Free agency 2014: Your unrestricted primer
Free agency is still almost two weeks off, but we're offering up a primer of sorts to help get everybody understanding what's ahead for the Bucs as Lovie Smith and Jason Licht get their first chance to overhaul the roster of a team that went 4-12 last season. Here you go -- we'll be happy to answer any questions left in the comments, as always ...
WHEN IT BEGINS: March 11 at 4 p.m. -- that's the official start of the league year, when teams must be under the salary cap and can start signing free agents from other teams. Teams can re-sign their own players before then, but cannot sign players who finished the 2013 season with other teams until the new year begins..
WHO MAY LEAVE: The Bucs have 19 unrestricted free agents, but only a few would project as starters or key players in 2014. There are linebackers Dekoda Watson, Jonathan Casillas and Adam Hayward, who combined for nine starts and were leaders on special teams. Speaking of special teams, kicker Rian Lindell and long-snapper Andrew Economos are free agents, as are fullback Erik Lorig, lineman Jamon Meredith, receiver Tiquan Underwood and running back Brian Leonard. Defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim is as well, but underperformed last year and finished the season on the bench. The Bucs have reached out to Lorig and Casillas, trying to sign extensions before they hit the open market, but it's hard to know what the priorities are among the potential departures. There's only one restricted free agent, tight end Kyle Adams, who joined the team late in the season but did play under Smith in Chicago.
KEY NEEDS TO FILL: There are several, and some may wait for the draft in May. But finding an elite pass-rushing defensive end (or two) is a must, as is upgrading the offensive line, tight end and finding better depth at receiver. The Bucs could sign a veteran quarterback like Michael Vick or Josh McCown to challenge Mike Glennon this fall, though that competition could also come from the No. 7 overall pick in the draft.
FINANCIAL STATUS: According to Overthecap.com, a site devoted to salary-cap analysis, the Bucs should be about $18.8 million under the projected salary cap of $133 million, which puts them 18th out of 32 NFL teams in available cap space. The Raiders, Browns and Jaguars -- all near the top of the draft like the Bucs -- each have at least $56 million in cap room, so they'll set the markets for the biggest targets on the market.
POTENTIAL CAP HELP: The Bucs could make several moves to free up space under the salary cap, asking players to take salary cuts or outright releasing them. Among the more obvious candidates with large salaries: guard Davin Joseph and center Jeremy Zuttah, due to make $6 million and $4.5 million, respectively, as part of a line that regressed badly in 2013; and punter Michael Koenen, whose $3.25-million salary ranks 7th among NFL punters, but ranked 25th in punting average.