Center signs big deal

TAMPA — Perhaps the Bucs should have charged admission to One Buc Place on Friday, the first day of the NFL free agent signing period.

Had Tampa Bay done so, there's no telling how much more it could have lined its deep pockets, with all the comings and goings of potential signees.

The Bucs, who led the league entering free agency with an astounding $44-million in salary cap space, completed one blockbuster deal while eyeing numerous players to fill an assortment of needs.

Less than an hour into the signing period, which began at midnight Friday, the Bucs had agreed in principle on a deal to make New Orleans free agent Jeff Faine, 6 foot 3, 291 pounds, the highest-paid center in history. Later that morning, the staggering details of his contract were revealed: six years, $37.5-million, $15-million of it guaranteed.

"I'm especially looking forward to working in this offense and helping Tampa Bay defend the NFC South title," Faine said in a prepared statement.

The deal sent an unmistakable message that the Bucs refused to be outbid for the best available player at a position of great need. It also served as notice of the team's intent to solidify its offensive line.

John Wade started for the past five seasons and proved serviceable. But the Bucs have long sought to upgrade, and Faine, 26, is seen as a better pass blocker and a more complete player.

In two years, a team whose offensive line once was viewed as a punch line has skillfully revamped the unit with three first-day draft picks (Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood and Arron Sears) and the signings of two key veterans (tackle Luke Petitgout in 2007 and Faine). The Bucs also addressed their blocking with the addition of 6-foot-5, 257-pound Chicago reserve tight end John Gilmore, 28, who was on his way to Tampa on Friday to sign a reported three-year deal.

The Bucs also offered a bit of mystery as vague reports surfaced linking the team to Bears free-agent linebacker Lance Briggs. While Briggs, 27, is certainly a talent, the bigger news might be the impact his potential arrival would have on the team's current weakside linebacker: future Hall of Famer

Derrick Brooks.

A report in the Chicago Sun-Times, however, indicated Briggs (6-2, 240) was also drawing interest from the 49ers and Browns even while some insiders questioned how much of a market there is for him.

There are other areas of immediate concern for the Bucs after a disappointing first-round playoff exit to cap 2007. Among them is cornerback, where the team is targeting three of the better free agents on the market: San Diego's Drayton Florence, New England's Randall Gay and Dallas' Jacques Reeves each received early phone calls from the Bucs.

Florence, 27, visited Friday while Gay, 25, is due in Tampa on Monday after a visit with the Saints today, according to his agent, Albert Elias.

No less an authority than quarterback Jeff Garcia has bemoaned the need for an infusion of talent at receiver. To that end, the Bucs met with an intriguing prospect Friday in the Saints' Devery Henderson, his agent Jimmy Sexton said. Though there are questions about the reliability of his hands, Henderson, 25, offers the speed the Bucs covet but get only from Joey Galloway, 36.

But indications are the Bucs are reluctant to engage in bidding wars at a position that will produce some mega-contracts during the signing period. And an impressive class of receivers in the draft reduces the need to reach into free agency.

Seeking depth at running back, one of coach Jon Gruden's first calls after midnight was placed to the Saints' Aaron Stecker, 32, a former Buc. The team also has expressed an interest in the Vikings' Mewelde Moore, 25.

The Bucs will continue to be active in free agency for some time, but expect them to continue to look for moderately priced players.

They resisted the temptation to flirt with Bengals defensive end Justin Smith and Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, who signed a reported $57-million deal with the Eagles.

They also appear to have lost out on former Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler, who Friday evening reportedly was preparing to sign with the Seahawks, while re-signing reserve linebacker Antoine Cash.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Center signs big deal 02/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:21am]

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