Bucs execute free agency plan

Cornerback Alterraun Verner celebrates one of his five interceptions for the Titans last season. His play got him named to the Pro Bowl.

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Cornerback Alterraun Verner celebrates one of his five interceptions for the Titans last season. His play got him named to the Pro Bowl.

TAMPA

Now we know the real reason the Bucs broke out the new uniforms. They were going to have to change most of the names on the backs of the previous ones anyway.

In the first four days of free agency last week, the Bucs signed seven players and committed $71.75 million (and potentially $145.25 million) in contracts. Understand they had $122 million left on the contracts of cornerback Darrelle Revis ($80 million), right guard Davin Joseph ($27 million) and left tackle Donald Penn ($15 million) before releasing them.

Coach Lovie Smith and gene­ral manager Jason Licht didn't throw dollars down the drain. They made market or below-market deals to players ranging in age from 25 to 28 with more upside in their games.

With needs at every position except safety and running back, and only five draft picks in May, Smith and Licht knew they had to address the deficiencies in free agency. Their goal was to not become a hostage to any position in the draft because need is a bad evaluation tool.

And as much as Smith would have loved to have had Revis in his defense, the $16 million in salary cap space created by the cornerback's departure would fill a lot of craters.

How the plan broke down:

Defensive line

Smith's defense is predicated on the four down linemen pressuring the quarterback. If you can't rush the passer, you won't play much for the Bucs.

All-Pro tackle Gerald McCoy is the Bucs' best pass rusher. But he has had little help. So the Bucs signed end Michael Johnson — the third-best free agent regardless of position, nfl.com said — to a five-year, $43.5 million ($24 million guaranteed) deal.

Johnson, the Bengals' franchise player in 2013, saw his sack total plunge from 111/2 to 31/2 last season. A big factor was the season-ending injury to tackle Geno Atkins. But Johnson still was disruptive, knocking down nine passes and recording 61 pressures.

At 6 feet 7, 270 pounds, Johnson is long and lean and built in the Simeon Rice mode. What's more, a big selling point to him was the success other ends have had in Smith's system.

"We did some things in Cincinnati — some things against the run — that didn't always lend itself to rushing the passer," Johnson said. "I can't wait to play in this system and just let it all go."

The Bucs doubled down by signing Seahawks nose tackle Clinton McDonald, who had 51/2 sacks last season.

Offensive line

Smith and Licht believed most of last season's line underperformed while being overpaid. They didn't believe Joseph was the same player coming off a torn patellar tendon in his right knee.

Penn, who would have counted for about $7.5 million against the 2014 salary cap, played poorly last season, especially down the stretch. The Bucs also weren't comfortable having a left tackle with $600,000 in weight clauses.

So the Bucs signed the Bengals' Anthony Collins, who started only seven games at left tackle last season and 25 in six seasons. But he allowed only 12 hurries among his 317 pass-block situations, profootballfocus.com said, the best efficiency among all tackles.

Finally, the Bucs signed Packers center/guard Evan Dietrich-Smith. That means Jeremy Zuttah, set to earn $4.5 million, could be traded or released.

"We're all learning together," Licht said. "When you have a whole new coaching staff, all bets are off. You're starting from scratch. We like the fact we're doing this together with guys looking for fresh starts and new beginnings."

Quarterback

Josh McCown was arguably the best quarterback available after his career year with the Bears. He went 3-2 as a starter, with 13 touchdowns and one interception.

McCown's relationship with Smith was a big selling point, and the quarterback immediately was named the starter. He turns 35 on July 4, so he isn't the quarterback of the future. But he is battled-tested, and it all finally clicked for him last season.

"There was just peace. You know what? I can do it," said McCown, whose previous starting job came with the Raiders in 2007.

"I've always been a confident person. But you go, 'Man, when am I going to put it all together?' Life is all these slices of moments, and it's just this moment that came together. The coaching, my journey, losing games in Oakland and winning games, playing in Oakland, that experience helped me (in 2013). I value everything that has happened."

Cornerback

With Revis out, the Bucs made a save in the Titans' Alterraun Verner, who can play man or zone. Last season Verner had five interceptions and was named to the Pro Bowl.

Bucs execute free agency plan 03/15/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 15, 2014 7:57pm]

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