TAMPA — Free agency has been more of a placebo than a panacea for the Bucs in recent years.
For every hit like C Jeff Faine, there have been three or four misses like RB Derrick Ward. And when the Bucs purged most of their 30-something veterans in 2009 to build the youngest team in the NFL, signing free agents was counter to their philosophy.
But after a 10-6 season in which the Bucs narrowly missed the playoffs, and given the production of young stars such as Josh Freeman, Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount, coach Raheem Morris says it could be time to add free-agent pieces to push Tampa Bay back over the top, especially with about 500 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents when the lockout ends.
"We wanted to accumulate talent throughout the draft, and it was no different in 2002 and 2001, when our ownership went out and got a Simeon Rice, a Brad Johnson or a Keenan McCardell (in free agency) in order to push that team over the top and help the draft classes of Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Ronde Barber," Morris said at the owners meetings last week in New Orleans. "We may be nearing that plateau. As soon as the free agency season is able to be open, some of those discussions will be more realistic. You're talking about adding components, getting the right guy, a good fit."
Rice, a defensive end who was signed in 2001, averaged 13.5 sacks over the next five seasons, including 15.5 during the Bucs' Super Bowl run in the 2002 season. Morris also pointed to other free agents who have helped teams to titles, such as the Patriots' Rodney Harrison and the Saints' Darren Sharper.
"You've got a good idea who you want to target," he said. "You can't close the door on free agency."
KICKOFF RULE CHANGE: The Bucs rely heavily on kick returner Micheal Spurlock for good field position. Last year he averaged 25.65 yards per kickoff return, and he has two career touchdowns.
But with the rule implemented last week to move kickoffs up to the 35-yard line, designed to reduce the number of returns and the associated collisions, touchbacks are bound to increase.
Last year about 16 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. Bucs K Connor Barth has 11 career touchbacks in 162 attempts, about 6.8 percent. With a career average for kickoffs of 61.3 yards, moving the kickoff up 5 yards won't necessarily guarantee more touchbacks for him.
"Clearly there are some teams that have good returners that look and say, 'Hey, what if there is 10 percent less returns? You are affecting our team in some way,' " said Falcons president and former Bucs GM Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee. "We don't have an answer to that other than to say, 'Yes, that is probably true.'
"But when it comes to player safety, we are always going to have player safety trump the competitive aspects of the game, period. There is no issue. That is what we are going to do."
MEMORIES: A bit of a Bucs family reunion was held at USF's pro day Thursday. Among those in attendance were Bears GM Jerry Angelo, coach Lovie Smith, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and Assistant GM Tim Ruskell, all of whom have strong ties to the Bucs.
Marinelli said he drove to the site of the original One Buc Place, which is now a slab of concrete on a patch of grass along Tampa International Airport's Runway 36, directly across from the International Plaza mall.
"What got to me is how small it looked," Marinelli said. "They should have kept something there, a marker of some kind. I still have tape of those practices where you can see the weight room that was outside. What I remember is the speed. Man, we were fast."