TAMPA — Lovie Smith makes sure his big men — players on the offensive and defensive lines — sit in first class on the team charter while flying to games. But it doesn't mean he's not looking for more economy from those positions.
With the new league year approaching March 11, the Bucs are completing their evaluations and Smith has determined the offensive line was overpaid and it underperformed.
Tampa Bay ranked last in total offense and was 30th in points. Change is inevitable, and with cuts looming throughout the NFL, some Bucs offensive linemen could be asked to take pay cuts — or will be released — as part of a cost-cutting move.
"Part of our evaluation, yeah, money does come into play," Smith said. "But it's the play of our group that wasn't good enough. We say we're evaluating it. We are. But you have to first compare it with the first step — free agency — what's out there, whether we have a legitimate shot with certain guys. I'll just say we need to upgrade our offensive line play."
That's not the only place where the Bucs might have a new face or two.
Tampa Bay has $114.2 million committed to a salary cap that is expected to be about $133 million. The projected $18.8 million of salary cap room to sign free agents could grow much larger with several high-priced players expected to be either released or have their contracts restructured.
With only five selections entering the draft — tied for the second-fewest in the league — the Bucs will have to be very active during free agency to fill holes.
Here are the players that Smith and new general manager Jason Licht are taking a hard look at and trying to determine whether it's time to cut their losses or keep moving forward:
DAVIN JOSEPH, G, 30: Joseph was coming off a devastating knee injury last season and did not play well in 2013. Much of his game is based on power and movement and neither was the same as before the injury. Joseph makes $6 million and there is no financial consequence for releasing him, except to benefit from the total savings. The Bucs already have more than $9 million on the salary cap committed at guard to Carl Nicks, who played in only two games last season but is said to be doing much better.
"Davin is a little different because he had an injury and I don't think he was fully healed last year when he played," Smith said. "So you're hoping another year out from surgery will make it better for him."
DONALD PENN, LT, 30: Penn carries one of the highest cap figures on the team at $8.083 million. He allowed 11 sacks last season, second-most in the league among tackles. He will turn 31 in April and might no longer be considered among the top 15 players at his position, though he is paid as one. Releasing Penn will mean the Bucs would take on $666,668 of dead money while realizing a savings of $7,416,665.
"Sometimes you don't play as well for whatever reason," Smith said of Penn. "But you're still on record. There's a reason why all these players got paid because they could play on a certain level."
JEREMY ZUTTAH, C, 27: Zuttah's versatility is an asset, but he is overpriced at $4.5 million. Greg Schiano had more loyalty toward the former Rutgers player than the new coaching staff will. There also are concerns that he is undersized. He is listed at 308 pounds but might weigh closer to 285. He turns 28 in June. A release would mean the full savings for the Bucs with no dead money.
MICHAEL KOENEN, P, 31: Koenen will be among the league's highest-paid punters at $3.25 million but ranked 25th with a 44.2 punting average and 38.3 net (26th) last season. With new rules, his ability to launch deep kickoffs is no longer as much of a commodity. A restructuring might be in order.
DARRELLE REVIS, CB, 28: Revis will be 29 in July and earns $16 million per season, about $6 million more than the second highest-paid corner. If he is still on the roster three days into the new NFL calendar year, the Bucs will owe him $3 million in roster and workout bonuses. Perhaps equally costly is that they will have to send their third-round pick to complete the trade with the Jets instead of a fourth rounder. In a draft called the best in more than a decade, that's painful. There's no acceleration on the cap so a trade or release saves $16 million for other needs. The Bucs have not shopped Revis, but they can't afford not to listen.