Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman wasn't surprised to learn there might have been a price on his head — and his knees, for that matter — whenever he played the New Orleans Saints.
Freeman said players were warned by Bucs coaches in advance about potential "cheap shots'' from the Saints defense the past three seasons.
Freeman received an illegal hit out of bounds by Saints cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, who dove at his knees at Raymond James Stadium in 2010. The Saints received two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on the play and Jenkins was fined $10,000.
That was why Freeman wasn't shocked to learn about the NFL's investigation into the Saints' bounty system administered by former defensive coordinator Greg Williams. Players were paid for hits that forced opponents off the field or out of the game, along with fumble recoveries and interceptions.
"We just knew every time we played the Saints, they were going to take some cheap shots," Freeman said Monday. "I mean, it was always something we acknowledged. We knew Gregg Williams' defenses were physical and they were going to get after you. Knowing what we know now, it's not surprising that was the system that was set up for them.''
The Bucs lost that game 31-6 but went on to finish 10-6, winning 23-13 win at New Orleans in the regular-season finale.
The NFL is considering disciplinary measures that could include fines, the forfeiture of draft picks and/or suspensions of Williams, coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and various players.
Williams, recently named defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, was called to New York on Monday to meet with NFL security officials Jeff Miller and Joe Hummel for more discussion about league bounty rules.
Freeman, who says he has always had a lot of respect for Williams and the Saints defense, said Bucs coaches routinely warned offensive players to beware of New Orleans defenders making illegal hits, particularly near the sideline.
"We were told, 'just kind of like watch your knees on sideline plays, everybody slowing up and one guy trying to take a shot when someone is unprepared,' " Freeman said. "It was unnecessary stuff."
The Bucs are 3-3 against the Saints under Freeman, who became the starter in mid 2009. At 6 feet 6, 248 pounds, he is better equipped than some quarterbacks to absorb punishment and routinely extends plays with his feet.
Freeman says that while every team tries to impose physical punishment, it's generally done within the rules. He said sometimes the Saints defense under Williams crossed the line.
"Everybody plays hard, but nobody goes out and tries to hurt each other," Freeman said. "You go out to hit people hard, you know, straight up. But we didn't see a whole lot of that other stuff except when we were playing the Saints."
Freeman said having played in the NFC South for three seasons, he has become familiar with many Saints players and has no problem with them.
"I like a lot of those guys on the team," Freeman said. "Whether it was an extra incentive or whatever it is, I really don't know what was going on in their locker room. It was just overall feeling."
Freeman said he was unaware until Sunday of the NFL's investigation into the Saints' bounty system, announced Friday.
"It's interesting," Freeman said. "Someone sent me a link from a story. I read it and said, 'this is interesting.' "
Zuttah signs; Barth gets franchise tag
The Bucs prevented two of their top players from becoming unrestricted free agents Monday.
They started by signing guard/center Jeremy Zuttah to a four-year contract worth approximately $4 million per year. The Bucs then used their franchise player tag on Connor Barth, the fifth kicker in the league to be given that designation.
In four seasons, Zuttah's versatility has been a huge asset. He has played 58 regular-season games with 44 starts at both guard and center. Zuttah started 30 games at left guard, five at right guard and nine at center.
Meanwhile, Barth's agent, Rob Roche, said he is hopeful a long-term deal will be negotiated.
Barth set a franchise record in 2011 by making 92.9 percent on field goals (26-of-28), second in the NFL. It's believed Barth seeks a contract similar to the five-year, $15.759 million deal signed by Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski last season.
The franchise tag number for kickers is about $2.65 million on a one-year contract that is guaranteed. Barth earned $1.9 million in 2011.