The Bucs' newly installed brain trust has shown it is not shy when it comes to making tough decisions.
Wednesday, it made its latest while showing it's prepared to make another later on.
The Bucs allowed cornerback Phillip Buchanon to walk after the two-year starter agreed to terms on a two-year, $8.5 million contract with the Lions. Also, the Bucs signed former Jets kicker Mike Nugent, creating a situation in which general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris eventually will have to decide between Nugent and current kicker Matt Bryant.
The loss of Buchanon, 28, will have ramifications as it leaves the secondary thinner and without perhaps its top man-to-man defender. The Bucs have stressed their intention to play more man coverage under defensive coordinator Jim Bates. That had raised suspicions that 33-year-old former All-Pro Ronde Barber won't be in the starting lineup. But without Buchanon, the team's top two cornerbacks are Barber and 2008 first-round pick Aqib Talib.
The Bucs are expected to address the position during the balance of free agency or in the draft, but one of the players under consideration — Bills free agent Jabari Greer — agreed to a four-year deal with the Saints on Wednesday.
Buchanon, a solid cover man and sure tackler, said long ago that he preferred to return to Tampa Bay. But weeks of negotiations did not produce a contract for the former first-round pick who became a free agent Friday.
Curiously, Buchanon's annual salary is comparable to those the Bucs agreed to in new deals for receiver Michael Clayton and running back Derrick Ward, but the team opted not to match Detroit's offer.
Nugent, a heralded second-round pick in 2005 out of Ohio State who turned 27 on Monday, will compete with Bryant, the Bucs' kicker the past four seasons. It's expected both will go to training camp, where they'll battle to be the team's kicker in the fall.
It's commonplace for teams to take multiple kickers or punters to camp, but this could be the first serious challenge Bryant, 33, has faced since Todd France pushed him for the job in 2005.
Bryant was perfect on attempts inside 40 yards in 2008. In a season during which he converted a winning kick just days after the death of his infant son, Bryant set a club record with 131 points. His 32 field goals ranked second in the NFL and were a career high. But he was erratic on kicks attempted from 40 yards or longer, finishing 5-for-11. For his career, Bryant is 37-for-57 (.650) from 40 yards or longer. Nugent is 20-for-31 (.645) in his career on such attempts.
Nugent has made 75 of 92 career field goals (.815) and 83 of 85 extra points. He missed nearly all of 2008 after sustaining a leg injury in the season opener.
Nugent's career-long kick of 54 yards came in 2006 at gusty Giants Stadium. At Ohio State, he was named the 2004 Lou Groza Award winner, given to the nation's top collegiate kicker.
Bryant could not be reached for comment, and his agent did not respond to attempts to reach him. But Dominik said in a radio interview on 620-AM that he spoke with Bryant to make him aware of the move.
"It is an open competition," Dominik said.
Bryant's plight became a national story when he earned player of the week honors for kicking a winning field goal against the Packers on Sept. 28, one day after his son's funeral.
And the Bucs aren't done shaping their roster in this signing period. They have been engaged in talks with tight end Jerramy Stevens, the team's most productive tight end last season with 36 catches for 397 yards and two touchdowns. Stevens played for Tampa Bay on consecutive one-year deals the past two seasons but became an unrestricted free agent last Friday.
His potential addition on the heels of Friday's Kellen Winslow trade would create some doubt about the future of the team's remaining tight ends — Alex Smith and John Gilmore. Dominik, during that same radio interview, confirmed the talks with Stevens and spoke about potentially pairing him with Winslow in certain formations.
Elsewhere, the Bucs continue to track strong safety Jermaine Phillips, who wrapped up a visit with the Chargers on Wednesday and was expected to make his way to Seattle for a visit with the Seahawks.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]