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Bucs Beat

Rick Stroud, Greg Auman and Matt Baker

NFL free agent preview: Top three by position

The Bucs let Michael Bennett get away in free agency, and he'll command much more now than the Seahawks got him for on the way to the Super Bowl.

AP photo

The Bucs let Michael Bennett get away in free agency, and he'll command much more now than the Seahawks got him for on the way to the Super Bowl.

6

March

The NFL's annual free-agency shopping spree opens in earnest on Tuesday afternoon, and teams can begin the process of negotiating with players on Saturday. The Bucs have some clear needs -- finding a pass-rushing defensive end, upgrading the offensive line, adding talent at tight end and receiver -- and should be active in their first offseason under new general manager Jason Licht and coach Lovie Smith.

The Bucs have about $19 million in room under the salary cap, plus whatever is freed up by cutting veterans with expensive, non-guaranteed contracts. It's unknown whether Tampa Bay will attack free agency going for quantity -- upgrading as many positions as possible -- or trying to land a few top-dollar stars to address the biggest needs.

Here are our top three free agents at each position -- it remains to be seen how many of these will end up in Bucs uniforms this fall. The talent is uneven from one position to the next, so one of the top 10 free agents overall might not even make these positional lists ...

QUARTERBACK

1. Michael Vick, Eagles (33): Best of a weak class right now, though you could see cap cuts like Matt Schaub or Mark Sanchez. Vick lost his job to Nick Foles, and has just 17 touchdown passes against 13 interceptions since the start of 2012. He hasn't scrambled as often either, with just four rushing touchdowns in the last three years, but could come in and compete with Mike Glennon for the starting job.

2. Josh McCown, Bears (34): Made a splash with 13 touchdowns against just one interception filling in for Jay Cutler with the Bears -- he was a backup under Lovie Smith in 2011-12, but threw only two touchdowns in limited action. That familiarity could help the Bucs, and at his age, he's not likely to get too long or too expensive a contract, even with limited options for veteran QBs.

3. Matt Cassel, Vikings (31): Played under Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier in Minnesota, but he's had limited success in the last three years, with 27 TDs against 30 INTs. Many have him going to Houston, where he'd be reunited with Bill O'Brien, who coached him in New England. Unlikely for the Bucs, but still a better chance than his Vikings teammate, Josh Freeman, coming back to Tampa.

RUNNING BACK

1. Ben Tate, Texans (25): He's played in Arian Foster's shadow for three years, rushing for 771 yards and four touchdowns this past season. Three of his four TDs came in one gain (also his only 100-yard game of 2013) but he has some upside, given a larger role as a starter.

2. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos (26): Broke out for 1,038 rushing yards, 60 catches and 13 total touchdowns, but how much of that was because defenses were spread so thin covering the rest of the Broncos offense? After four years of underachieving, Moreno shined this season.

3. Darren McFadden, Raiders (26): In six seasons in Oakland, he has just one 1,000-yard season. In each of the last two years, he's averaged just 3.3 yards per carry; perhaps a change of scenery would help him look more like the star he was in college.

WIDE RECEIVER

1. Eric Decker, Broncos (26): Like Moreno, how much of his success is having Peyton Manning as his QB? He's averaged 86 catches and 12 touchdowns the last two seasons, but the question is how he'll fare if he's facing a defense's best corners.

2. Golden Tate, Seahawks (25): Set career highs with 64 catches and 898 yards, and he's electric as a punt returner, as you saw in the Super Bowl. Can another team find creative ways to utilize his speed as an offensive weapon?

3. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers (26): After five touchdowns in his first three seasons, he had six this season, as well as career highs in catches (67) and yards (740). Not as productive as a Julian Edelman, but he's expected to draw significant interest across the league.

TIGHT END

1. Jermichael Finley, Packers (26): Neck surgery has teams hesitant to make any longterm commitment, but if he can get back to his 2011 form -- eight touchdowns, 767 yards -- he's the best option in this free-agent class.

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions (29): Big target at 6-5, 265 pounds, but he has just five touchdowns over the last two seasons, with as many fumbles. More of a traditional tight end, at a position that only has so much talent available in this class.

3. Dustin Keller, Dolphins (29): Missed all of 2012 with a knee injury, so health is a concern, but he caught five touchdown passes each in 2010 and 2011 while with the Jets. Unlikely to return in Miami ...

OFFENSIVE LINE

1. Eugene Monroe, Ravens (26): Baltimore gave up fourth- and fifth-round picks to rent him from the Jaguars, but he's still likely to hit the open market, coveted as a top-tier left tackle and one of the best free agents at any position.

2. Alex Mack, Browns (28): Cleveland used its transition tag on Mack, so they can match any offer, and the Browns have enough cap room to do so easily. Mack has strong Bucs ties -- he played for offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford at Cal and has worked under line coach George Warhop his entire NFL career.

3. Branden Albert, Chiefs (29): Another elite left tackle, one of several Kansas City linemen who could go elsewhere in free agency. The Chiefs will turn to Eric Fisher; Albert has missed seven games in last two years with injuries.

DEFENSIVE LINE

1. Michael Johnson, Bengals (27): Just 3.5 sacks last year, but 11.5 in 2012, and he's solid against the run, and his all-around play has him touted as one of the best defensive players available.

2. Michael Bennett, Seahawks (28): Bucs let him get away in free agency, and he'll command much more now than the Seahawks got him for on the way to the Super Bowl. He has 17.5 sacks in last two years, and won't come cheap, for Seattle or anyone else.

3. Jared Allen, Vikings (31): He's worked with Frazier the last six years in Minnesota, with at least 11 sacks every season. He'll come cheaper than younger options, and is just three years removed from getting 22 sacks in 2011.

LINEBACKER

1. Karlos Dansby, Cardinals (32): A steal for Jason Licht in Arizona last year, Dansby did everything -- 122 tackles, 6.5 sacks, four interceptions. His age will limit him, but with D'Qwell Jackson signed, he's the most proven option in the free-agent class.

2. Jon Beason, Giants (29): Prolific in his first four years, he fell behind Luke Kuechly in Carolina and was dealt for a seventh-round pick. He's found himself in New York, and if Giants let him go, could be a strong addition.

3. Brandon Spikes, Patriots (26): Former Gator has racked up tackles in the middle for New England, but not much else -- total of one sack and one interception in the last two seasons. He did force five fumbles in 2012.

DEFENSIVE BACK

1. Jairus Byrd, Bills (27): His father is Bucs corners coach Gill Byrd, but Tampa has two solid safeties, and Byrd may be the best free agent at any position. Nine INTs in last two years, and Buffalo spent significant money on its other safety, Aaron Williams.

2. Alterraun Verner, Titans (25): Emerged with five INTs this past year, and while older options like Champ Bailey and Cortland Finnegan have diluted the market, he might be the most promising of the second-contract crowd.

3. Sam Shields, Packers (26): Former Sarasota Booker star, a receiver at Miami until his senior year, has come a long way since going undrafted. He has 11 picks in last three years, as another athletic option with room to get even better. A safer signing than Aqib Talib.

SPECIAL TEAMS

1. Phil Dawson, 49ers, kicker (39): Hard to find young legs in this class, and Dawson hit from as long as 56 yards, going 14-for-17 on field goals beyond the 40.

2. Adam Vinatieri, Colts, kicker (41): Again, not a longterm option, but he was as sharp as Dawson on long kicks -- 19-for-23 from 40 yards and farther. He's had eight years in Indianapolis after the Patriots let him go.

3. Devin Hester, Bears, returner (31): A potential match for the Bucs -- didn't player receiver last year, but led the NFL in kickoff return yards and had the Bears ranking second in punt returns while handling both roles.

[Last modified: Thursday, March 6, 2014 4:11pm]

    

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