TAMPA — You were justified in calling them toast. Burned, baked or broiled. Scorched earth.
The Bucs defensive backs heard it all last season as they came within 38 yards shy of allowing the most passing yards in NFL history.
Disgrace is an occupational hazard of the position in the pass-happy NFL, where you can't put your hands on receivers after 5 yards or hit above the waist when refs consider them defenseless.
In 2001, two quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 yards. Last season, 11 passed for more than 4,000 yards. The Saints' Drew Brees had 5,177. Five QBs had more than 30 touchdown passes.
Many of them padded those numbers against the Bucs secondary, which allowed 4,758 passing yards and 30 touchdowns.
So when the free agent signing period begins today, expect the Bucs — who are more than $30 million under the salary cap — to begin filling their shopping cart with veteran defensive backs that put out flames.
"We're still looking at the entire cornerback picture for our football team, not only with free agency coming, but with the draft," general manager Mark Dominik said. "But then we try to remind ourselves that the growth of some our young guys were good during the season, certainly they played well in the final game against Atlanta. So we have some talent there, but obviously, we'd like to add more. It goes back to what coach (Greg) Schiano talks about with competition and certainly that's a position we'd like to bring competition to."
During the three-day legal tampering period, the Bucs expressed interest in the Dolphins' Sean Smith and the Falcons' Brent Grimes, generally considered the top two free agent cornerbacks available, and the Eagles' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Grimes, who turns 30 in July and is coming off a season-ending torn Achilles suffered in Week 1, could re-sign with Atlanta.
The Chargers' Antoine Cason and the Cowboys' Mike Jenkins, a former USF standout, also are available and could be had for a discount.
A second-tier cornerback, the Jaguars' Derek Cox, also has garnered a lot of attention from Tampa Bay, according to his agent David Sullivan, and could strike a deal quickly. The Bucs hired Jags defensive backs coach Tony Oden for the same job last month. The Steelers' Keenan Lewis is an under-the-radar talent.
Bucs cornerback Eric Wright, suspended four games for Adderall use last season, filed a grievance arguing the team does not have to void his $7.75 million guaranteed base salary. The Bucs are expected to release him this spring.
While the Bucs could draft a top cornerback with the 13th overall pick, Dominik has said the team will not start two rookies at that position in 2013. A year ago, they were forced to turn to undrafted rookie Leonard Johnson and vagabond cornerback Danny Gorrer, who has played for six teams since 2009.
Safety could be a big target for the Bucs as well. Ronde Barber said the team has invited him to return for a 17th season and he will take some time to decide. But it's believed the Bucs plan to move forward and sign a safety.
The 49ers' All-Pro Dashon Goldson, 28, is the free agent gold standard at safety. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the Bucs and Lions were the front-runners, the Eagles were pursuing him and the 49ers were trying to retain him. The Giants' Kenny Phillips, the Jets' LaRon Landry and the Texans' Glover Quin also will cash in.
The Bucs also will try to fill needs at defensive tackle, defensive end, tight end, backup quarterback and slot receiver. The team reportedly is shopping receiver Arrelious Benn for a trade, according to CBS.com's Jason LaCanfora.
"Pass rush is a premium and we've been trying to put together the right front four and we haven't been able to put those guys all on the field at the same time," Dominik said.
But defensive backs will command the most attention and cash from the Bucs. Otherwise, they will be toast again.