to be good and we’ve seen signs both might be injury prone. Miller doesn’t have the upside of McCoy and Price, but he’s the one sure thing the Bucs have at defensive tackle.
Cornerback Aqib Talib. Yeah, I said it. But humor me and listen to my logic on this one. I’m not saying the Bucs need to go out and give him an extension immediately. Talib’s under contract through 2012 and he’s got a trial scheduled for next March for his latest off-field incident. Let’s say Talib isn’t punished by the NFL and isn’t convicted by the legal system. And let’s say that he’s a model citizen from here on out. Then, it might make some sense to extend him. The kid is a heck of a talent and there are some important people in One Buccaneer Place who believe Talib isn’t a bad person, but has made some questionable decisions. They also know more about the off-field incidents than we do and they don’t think Talib was the instigator in any of them.
Linebacker Geno Hayes. He’s under contract only through this year. Hayes is a decent, but not great player. But the coaches like him and he’s viewed in much the same way as fellow linebacker Quincy Black. If the Bucs were willing to recently give Black a new contract, I think they’d do something similar for Hayes.
Cornerback E.J. Biggers. A lot will depend on how Talib’s situation plays out. Biggers is under contract through 2012. Ronde Barber's not going to play much longer. The Bucs could have one or two starting cornerback jobs open before long. Biggers has become a very good No. 3 cornerback and easily could transition into being a starter.
Safety Sean Jones. He’s 29 and only under contract through this season. He’s not young and he’s not a star. In fact, he's pretty ordinary. But the Bucs might want to extend him for a year or two. Jones brings stability to the safety spot and the Bucs don’t know if Tanard Jackson will be back after his one-year suspension.
Offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah. He’s only under contract through this season and he’s a nice backup at center and guard. Center Jeff Faine's probably not going to play a lot longer and Zuttah could be his eventual replacement.
Quarterback Josh Johnson. He’s in the final year of his contract. Although he rarely has played, the Bucs like him a lot. But, even if they approached Johnson about an extension, they might not have much luck. Johnson knows he’ll never start in Tampa Bay as long as Freeman is healthy. He’s got some talent and might want to go to a place where he at least has a shot at a starting job.
Safety Cody Grimm. He’s under contract through 2013, but he’s getting paid like the seventh-round choice he was last year. There’s no need to rush. But if Grimm, who is expected to start, plays well and Jackson’s not coming back, then it might be time to start thinking about extending him.
Receiver Sammie Stroughter. Like Grimm, there’s no rush on this one and the Bucs need to see more out of Stroughter, who is under contract through 2012. He looks like he could be a nice third receiver and return man. If he can provide some more evidence of that, he might be a candidate for an extension.