TAMPA – The reviews are in, and they are mostly glowing.
Since Tom Brady signed with the Buccaneers, fans have scrambled to buy season tickets. Cris Collinsworth says prime time football will become more frequent in Tampa Bay. Las Vegas has grown fond of the Bucs’ Super Bowl odds, and ESPN.com’s analyst graded it as the best free agent signing of the off-season.
And that all sounds good in the spring.
But free agency can be tricky business. Concerns that are easily justified in April loom larger when the season begins. Is a player right for the system? Was he a product of circumstances in his last stop? Is he well past his prime?
The Bucs have had their share of flops and stars in free agency. They’ve had some big-name players — tight end Jackie Harris comes to mind — who probably fall somewhere in between. Not huge disappointments, but not everything you expected.
With the Brady signing still fresh, we decided to take a look at Tampa Bay’s history in free agency. For the purposes of this list, we limited it to players signed since 1993, when unrestricted free agency first arrived in the NFL. We also focused on players who were considered strong candidates to start when they originally signed. Not, for instance, Shelton Quarles who was undrafted out of Vanderbilt and played two years in Canada before signing, presumably, as a special teams player and ended up as an anchor on Tampa Bay’s defense.
With that as a guide, here’s a look at the five best — and five worst — free agent signings in Tampa Bay history.
No. 5: Vincent Jackson (2012-16)
After numerous contract disputes in San Diego, Jackson hit the open market as one of the top deep threats in the NFL. He was an instant success in Tampa Bay with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. The only problem is the Bucs stunk. During his first four seasons, the Bucs averaged less than five wins a year. By the time the Bucs improved in 2016, Jackson’s career was winding down.
Deal: Five years, $55.5 million. GM: Mark Dominik
No. 4: Shaquil Barrett (2019)
Barrett kind of skirts our rules. He had only 15 career starts in his first five seasons in Denver and wasn’t exactly a hot commodity on the open market. Still, it was an incredibly astute pickup by the Bucs’ front office. Barrett’s 19.5 sacks and six fumbles forced made him one of the most dynamic defensive players in the NFL last season.
Deal: One year, $4 million. GM: Jason Licht
No. 3: Hardy Nickerson (1993-99)
The notoriously cheap Culverhouse regime actually pried its wallet open wide during the early years of free agency. Nickerson’s deal was the richest in franchise history at that point and made him one of the top-paid linebackers in the league. He was worth every penny. Nickerson made five Pro Bowls in Tampa Bay and was one of the cornerstones Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin built around.
Deal: Three years, $5.1 million. GM: Rich McKay
No. 2: Brad Johnson (2001-04)
You could make a case that Jeff Garcia was a better value as a free-agent quarterback. But Johnson wins all arguments with this simple fact: He is the only Super Bowl-winning quarterback in Tampa Bay history. He is the antidote to Steve Young, Doug Williams and Trent Dilfer winning elsewhere. Johnson was a Pro Bowl pick in 2002 with 22 touchdown passes and six interceptions.
Deal: Five years, $28 million. GM: Rich McKay
No. 1: Simeon Rice (2001-06)
The Bucs already had a formidable defense in 2001. Rice’s arrival put Tampa Bay into a stratosphere occupied by only a handful of defenses in NFL history. He’s second on the franchise’s all-time list for sacks with 69.5 and third on forced fumbles with 19. Rice was also one of the more entertaining and eclectic players to ever put on a Bucs uniform.
Deal: Five years, $34 million. GM: Rich McKay
No. 5: Charlie Garner (2004)
The case could be made that this was just bad fortune. Garner tore up his knee three games into his Bucs career, and never played another regular season down in the NFL. Except Garner was 32 years old and had just undergone offseason knee surgery during a subpar season in Oakland. Who could have guessed this one would turn out so horribly? Just about everyone.
Deal: Six years, $20 million. GM: Bruce Allen
No. 4: Alterraun Verner (2014-16)
A classic case of being fooled by a mediocre player coming off a career season. After six interceptions in three years in Tennessee, Verner picked off five passes with an NFL-high 22 passes defensed in 2013. That’s more than he did in 46 games over three seasons with Tampa Bay. He lost his starting job by his second season and was released for salary cap purposes. He cost the Bucs somewhere in the vicinity of $20 million.
Deal: Four years, $26.5 million. GM: Jason Licht
No. 3: Eric Wright (2012)
The football gods were looking out for the Bucs on this one. Wright’s original deal included a guaranteed $15 million, but that was voided by a positive drug test. After one season, one interception and one arrest for suspicion of DUI, he was traded to San Francisco. The 49ers sent him back three days later after his physical, and the Bucs released him. Total bill? A cool $7.5 million.
Deal: Five years, $37.5 million. GM: Mark Dominik
No. 2: Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins, Josh McCown (2014)
Anyone can make a bad deal. Even two. But three in one offseason? This trifecta of terrible might be the standard in Tampa Bay. All three players were released after one season. McCown went 1-10 as a starter and Collins lost his starting job at left tackle by November. That made Johnson, and his four sacks, the star pupil. For their one season of service on a 2-14 team, they combined to make $30 million. And none of this includes Alterraun Verner, who was also part of this free-agent class.
Deals: Five years, $43.75 million for Johnson; five years, $30 million for Collins; two years, $5 million for McCown. GM: Jason Licht
No. 1: Alvin Harper (1995-96)
To be honest, I’m not sure Harper is the worst of the bunch. But he’s become synonymous with bad contracts in Tampa Bay, and I will not challenge your memories today. Harper had played in the shadow of Michael Irvin in Dallas and, as it turns out, there was a reason for that. He was not cut out to be a No. 1 receiver. He caught 65 passes over two seasons and had the tip of his finger accidentally cut off by a Bucs trainer. Along the way, he complained about not getting the ball enough, accused coaches of lying and threatened to retire. On the bright side, the Bucs only paid $7.45 million of his $10.66 million contract.
Deal: Four years, $10.66 million. GM: Rich McKay
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.