TAMPA — There has never been a day quite like it in the history of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a 24-hour cycle in which the team signed three high-profile free agents — Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson, Saints guard Carl Nicks and Lions cornerback Eric Wright — to contracts worth $140.5 million.
It was a whirlwind bro-mance in which the Bucs scooped up players and their wives in Los Angeles, San Diego and New Orleans on a pair of chartered, private jets, including one that was met by coach Greg Schiano in Tampa at 4 a.m. Wednesday.
All three players were considering strong offers from other teams, including their own, but the Bucs weren't taking no for an answer. Armed with $44.5 million under the salary cap, the third-most room of any NFL team — Tampa Bay put on a fullcourt press when the free agent signing period began at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
"These guys, they didn't leave much to doubt," Jackson said. "They were very aggressive and very open with me from the very beginning, so there wasn't much time to consider much else."
Jackson was the first to reach an agreement, about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. Twelve hours later, Nicks, a Pro Bowl guard who crammed his 6-foot-5, 343-pound frame into a private jet waiting in New Orleans to fly him to Tampa on Tuesday, was the last to sign at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.
"It's a great day in Buccaneer history," GM Mark Dominik said. "It's been a very exciting 24 hours for our organization.
"I think we're tired of rebuilding here. That's not who we're trying to be. We want to be the best team we can be in 2012, and we know that these guys can help us become that."
Since gutting the team of veterans in 2009 and vowing to build through the draft, Dominik and the Glazer family that owns the Bucs were largely spectators during free agency except to lock up a few of their own players. After a 10-6 record in 2010, the only free agent added from another team was Falcons punter Michael Koenen.
"In 2010, we were coming off a lot of wins and then going into '11 hoping to build on that, so we didn't get as involved in free agency for two reasons," Dominik said. "One, we had young players. And two, I didn't really like the feeling that you wouldn't have time to jell with guys who had not been part of your organization or your football team before."
While Bucs fans were skeptical when co-chairman Joel Glazer vowed on Jan. 2 to spend "whatever it takes to win'' following a 4-12 season that led to the firing of coach Raheem Morris, Dominik said he knew it was time to add pieces to the core of young players.
"There's no debate people look at salary cap and say, 'What are you doing?' or 'Why aren't you spending?' or things like that," Dominik said. "But I knew what we wanted to do going into the offseason and that's why when Joel stood up and talked at the podium and talked about 'we'll do whatever it takes,' then I knew what we were going to do as we discussed it."
The 6-foot-5 Jackson was the Chargers' franchise player last season and could have received $13 million for one season if they placed that designation on him again. When the Saints failed to sign quarterback Drew Brees to a long-term contract and had to place the franchise tag on him, it allowed Nicks to hit the open market. Lions receiver Calvin Johnson did not agree to a contract extension until Tuesday, making Wright available.
Schiano was all smiles as he spoke about how each player could help the Bucs. The former Rutgers coach dined with Nicks on Tuesday night. Wright and his wife were met by a private jet in Los Angeles, which hopped south to San Diego to pick up Jackson and his spouse.
Wright, who had four interceptions last season, will help limit the big plays on a defense that allowed 30 touchdown passes last season. Nicks is a road grater who was excited by Schiano's ground-and-pound philosophy. "No disrespect to (New Orleans) but they are a pass first, pass second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth," Nicks said. "They may slide a run in at the end."
Jackson gives quarterback Josh Freeman a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
"I think they're a perfect fit," Schiano said.
Dominik said after making the biggest splash in free agency during the first 24 hours, the Bucs will shift most of their focus to the draft.
"We need to continue to monitor free agency," Dominik said, "but I don't see us being really active or involved in it after today for awhile there. We've made our mark for what we've really wanted to accomplish."