Bucs Licht needs to duplicate free agent success of 2016

Free agency can be the cubic zirconium of the NFL. Fool’s gold. The Bucs have experienced that many times over.

But general manager Jason Licht and his staff have built a solid core of players through the draft and their approach to free agency has changed for the better.

Licht just needs to build on the success he had last year in free agency and it will become an important tool to push the Bucs into playoff contention. Consider what the Bucs were able to do last year and the important contributions free agents made in 2016.

Cornerback Brent Grimes had gone to three straight Pro Bowls with the Dolphins and had played for defensive coordinator Mike Smith in Atlanta. But he was 33 entering last season and many wondered how much he had left in the tank.

The answer was plenty.

He signed a two-year, $13.5-million contract and tied for the team lead with safety Keith Tandy with four interceptions, including one for a touchdown. He also led the club with 24 passes defensed. In fact, Grimes was the only Bucs defender to have a rating over 90 or better by Pro Football Focus.

“He plays a lot younger than his chronological age,” Smith said of Grimes. “He’s a guy who’s just full of energy. He practices with energy, he plays with energy.  He’s just a very active player who knows how to get his hands on a lot of footballs and has made some game-saving tackles for us this year. He’s just been a very productive guy for us.’’

Punter Bryan Anger turned out to be one of the biggest weapons for the Bucs after signing a one-year contract as a free agent from Jacksonville. He set a club record with 37 punts inside the 20 and a 45.9 yard average. That performance earned Anger a five-year extension worth $17-million.

Defensive end Robert Ayers was coming off a 9.5-sack season with the New York Giants when the Bucs signed him as a free agent. Although injuries limited him to only 12 games, he still produced 6.5 sacks and 12 quarterback hurries. Perhaps just as important, he served as a mentor along with Gerald McCoy to rookie Noah Spence.  The Bucs tied for seventh in the NFL with an average of 2.4 sacks per game.

Linebacker Daryl Smith, who played for Smith in Jacksonville, had more than 100 tackles in four of his previous five seasons prior to coming to Tampa Bay. At strong side linebacker, he did not play all three downs but still contributed 35 tackles and an interception. It’s unlikely the Bucs would re-sign him at age 34, but he had a positive influence on middle linebacker Kwon Alexander.

Safety Chris Conte re-signed with the Bucs for one season and got off to a slow start under Smith’s new scheme. But he absolutely turned in two of the biggest defensive plays of the year with his pick six against the Bears and a game-changing INT in the end zone that was returned to midfield the next week in a win at Kansas City.
Conte lost his job due to injury, but if you consider the four interceptions in five games started by Tandy, that’s a lot of production at the safety position.

Cornerback Josh Robinson signed a one-year deal as a free agent with the Vikings, and although he wasn’t counted on to play defense, his ability to cover kicks absolutely enabled the Bucs to enjoy their first winning season since 2010. The Bucs will make every effort to retain Robinson.

Receiver Cecil Shorts was signed only a few days before the season opener. Coach Dirk Koetter had a history with him in Jacksonville. Following the injury to Vincent Jackson, Shorts began to emerge as the Bucs’ No. 2 outside receiver. Unfortunately, a devastating knee injury at San Diego ended his season.

Running back Jacquizz Rodgers signed with the Bucs two days after the season opener. He posted back to back 100-yard rushing games after Doug Martin suffered a hamstring injury. Rodgers played for Koetter in Atlanta and the Bucs will attempt to re-sign him.

The exception to the free agent discoveries was Seattle guard J.R. Sweezy. Shortly after signing a 5-year, $32.5-million contract with $14.5-million guaranteed over the first two years, it was determined he had a herniated disc and was unable to play in 2016. The Bucs believe he is on track for 2017, but he will have a battle at left guard with Kevin Pamphile unless the Bucs move Pamphile to right tackle.