TAMPA — More than a third of the 336 unrestricted free agents are off the market as the Bucs and the rest of the NFL turn their attention to the draft.
When the signing period began Feb. 27, general manager Mark Dominik had a league-best $61 million in salary cap space.
Dominik faced a lot of pressure to go on a buying spree, and the Bucs did make an offer in the range of $100 million for Titans tackle Albert Haynesworth, who ultimately took more guaranteed money to sign with the Redskins.
But Dominik has been around the Bucs for 14 seasons, long enough to know free agency is more of a bandage than a cure for what ills a team. He didn't mind painting a big target on his shirt.
Need proof? Since 2004, the Bucs have signed 33 free agents. Eight are still with the team; only four are starters. The former list includes Jerramy Stevens, who re-signed a two-year deal March 5.
Dominik's strategy has been to focus on the offense, trading for Browns TE Kellen Winslow and signing Giants free agent RB Derrick Ward. The Bucs also boosted their special teams depth by signing Jets free agent K Mike Nugent and Broncos LB Niko Koutouvides.
In the NFL, sometimes the devil you know is better than the one you don't. Thirteen Bucs players were set to become free agents, and Dominik re-signed eight: Stevens, QB Luke McCown, WR Antonio Bryant (franchise player), WR Michael Clayton, S Will Allen, DT Ryan Sims, WR Cortez Hankton and S Jermaine Phillips.
Three players have signed with other teams: Phillip Buchanon with the Lions and Jovan Haye with the Titans, and Joey Galloway with the Patriots on Saturday. DE Kevin Carter, DE Patrick Chukwurah and QB Jeff Garcia are still looking for work, as are four of the five players the Bucs released: LB Derrick Brooks, LB Cato June, WR Ike Hilliard and RB Warrick Dunn.
The Bucs aren't done yet. They'd like to add a cornerback and a linebacker this month, and there will be a secondary free agent market after the draft.
MOCKing a draft for THE BUCS: ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay agree that the Bucs will use their 19th overall choice on Kansas State QB Josh Freeman. Sports Illustrated's Jim Trotter has the Bucs taking Ole Miss DT Peria Jerry. SI's Don Banks has them taking Missouri DT Evander Hood.
The Bucs plan to bring a fourth quarterback to camp and have demonstrated they're not juiced about the list of available free agent veterans. Maybe Freeman, who played at Kansas State when Bucs coach Raheem Morris was its defensive coordinator in 2006, makes sense. But with all the needs on defense, it's hard to imagine the Bucs going that direction.
However, Freeman did have a good workout at his pro day last week and may have vaulted himself into the first round with Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez.
"I can't tell you how much tape I've watched of these guys," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock told syndicated radio host Dan Patrick on Friday. "I think there are three guys that are in this race now. Josh Freeman, I'm not saying he's the first pick in the draft. But he had a tremendous pro day workout. I talked to several coaches and scouts that were there. He's got the same kind of arm strength as Stafford, and those three guys are going to be first-round picks."
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Never doubt that Buchanon really wanted to stay in Tampa Bay. But the issue was playing time, not money. The Bucs plan to start Aqib Talib at left cornerback, and Ronde Barber remains at right cornerback.
"This was a great stop for me, and regardless of the situation, I wish Tampa the very best of luck," Buchanon said recently. "But don't get me wrong I really, really, really wanted to play in Tampa, but sometimes things just don't work out that way."
19TH HOLE: For some reason, this has been a very good spot in the draft recently. What kind of player could the Bucs land with their first-round pick this year? Check out the players who have been selected in that slot since 2000.
•2008: Carolina T Jeff Otah, started at right tackle as a rookie
•2007: Tennessee S Michael Griffin, seven interceptions last season, tied for second in the league
•2006: San Diego CB Antonio Cromartie, named to the Pro Bowl in '07
•2005: St. Louis T Alex Barron, four-year starter
•2004: Miami G Vernon Carey, five-year starter at left and right tackles
•2003: Baltimore QB Kyle Boller, 42 career starts; spent '08 on injured reserve
•2002: Denver WR Ashley Lelie, bounced around to four teams
•2001: Pittsburgh DT Casey Hampton, four Pro Bowls
•2000: Seattle RB Shaun Alexander, three Pro Bowls, league MVP in '05