TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have 17 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents when the new league year begins in March. In Part 1 of this series, I ranked the players who were the biggest priorities to re-sign -- defensive end William Gholston, running back Jacquizz Rodgers and center Joe Hawley.
Part 2 is a ranking of players 4-8 who are also priorities -- perhaps not quite as pressing as the first three but still an integral part of the team's 9-7 finish last year. It includes starters and players who have demonstrated the ability to step in and start, if needed.
4. WR/STs Russell Shepard: A captain on special teams, Shepard was pressed into action far more as a receiver last year, catching 23 passes for 341 yards and two touchdowns. He had a key fumble recovery in the Bucs' Week 5 win over the Carolina Panthers, when he knocked the ball loose from punt returner Ted Ginn Jr.
Shepard registered two special-teams tackles for the season after leading the team with 10 in 2015. He provides valuable leadership in the locker room and has shown excellent rapport with quarterback Jameis Winston, along with the ability to line up all over the field. That came in handy when the team was without both Cecil Shorts III and Adam Humphries in Week 14.
5. CB/STs Josh Robinson: In his first season in Tampa Bay, Robinson managed to lead the team with 12 special-teams tackles. He and Shepard may have well been the league's best tandem of gunners and were a big reason why the Bucs allowed only 5.6 yards per punt return, the fourth lowest mark this year and fourth best in team history.
Like Shepard, Robinson also forced a turnover on special teams when the San Francisco 49ers' Aaron Burbridge ran directly into teammate and punt returner Jeremy Kerley because of Robinson's hustle, with Keith Tandy making the recovery. Robinson didn't play a snap on defense but can line up on the outside or inside and can step in at safety in emergency situations.
6. DT Akeem Spence: Spence isn't a starter -- he was for 15 games under Greg Schiano during his rookie season -- but provides depth in the Bucs' defensive line rotation, finishing with 19 tackles and a half-sack in 2016. His best attribute is stuffing the run. The Bucs have Clinton McDonald as a starter lining up next to Gerald McCoy
7. S Bradley McDougald: The safety position was regarded as one of, if not the weakest on the Bucs' defense in 2016, although the group saw a late-season surge that helped propel a five-game win streak. McDougald had interceptions against the 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks, with the Seattle game possibly being the defense's finest performance of the year. He finished second on the team in tackles (79 solo, 92 combined) and in pass breakups (10).
8. S Chris Conte: The Bucs are expected to upgrade the safety position this offseason, but both McDougald and Conte could return. Conte was on a one-year contract last year worth $3 million. He's longed for a permanent home rather, but Keith Tandy's performance stepping in for Conte could have earned Tandy a starting job, or at least strong consideration.
Conte had a string of exceptional games last year, recording interceptions in back-to-back weeks, including a pick-6 against the Chicago Bears. He then suffered a scary chest injury that landed him in the hospital, but he was able to make it back for the season's final three games.