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Bucs likely to pursue own free agents first

Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Vincent Jackson (83) catches a pass thrown by fellow wide receiver Mike Williams (19) for a gain of 28 yards before being tackled by Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas (54) and strong safety William Moore (25).

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Vincent Jackson (83) catches a pass thrown by fellow wide receiver Mike Williams (19) for a gain of 28 yards before being tackled by Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas (54) and strong safety William Moore (25).

TAMPA

Free agency is a buyer-beware game, one that has as high of a probability for mistakes as the first round in the NFL draft.

Credit Bucs GM Mark Dominik, coordinator of pro scouting Shelton Quarles and coach Greg Schiano for signing productive players such as WR Vincent Jackson and G Carl Nicks a year ago.

Jackson had a career-high 1,382 receiving yards with eight touchdowns on only 72 catches, a league-best 19.2-yard average.

Nicks was a force for seven games before a foot injury landed him on injured reserve.

The team might have missed on CB Eric Wright, who was suspended four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. More on him later.

Not only were Jackson and Nicks good free agent signings in 2012, they're already paying off for 2013.

Because they can be confident in the players' performance, the Bucs were able to restructure the players' contracts for next season and create about $25 million of the $30.1 million in salary cap room the team has for 2013, the fifth most in the NFL.

Simply put, the Bucs turned Nicks' $13 million salary for next season into a bonus, allowing them to prorate it over the remaining four years. They did the same with Jackson's $12.5 million salary for 2013.

It's not only a commitment in dollars to those players. The Glazer family, which owns the team, had to be willing to spend the cash up front as well.

"That has actually opened a lot of cap room for us going into 2013, a tremendous amount," Dominik said several weeks ago. "We've got a chance to be (very) involved in free agency again.

"But we also have a chance to try to retain this nucleus of players, so it was a big commitment that our owners made, and I think that should be encouraging for all fans about our football team."

Wright, who voided the $7.5 million in guarantees for 2013 when he was suspended for what he said was Adderall use last season, is expected to be released sometime in the spring.

LB Quincy Black is on the books for a $5.5 million salary, but his future is in question because of nerve damage as a result of a hit against San Diego last season. If Black is unable to make it back, he could be looking at injury protection worth $1.5 million, which represents another savings.

What will the team do with that money heading into the free agent signing period, which begins March 12?

More than likely, it will use some of it to lock up its own players. Dominik already has begun discussions on an extension for WR Mike Williams, who has one year remaining on his contract.

Among the Bucs players scheduled to hit the free agent market, DE Michael Bennett would seem to be a priority. Bennett led the club in sacks with nine last season, but he has expressed an interest in playing on the same team as his brother, Giants free agent TE Martellus Bennett. Tampa Bay could use a franchise ($11 million) or transition player tag (approximately $9 million) on Bennett, but that doesn't appear likely.

The team also has invested high draft picks in DEs Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, both of whom should be completely healthy for 2013. Clayborn spent the season on injured reserve with a torn knee ligament he suffered in Week 3. Bowers, who tore his Achilles tendon in offseason workouts, began 2012 on the physically unable to perform list.

Dominik will spend much of the scouting combine in Indianapolis next week meeting with agents that represent the free agents to see if deals can be struck to keep them from hitting the market. That list might include unrestricted free agents such as Bennett, S Ronde Barber, TE Dallas Clark, DT Roy Miller and long snapper Andrew Economos.

But the Bucs can be big players again in free agency if they choose to be. They have Jackson and Nicks to thank for it.

BRIGHT FUTURES: The Bucs' young stars still are receiving attention.

Rookie LB Lavonte David was named to USA Today's All-Joe team, which recognizes an under-the-radar player from each team who has not made a Pro Bowl. David led the Bucs with 139 tackles, including 20 for losses in 2012. But David was edged for defensive rookie of the year by Carolina's Luke Kuechly.

RB Doug Martin and DT Gerald McCoy, who both were named to their first Pro Bowl, were members of nfl.com's All-Under-25 team. Martin set a club rookie record with 1,454 rushing yards with 11 touchdowns. McCoy played in 16 games for the first time in his career and recorded five sacks with one forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Bucs likely to pursue own free agents first 02/16/13 [Last modified: Saturday, February 16, 2013 8:21pm]
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