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Exploring the Bucs’ biggest concern in free agency

Chris Baker and T.J. Ward, free agents from 2017, will be out. DeSean Jackson is back. But GM Jason Licht says "free agency is not my favorite time of the year."
ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times
Tampa Bay Buccaneers free agent signees Chris Baker, left, and DeSean Jackson were all smiles when they signed as free agents last March 11
ANDRES LEIVA | Times Tampa Bay Buccaneers free agent signees Chris Baker, left, and DeSean Jackson were all smiles when they signed as free agents last March 11
Published Jan. 27, 2018

The Bucs' 2017 free-agent class will be remembered for Chris Baker's disinterest, T.J. Ward's disillusionment and DeSean Jackson's disappointment.

None were particularly productive on the field. Jackson may get a hall pass because of Jameis Winson's struggles throwing the deep ball.

Jackson isn't going anywhere, particularly because the Bucs guaranteed him $20 million of the three-year, $33.5-million contract he signed last March.

"We did have a hard time getting him the ball,'' general manager Jason Licht said. "He's a play-maker that didn't have one of his better years, that's for sure.  But a lot of that not his fault. You come to a new team, the quarterback gets hurt. He was struggling early. It's just one of those things. We'll look at all of that.''

Ward, who wrongly believed his one-year, $4-million deal entitled him to start every game, is a free agent and won't be invited back. Baker will be released by March 18, when $3 million of his $4.875 million base salary would be guaranteed if he were still on the roster.

Free agency is like Forrest Gump's chocolate box – you never know what you're gonna get. The performance on the field is one thing. But how a player integrates in the locker room with his new team is always hard to measure.

Baker played decent the previous two seasons for the Redskins with 9.5 sacks and 100 tackles. But once he got the big money — $6-million for 2017 –- he was lazy and out of shape, producing only 33 tackles and a half sack.

The signs were there early. Rookies made fun of his lack of work ethic in their talent show. His clowning for Hard Knocks cameras during a preseason stay in Jacksonville drew chuckles. It wasn't until the next to the last week of the season that Baker was held accountable by teammates for smiling after a critical encroachment penalty on fourth down helped cost them a win at Carolina.

Licht doesn't have a stellar record when it comes to free agency.  Frankly, free agency is probably less reliable than the draft league-wide. Nonetheless, it's an important tool the Bucs have to use to address needs and they will do so again.

The Bucs are $64.5 million under the salary cap and that figure could balloon to nearly $80 million before the signing period begins in March.

Much of that money could be used to extend the contracts of the Bucs' own starters such as receiver Mike Evans, linebacker Kwon Alexander, guard Ali Marpet and left tackle Donovan Smith, to name a few. Restricted free agents such as tight end Cameron Brate and receiver Adam Humphries also are due a raise.

The Bucs still have a predominately young team, so they have to do a better job vetting the personalities of the players they sign in free agency.

"You do. And no matter how much you work at getting that, sometimes it's like a kid transferring schools,'' Licht said. "They're out of their element, they're away from their friends, guys that they've come up with. Especially when things aren't going great with the team, that's when some of them struggle to adapt and to adjust to the culture. It's not an exact science.

"If they're producing on the field, and they are very good players, it's easier for them to adjust."

Perhaps the biggest challenge: The best players usually don't make it to free agency.

"You're just not going to let a really good player out of your building if you really, really like them," Licht said. " The ones that (make it to free agency), it becomes about managing risk."

For the Bucs, the biggest needs are an edge passer rusher and cornerback.

Tampa Bay was last in the NFL with 22 sacks. The Bucs could move on from defensive end Robert Ayers, Jr., who signed a three-year, $19.5-million contract in 2016. In his first year, he had 6.5 and a forced fumble despite missing four games. But last year, he was unproductive with only 31 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles.

Noah Spence is recovering from his second surgery in as many years on his right shoulder and played in only three games. The top free agent defensive ends are the Lions Ezekiel Ansah, 28, DET (12 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery) and the Cowboys DeMarcus Lawrence (14.5 sacks, 4 FF, 2 FR). But it's unlikely either team would let their top sack leaders get out of town.

Bent Grimes will be 35 and contemplating retirement. But the field is bigger at cornerback with the Patriots Malcolm Butler, the Redskins Bashaud Breeland and the Bears Kyle Fuller topping some wish lists at that position.

This week at the Pro Bowl, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy openly lobbied for the Bucs to re-sign Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett and Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib. Both could be released but it's hard to imagine either returning to Tampa Bay.

Given some of the things that went on in 2017, Licht's focus needs to not only finding productive players but ones that can help, not hurt the locker room chemistry.

"We have a lot of great guys in our locker room,'' Licht said. "A lot of great guys. But they're young, though. Sometimes there's better times than others when there's risk involved.''

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