TAMPA — Protecting quarterback Josh Freeman is the most important job in the Bucs' organization.
The front office knows it. Coaches do as well. Perhaps it's why Freeman was surrounded by guard Davin Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood, two of the team's premier unrestricted free agents, during dinner Wednesday night at 717 South, a trendy, upscale restaurant near Hyde Park.
Late Thursday, the Bucs took a big bite out of the salary cap by signing their two premier free agent offensive linemen.
Joseph agreed to terms on a seven-year, $52.5 million deal with $19 million guaranteed. Trueblood reached an agreement on a two-year deal. No financial details were available.
"It's official," Joseph said on his Twitter account shortly before midnight. "I'm a Buccaneer."
Tampa Bay also signed former Falcons punter Michael Koenen to a six-year deal.
The table was set Wednesday for both players to return during a dinner that included Joseph, Trueblood, Freeman, coach Raheem Morris, general manager Mark Dominik, offensive coordinator Greg Olson and new offensive line coach Pat Morris.
Joseph and Trueblood were first- and second-round selections, respectively, by the Bucs in 2006. Joseph had been the team's priority entering free agency with a league-most $59 million under the salary cap. He had been adamant that the Bucs' effort to re-sign Trueblood would impact his decision about where to play. Trueblood, 28, missed for games with a knee sprain last season and lost his starting job to James Lee in the process. Joseph, 27, missed the final month with a broken foot. Morris' power man-blocking scheme will favor both players, who are now healthy.
"I had a really good time for dinner. I've always really respected and liked our coaching staff, so catching up with them was very enjoyable," Trueblood said. "It was fun to talk to every person who was at that table. We had quality conversations about everything, really, including football. But the business end is what my agent, Tom Condon, is for. I already knew I would like to play for a great organization like the Bucs."
Dominik has stuck to his plan of focusing his efforts in free agency on re-signing the team's players. Linebacker Quincy Black agreed to terms on a five-year, $29 million deal Wednesday.
So far, Keonen is the exception. In six seasons, all with the Falcons, he owns a 42-yard punting average and a career net of 38.8. He also is among the NFL's best kickoff specialists and has been used in long-distance field goals, with a long of 58 yards.
Perhaps nobody will benefit more from Thursday's signings than Freeman, who remained upright long enough last season to throw 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions.
But Joseph's return will make other teammates better.
"Going against him every day is what made me get better throughout the year," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the third overall pick last year. "If I'm trying to have a big comeback year, I'm going to need him out there. Not just me but the whole team."
Freeman used Wednesday night's dinner to catch Olson up on the team's progress during the lockout.
"Oh yeah. We went to dinner … had a real long conversation about the offseason, about what we had going on," Freeman said. "I mean, the only way we could keep up was through the media, (Olson) could check up on what we were doing.
"But we caught up, we talked about stuff we went over, plays, protections, shifts, motions, a lot of different things. I feel like we got a lot accomplished and we're right where we should be.
"We talked about it before, before the lockout hit. We had a pretty good plan going into it, pretty much stuck to that plan and got it done."
Meanwhile, Dominik stuck to his plan by getting the contracts for Joseph and Trueblood done.