TAMPA — Lovie Smith is a soft-spoken coach, hired to do a hard job. Without raising his voice, his message this offseason has been delivered with pot-and-pan-clanging clarity.
The Bucs, coming off a 4-12 season, are not good and need to retool at darn near every position.
"I'll just say we're trying to upgrade our entire roster," Smith said.
That process begins at noon today when NFL teams begin a three-day period of contacting and negotiating with free agents. The start of the 2014 league year begins at 4 p.m. Tuesday, when players also can sign contracts with teams other than their own.
Tampa Bay is about $18.8 million under the $133 million salary cap and could create more space by restructuring, releasing or trading high-priced veterans.
Smith and new general manager Jason Licht have spent the past two months evaluating their roster and comparing it to the players who might become available. With only five picks entering the draft — tied for second fewest in the league — the Bucs can't sit on the sideline during free agency.
"We're going to try to be pro-active," Licht said. "We're going to try to fill as many holes as we can in free agency, and we're going to do it wisely. I don't want to go into the draft with our first pick having to pick a position. If it is a need and that's the best player on the board, then we do it. Sometimes, that's the way it goes, but it usually doesn't."
Smith is a defensive-minded coach, and as such, he knows the Bucs must upgrade their pass rush. In 2010, Smith, then coach of the Bears, benefited from Chicago signing end Julius Peppers as a free agent, which Smith calls "one of the best moves we ever made."
"You can never have too many defensive ends," Smith said. "The moment you say they're all set with defensive ends, bam, you'll say, 'Can you believe they signed another guy?' But that's the case. We always look for defensive linemen."
Fortunately for the Bucs, there is a fairly deep pool of free agent linemen. It starts with Vikings end Jared Allen, who has the league's most sacks (35½) over the past three seasons.
It won't hurt that Allen loved playing under former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, now the Bucs' defensive coordinator. But Allen, who turns 32 next month, could command a large salary and might prefer to sign with a Super Bowl contender at this stage of his career.
Meanwhile, Smith has said while he likes what quarterback Mike Glennon accomplished as a rookie, the Bucs will not anoint him the starter at this point. While they might also address the position in the draft, several free agents will command interest, including Josh McCown, who played for Smith in Chicago.
McCown, who turns 35 in July, has played with five teams but enjoyed the most success last season with the Bears, when he went 3-2 with 13 touchdowns and one interception. Other options include the Eagles' Michael Vick and Jets' Mark Sanchez (if he's released).
"We've spent the last three weeks going through with a fine-toothed comb every position," Smith said. "And quarterback was one of them. So there are some veteran quarterbacks out there that kind of fit that bill that can be that guy that can help groom what we have or can compete with him to start."
Protecting the quarterback has been an issue for the Bucs. Glennon was sacked 40 times over 13 games despite a highly paid line.
"It's the play of our group that wasn't good enough," Smith said. "We say we're evaluating it. But you have to first compare it with the first step (free agency) and 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."
Smith plans to run the ball, and running back is one of the few positions the Bucs have depth with Doug Martin, Mike James and Bobby Rainey. But to open holes, Smith says he needs a run-blocking tight end. Tim Wright caught 54 passes for 571 yards and five touchdowns in 2013. But he's limited as a blocker.
"If we talk about being a running football team, we need a traditional (tight end) that can block and be a pass catcher also," Smith said. "Injuries have hurt the position. But right now, we need to upgrade the tight end position also."
There are a lot of holes to fill, but Smith isn't worried.
"We have a plan," he said.