Bucs free agency preview: Bradley McDougald
There's less than a month now until the start of NFL free agency, and we can start looking at the Bucs' many free agents -- 17 are unrestricted -- that the team must make decisions on before deciding on where to use their ample cap room on outside targets.
We'll start with safety Bradley McDougald, who is emblematic of the Bucs' thorough and successful pro scouting efforts, which go back to Mark Dominik's days as general manager. McDougald was undrafted out of Kansas, and the Bucs claimed him off waivers from the Chiefs in midseason when he'd played one game, with no tackles. McDougald barely played that first year, moved from special-teams player to starter in 2014 and has been a full-time starter the last two seasons.
McDougald, 26, finished second on the Bucs with a career-best 92 tackles last season -- his 1,012 snaps were fourth-most on defense for the Bucs. It's encouraging for him that he's served in the same role in two different Bucs defenses. When he was a restricted free agent last year, the Bucs took the extra step to give him a second-round tender ($2.55-million) instead of a low tender ($1.67-million), which suggests the current GM (with current head coach and DC on board) were already protecting him as part of the team's future.
McDougald enters free agency with 36 career starts, 186 tackles and three career interceptions, so he's less proven than the top tier of young unrestricted free agents, but as we try to estimate his value on the open market, there's a lot to consider. A few notes ...
-- Only seven NFL teams paid their safeties less than the Bucs did in paying them a collective $6.3-million last year, according to Overthecap.com -- usually that's because there are recent draft picks (with cheap rookie contracts) in starting roles. But the Bucs got by with McDougald, Chris Conte (re-signed to a one-year, $2-million deal) and Keith Tandy, who was re-signed even cheaper at two years, $1.85-million but ultimately took Conte's starting job in the final month of the season. Tandy is back, and Conte could be, but it's reasonable to think the Bucs will draft a safety -- they haven't done that since 2012, as you really can't count rookie Ryan Smith if the team sees his future at corner, as they do.
-- The Bucs had 10 unrestricted guys when free agency started last year, and only signed three, each just 26 years old: Doug Martin, Conte and Tandy. None of the seven that signed elsewhere got any kind of substantial money. Aside from CB Sterling Moore with the Saints and DT Tony McDaniel back with the Seahawks, the rest barely played.
-- McDougald is a reminder of how much of a crapshoot the NFL draft is. He was in the 2013 rookie class, but consider the 2012 draft class -- 16 safeties were drafted, and only six of those played in the NFL last season, with most gone within their first two years in the NFL. Of those safeties drafted in 2012, only three really got paid four years later -- Harrison Smith and Mark Barron, both former first-round picks, signed huge five-year deals worth $51-million and $45-million. Cincinnati's George Iloka (who had 44 starts, 124 tackles, 5 INTs) got a five-year, $30-million deal to stay with the Bengals.
-- Two of the biggest safety free-agent contracts last year were undrafted players like McDougald -- Tashaun Gipson (42 starts, 14 INTs) got five years and $36-million from the Jaguars and Rodney McLeod (48 starts, 5 INTs, 7 FFs) got five years and $35-million from the Eagles. McDougald isn't as proven or likely as coveted as those two, but arguably better than Isa Abdul-Quddus (16 starts, 2 INTs), who got three years and $12.8-million from the Dolphins last year. The other top safeties last year were more established, older veterans -- Eric Weddle got four years and $26-million at age 31, Reggie Nelson got two years and $8.5-million at age 32.
-- In this free agent class, McDougald had the third-most tackles last season and tied for fifth in interceptions. He won't come close to the payday Eric Berry will get (whether he gets to the open market or not, it'll be close to $10-million/year) and probably won't be as coveted as Arizona's Tony Jefferson, who had 96 tackles in 2016 but also has four sacks and five forced fumbles over the last two years. Jacksonville's Johnathan Cyprien is a four-year starter with 341 career tackles and is seen as a solid run defender. It's fair to put McDougald in this tier, along with older options like the Cowboys' Barry Church and Oakland's Nate Allen. Former Bucs safety D.J. Swearinger is also a free agent after re-establishing himself with Arizona last season.
-- It seems like the closer statistical comps for McDougald are in the 2015 free agents -- Da'Norris Searcy had 23 starts and five INTs and got 4/$23.8-million; Marcus Gilchrist (40 starts, 5 INTs) got four years and $22-million, Ron Parker (16 starts, 3 INTs) got five years and $25-million to stay with the Chiefs. We don't know how much other teams will go after McDougald, or whether he'll take a solid offer from the Bucs in advance of free agency to stay in a system where he's valued and has played well. McDougald made it clear after the season that Tampa is home for him and he likes the way the defense and team's young nucleus came together in 2016. If Tampa Bay can lock him up for less than $5-million a year, the guaranteed money limited to the first two seasons, it's a good deal within the market for recent contracts.