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Tampa Bay Bucs top heavy at wide receiver position

Mike Wallace isn't a realistic option for the Bucs given his similarities to Vincent Jackson, who already occupies the Bucs' No. 1 receiver spot.

AP photo

Mike Wallace isn't a realistic option for the Bucs given his similarities to Vincent Jackson, who already occupies the Bucs' No. 1 receiver spot.

TAMPA — The offensive fireworks produced by the Bucs in 2012 strongly suggest offense won't be a focus of the upcoming free-agency period.

The Bucs posted a franchise-best 5,820 yards and scored a record 389 points behind a 4,000-yard passer (Josh Freeman), 1,400-yard rusher (Doug Martin) and 1,300-yard receiver (Vincent Jackson).

But look beyond the numbers and there are weaknesses to be addressed. The receiver position is top heavy with Jackson and Mike Williams, but is dangerously thin beyond them.

Tight end Dallas Clark had moderate success last season but appears headed elsewhere as a free agent. His backup, 2011 fourth-round choice Luke Stocker, has much to prove.

So, when the Bucs consider the intriguing list of receivers and tight ends available in free agency, a strong case can be made for moves when the market opens Tuesday.

The Bucs spent much of last season trying to find a reliable slot receiver, eventually settling on Tiquan Underwood, who wasn't even on the roster on opening day. He played surprisingly well, but late in the season again raised questions about the reliability of his hands.

Former second-round pick Arrelious Benn continued his annual struggles with injuries and can't be counted on. Depth at the position is practically nonexistent.

The current lineup of receivers is almost certain to change, whether by additions made in the draft or in free agency. The dropoff after Williams currently is just too steep.

Assuming Clark moves on, tight end is another concern. The Bucs could use more athleticism at the position, and Stocker, while a reliable blocker, hasn't seen enough passes (28 in two seasons) to prove himself as a receiver.

The good news is this: If the Bucs elect to augment their receivers and tight ends via free agency, it's a good class. There are big-time, top-dollar options, but also lesser-known talents in line for more workable salaries.

Here's what the Bucs will have to choose from:

TOP OF THE CLASS

Mike Wallace, Steelers

While Wallace isn't considered the total package by some, his ability to stretch the field will fetch him an impressive contract on the open market. A team looking for explosion (the Dolphins?) will be drawn to his speed to pair with a strong No. 2 receiver. Wallace isn't a realistic option for the Bucs given his similarities to Jackson, who already occupies the Buc' No. 1 receiver spot.

$$$$$

Wes Welker, Patriots

Will he re-sign with New England? That's a fluid question, but there's no debate about Welker's production. He has 2,923 receiving yards over the past two seasons and has five seasons of 1,100 yards or more. But two things work against him: He turns 32 this year. And it's debatable whether he can duplicate his success with a quarterback other than Tom Brady and in an offense other than New England's. The Bucs don't seem a likely destination just because of the investment they already have at receiver, but Welker is the best slot receiver in football.

$$$$

Greg Jennings, Packers

Slowed by injuries, Jennings is coming off his least productive season (36 catches, 366 yards), but he's such a well-rounded receiver that there's a belief he'll find success in most any system. His compensation will be directly related to a team's level of confidence in his durability, but 2012 was the first time he has missed extensive action (eight games). The Bucs primarily need a slot receiver, but perhaps there's a way Jennings could be integrated.

$$$$

Jared Cook (TE), Titans

Despite the Titans' uneven quarterback play during the past two seasons, Cook has managed 93 receptions in that span. His 15.5 yards per catch in 2011 is impressive for a tight end, good enough for a team-high for quite a few clubs. The Titans considered using the franchise tag but a reported dispute over whether he's a receiver or tight end prevented that (there's a difference of $4 million in the corresponding franchise numbers).

$$$

Brian Hartline, Dolphins

The biggest questions facing Hartline: Can he repeat his breakout 2012 season considering his previous average production; and can he be expected to function as a No. 1 receiver? The answer to the first question will come in time, but some feel the correct answer to the latter question is no. This might become moot as the Dolphins are believed to be working on a contract to keep him.

$$$

THE REST

Danny Amendola, Rams — $$$

Martellus Bennett (TE), Giants — $$$

Fred Davis (TE), Redskins — $$

Donnie Avery, Colts — $$

Domenik Hixon, Giants — $$

BEST GUESS

The Bucs have a clear need at receiver, but not one big enough to overpay for one of the top players on the market. The draft also offers some interesting options at the position, so a free-agent splash seems unlikely. Tight end is a position that could use some upgrading, and if the price is right, the Bucs could be in play for one of the better guys available.

Key

$ = under $2M/year

$$ = $2-5M/year

$$$ = $5-7M/year

$$$$ = $7-10M/year

$$$$$ = More than $10M/year

Tampa Bay Bucs top heavy at wide receiver position 03/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 2:49pm]

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