The Bucs entered free agency with a whopping $44-million in salary cap space, more than any club. The coach and general manager spoke excitedly about their plans to go shopping.
Yet the biggest splash nearly a week into the free agent signing period has been the addition of a starting center? Surely, there must be a plan.
Bruce Allen says there is.
The Tampa Bay general manager said Wednesday that much of the cap space will go toward contract extensions for young, core players in an effort to keep the nucleus intact. Also, Allen indicated the Bucs are pursuing significant trades in part because of the lack of depth in the crop of free agents.
The team has discussed extensions for, among others, fullback B.J. Askew, cornerback Phillip Buchanon, defensive tackle Jovan Haye, running back Earnest Graham and, possibly, safety Jermaine Phillips. Each can become a free agent after the upcoming season.
"One of the reasons you want to get some room under the salary cap is so you can extend your own players into the future; those you feel have a bright future for this organization for years to come," Allen said. "We've had some dialogue with some of those players, and we'll continue to do that."
Allen also emphasized the cap flexibility gives the Bucs the freedom to make significant trades, including for players with large salaries.
"Our cap situation allows us the ability to not only (extend contracts)," he said, "but also look at the possibility of trading for some players who might have huge cap numbers for some other teams."
Allen would not specify players or positions the Bucs are targeting in trades.
Askew, 27, was a key piece of the running game in 2007, providing the Bucs a reliable lead blocker and receiving threat. He signed a two-year contract in 2007, and the Bucs have already had preliminary conversations about an extension.
Haye, 25, a restricted free agent, received a tender from the team (allowing it to match outside offers and receive compensation if he leaves) and will continue talks on a long-term deal aimed at preventing him from becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2009.
Keeping Buchanon, 27, became more of a priority when Brian Kelly last month opted to become a free agent. Also, Ronde Barber, who starts opposite Buchanon, turns 33 in April.
Allen and Graham's agent began talks about an extension last month for a player, 28, who scored a team-high 10 touchdowns last season.
And Phillips, 28, re-emerged in 2007 with four interceptions, having perhaps his best season.
The Bucs also hope to be in position to extend more key players in future years, such as linebacker Barrett Ruud, who might be in position to seek a new deal next year.
Regarding possible trades, the Bucs will continue to scour other teams' rosters, targeting players in whom they have an interest.
"We're open to acquiring players in any way we can," Allen said. "Sometimes, we not only look at an unrestricted free agent list, but we look at team's rosters and try to pinpoint players. We do have the flexibility to look at all avenues right now."
PEARSON OFFER: The Lions on Wednesday signed Bucs restricted free agent safety Kalvin Pearson to an offer sheet, agent Michael Hawthorne said. The contract is for three years and $3.5-million with a $1.1-million signing bonus. The Bucs have one week to match the offer, though Hawthorne said he does not expect that to happen. Because the Bucs gave Pearson a minimum tender, they would not be entitled to any draft picks as compensation.
linebackers ON BOARD: The Bucs announced the signings of linebackers Teddy Lehman and Matt McCoy. Lehman was a second-round pick of the Lions who has 16 starts in four seasons. McCoy was a second-round pick with the Eagles and has 10 starts in 30 games. Both will compete to back up Ruud, Cato June and Derrick Brooks.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]