If free agency kicks off the NFL season, then three days into the 2012 "season," the Bucs are in first place. The Bucs signed three marquee players — wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright — and likely are not done. So what does it all mean? Well, it depends on who you are. Here's what the Bucs' cannonball into the free agent pool means to the following folks:
The Bucs quarterback just got tons better. Just like that, his No. 1 wide receiver is no longer a guy (Mike Williams) who is, actually, a No. 2 receiver. Just like that, his primary option is not a tight end (Kellen Winslow) whose best play is running 7 yards down the field, turning around, making a catch and getting tackled. Freeman's new best buddy is a speedster who stretches the field, changes game plans, makes opposing cornerbacks nervous and opposing defensive coordinators nauseous. It's hard to be an elite quarterback in the NFL without an elite receiver. Freeman now has such a playmaker for the first time in his career. His other weapons (Williams and Winslow, now free of double teams) just got better, too.
The running back
Who knows who the running back will be? Maybe it will be LeGarrette Blount. Maybe it will be Alabama's Trent Richardson, whom the Bucs could take with the fifth overall pick in next month's draft. Maybe it's a free agent. Whoever it is just had a great couple of days. Nicks gives him one more big body to run behind. And nothing helps a running game more than a splash player such as Jackson racing through the defensive backfield.
Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan
Could the signing of just one player change the fortunes of an entire defense? The Bucs allowed 30 touchdown passes last season — tied for third most in the NFL. Their 23 sacks were the fewest in the league. Every time you turned around, the other team was completing passes for 20, 30, 40 yards. But if Wright is a true shutdown corner, he changes everything. He stops elite receivers. He stops big plays. He allows for more blitz packages, thus improving the pass rush and creating more sacks. He produces turnovers. Now, to be fair, there's some question whether Wright is that kind of shutdown corner, but if he is, the defense improved overnight.
The signings mean flexibility for the team's general manager in the upcoming draft. By signing Wright, the Bucs don't have to take a cornerback with the fifth pick. By signing Jackson, they don't have to take a wide receiver. By signing Nicks, they don't have to take an offensive lineman. They could go after any position now or trade down for extra picks.
Director of ticket sales
Okay, so the Bucs didn't bring in Peyton Manning. They aren't going to draft Andrew Luck. As good as Jackson, Nicks and Wright are, their names alone won't sell tickets. But the team appears better. Doesn't that mean you're more inclined to open your wallet now that the Glazers have opened theirs? In a roundabout way, the local Fox affiliate, Ch. 13, might have had as good of a week as anyone. After all, more tickets sales might mean fewer blackouts. That's good for most of you, too.
The day after last season's 4-12 train wreck ended, Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer said, "We are going to spend whatever it takes to win to put the best team on the field." Show of hands, how many of you actually believed that? Glazer's quote became a rallying cry for cynics, followed by a roll of the eyes and a "Yeah, we'll see." Turns out, the Glazers put their money where their mouths are. Spending the kind of dough the Glazers have spent this offseason buys you credibility and popularity.
Nothing improves the relationship between the head coach and the front office/ownership more than the willingness to spend money. One of the first things the first-year NFL coach said in his opening news conference was how he wanted a team that took shots down the field. Before the sun set on the first day of free agency, the Bucs went out and gave Schiano a player who does exactly that. Think that doesn't do wonders for a head coach's confidence in his bosses?
On the opposite side of Schiano is Morris. Don't you feel a little sympathy for the former Bucs coach today? Last season, the Bucs had plenty of money but decided to sit on their wallets instead of writing blank checks. Whether or not you thought Morris was a good coach, we can all agree he was expected to make chicken salad out of, well, bad ingredients. Today, Morris must feel like Lehman Brothers. Everybody else got a bailout, while his business shut down.
The Saints and Falcons aren't going to concede the top of the division just because the Bucs signed a few players to a team that won four games last season. Just adding a few names doesn't automatically make you better. Right, Philadelphia? But, counting the draft, the Bucs are going to add, at least, four impact players. Those four should make others better. It might not be enough to climb to the top of the division, but the Bucs have taken a few steps up the mountain.
Today, you feel better about your team, don't you? For the first time in a long time, you feel like ownership is committed. For the first time ever, you believe the GM is capable. You like the head coach, and you love the quarterback. Most of all, you're looking forward to the real start of the 2012 season. You can't wait for opening day. Bet you didn't feel that way a week ago.
tom jones' two cents