TAMPA — Pro Bowl RB Doug Martin is the biggest of the Bucs' unrestricted free agents who can hit the open market in March, but he and other key players expressed an interest in returning to the Bucs and continuing the team's improvement next fall.
"It's all about opportunity for me and where I feel comfortable," said CB Sterling Moore, who established himself as a starter in the second half of the season before an ankle injury slowed him last week. "Obviously I came here because I felt comfortable in the system … It's all about the coaching staff and where I feel comfortable. I think I showed when I was out there I played well and things fit."
S Chris Conte, who had 79 tackles and two interceptions before missing the final two games with a knee injury, said he hopes he can return to a system that he played in under coach Lovie Smith with the Bears.
"I think this team's headed in the right direction," Conte said. "There's still just pieces that we need and guys buying into the mentality of being winners. Of course, the team you were with, you want them to want you back. These are the coaches I've always wanted to play for, and hopefully they still believe in me and want me to be back. Definitely, this is the place I want to be and start something here."
Martin, second in the NFL in rushing with 1,402 yards, said after Sunday's game he wants to stay and likes the direction the Bucs are heading in after a 6-10 season.
"I would love to come back here," Martin said. "It's a young team and there were a lot of positive things that happened this year. I would love to be around when we blossom. … This is a young team with a lot of great potential with a lot to prove and we will."
On the way out? DB Alterraun Verner said he hopes to return but understands if that's not the case.
Verner, due to make $6.75 million in 2016, was a starting cornerback in 2014 but lost that job early this season, relegated to a nickel corner in the second half of the season.
"Hopefully I am back. We're building something special here," said Verner, who had 56 tackles and one interception this year, down from 76 and two in 2014. "Hopefully I am part of that, but we all know that it's a business, and there's going to be no hard feelings if at the end of the day, they want to fit the roster as best they can to try to compete and get to a Super Bowl."
Signings: With its season over after Sunday's loss to Carolina, the team can take the first step toward building a 90-man roster to compete for jobs next summer, and nine players from Tampa Bay's practice squad have been signed to futures contracts for 2016.
Former USF WR Andre Davis, OLs Josh Allen, Ben Gottschalk and Antoine Everett, CBs Joel Ross and C.J. Roberts, S Gerod Holliman, DT Derrick Lott and DE Martin Ifedi still face long odds to make the Bucs' final cuts in August.
This and that: Smith said he'll recruit players to return for next season, including G Logan Mankins, who is considering retirement. "You normally don't retire on the type of year that Logan had," Smith said of the Pro Bowl alternate. … Rookie LB Kwon Alexander returned to the Bucs facility Monday after his four-game suspension wrapped up Sunday. He wasn't allowed at One Buc Place during the suspension. "He was definitely missed," Smith said.
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.