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Bucs don't figure to go after big names in free agency

Bucs GM Jason Licht is a big believer that the NFL draft, not free agency, is the way to build.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Bucs GM Jason Licht is a big believer that the NFL draft, not free agency, is the way to build.

TAMPA — Anytime you let the league's second-leading rusher test free agency, like the Bucs are doing with Doug Martin, you have to hope he is humbled by a lukewarm market and rushes back to sign with his former team.

Logan Mankins, the team's starting left guard, could decide to retire this week at age 33 after 11 pro seasons.

The questions entering free agency, which begins today with a two-day legal tampering period, is how much change could Tampa Bay face in addition to new coach Dirk Koetter and a defense run by former Falcons coach Mike Smith?

The Bucs have been declared big winners in free agency in the past, a function of overpaying for good but not great talent that then underperformed.

This year, at more than $50 million under the salary cap, they have the resources to bid on any available player. Certainly, raising ticket prices 21 percent in the offseason might create those expectations from fans.

But aside from addressing running back by either re-signing Martin or replacing him, don't expect the Bucs to dole out tons of cash to many high-profile free agents.

"We'll be selective and strategic," general manager Jason Licht said. "We don't want to put ourselves in the position where we pick the wrong guy for big money."

In fact, the Bucs are expected to create a little more salary cap space today by releasing Bruce Carter, one of their top free agent signings a year ago from the Dallas Cowboys. The team would avoid paying the linebacker a $750,000 roster bonus this week and save his $3.5 million roster bonus.

Carter, 28, lost the starting middle job last season to Kwon Alexander. With Danny Lansanah not tendered, the Bucs will have a new strongside linebacker, too.

Carter signed before Tampa Bay used a fourth-round pick on Alexander, who was second on the team last season with 93 tackles despite being suspended for the final four games for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

The Bucs' biggest focus in free agency might be on defense. Former Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson, 29, visited the Giants on Sunday and is expected to meet the Bucs today. Johnson, who signed a six-year, $72 million deal after the 2011 lockout, was cut last week. He had a career-high 121/2 sacks in 2012 and 11 in 2013. But last season, injuries limited him to one sack in nine regular season games.

It's unlikely the Bucs would be in the market for high-priced pass rushers such as former Bills defensive end Mario Williams or Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon, who got the $12.7 million transition tag that gave Miami the right to match any offer.

The Bucs also would be willing to re-sign safety Chris Conte at the right price and have tendered an offer to restricted free agent safety Bradley McDougald.

By far, the most intrigue surrounds Martin, who has said he would like to remain in Tampa Bay. The Jaguars, Cowboys, Raiders and Broncos could all be in play for Martin. If the Bucs lose him when the signing period begins at 4 p.m. Wednesday, they could bid for Dolphins running back Lamar Miller or the Jets' Chris Ivory.

If the Bucs ignore the position in free agency, they could consider Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the ninth overall pick in the draft. "I've said since Day 1, we're going to build through the draft, and we've found the most success we've had is with players we've drafted and developed," Licht said.

Bucs don't figure to go after big names in free agency 03/06/16 [Last modified: Sunday, March 6, 2016 10:41pm]
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