What about the Bucs' 'other' free agents?
You probably already know the Bucs have a handful of unrestricted free agents that they'll be making decisions on in the near future. Among them are Jeremy Zuttah, Connor Barth and Earnest Graham.
But there are some free agents in different classifications that must be addressed, too. Let's look at some key players whose contracts are expiring.
DE Michael Bennett: Probably the most notable of these players, Bennett is scheduled to become a restricted free agent, provided the Bucs tender him a requisite one-year contract offer, as expected. Bennett had a breakout season in 2011, starting 10 games, leading all defensive linemen with 39 total tackles while adding a career-high four sacks.
Bennett is a versatile player who showed an ability to play either defensive end spot while displaying the toughness to play defensive tackle with surprising effectiveness when asked. Da'Quan Bowers is likely to be the left defensive end in the long term, given his high draft status (he was a second-round pick) and his strong finish to the season. Bennett, by comparison, wasn't drafted by the Bucs and was acquired off waivers in 2009.
Still, Bennett is a formidable player and, at minimum, adds needed depth on Tampa Bay's defensive line.
So, how do the Bucs go about retaining him? Here's how it works: As a player with three seasons of credited NFL service, Bennett will be a restricted free agent. That means if the Bucs tender him an offer, they retain the right of first refusal.
Look for Tampa Bay to place a second-round tender to protect Bennett. That move would bring him a salary of roughly $1.9 million in 2012 and give the Bucs the right to match if Bennett is tendered a competing offer from another team. It would also entitle the Bucs to compensation of a second-round pick if another team signed Bennett.
RB Kregg Lumpkin: Lumpkin has the same level of experience as Bennett, so he, too, is currently considered a restricted free agent. But it's unclear whether the Bucs will tender him given his unimpressive 2011 season. If the Bucs want to bring him to camp in 2012 and let him compete, they might be able to do so by allowing him to become unrestricted (by opting not to tender him), then re-signing him at a relatively low salary.
RB LeGarrette Blount: Yes, Blount's contract is expiring, but this should not be a concern to Bucs fans. Because Blount has just two years of service, he will become what's considered an exclusive-rights free agent. That means the Bucs are only required to tender him a relatively meager salary before the start of free agency that will prohibit him from negotiating with other clubs. NFL players have virtually no negotiating rights until they have at least three years under their belts, so Blount isn't going anywhere if the Bucs want him back (which, of course, they do).
For all his issues (fumbling, struggles in pass protection), Blount remains the kind of physical force most teams wish they had. There's a place for that on this team, so expect Blount to have an important role no matter who the Bucs add to their backfield.
WR Preston Parker: Parker is in an identical situation to Blount, and the Bucs would be unwise to let him walk when it's this easy to retain him. As a result, look for Parker to be tendered and be with the Bucs competing for a role in training camp.
Parker caught 40 passes in 2011 and ranked second on the team with 13.7 yards per catch.