TAMPA — A year ago, free agency hit the Bucs lightly, with only a handful of part-time starters leaving to sign modest deals elsewhere. The significant losses were by choice, as the front office cut loose several veterans to shed high-priced contracts and free up room for free agent spending of its own.
As the final game of 2014 arrives Sunday against the Saints, the Bucs are in a similar position, with 12 players due to be unrestricted free agents, nine of whom have started a combined 38 games this season. Sunday is their last chance to make a case for an offer to stay in Tampa or to try to turn heads elsewhere around the league.
"Now it's the last time. Lasting impression," coach Lovie Smith said. "You remember the last thing that you see most of the time. … For some of the other players that haven't done an awful lot yet or haven't gotten the opportunity, these are valuable reps for them to show us … 'I want to be here, and as we rise, I'm going to be a part of that, and I'm going to be one of the reasons that we come up.' This is an important football game."
The Bucs may again make significant cuts, shedding players who haven't played up to their contracts, and another priority in the offseason will be locking up linebacker Lavonte David, an unrestricted free agent in 2016, to a long-term extension.
For now, the most notable potential loss is middle linebacker Mason Foster, a potential free agent who has started 54 games in four seasons but has missed five games with injuries this year. The Bucs might not see him as a future starter and opt to address such a key position in free agency or the draft.
Many of the potential free agents joined the team this season. Some of them are done for the year on injured reserve — cornerback Mike Jenkins, safety Major Wright, receiver Louis Murphy — along with 2011 first-round draft pick Adrian Clayborn, who will miss all but one game this year with a biceps injury.
Other first-year Bucs, such as tackle Oniel Cousins and linebacker Dane Fletcher, have gotten chances to start due to injuries and are still trying to make their case to get a contract offer to return.
"It's just finishing strong, showing what I've got," said Fletcher, second on the team with 10 special teams tackles and who has started three games on defense as well. "I'm pretty sure the coaches have an idea of what they have in this locker room after a full year, but you want to perform your best — for film, for coaches' sake and for your own sake."
Cousins has filled in with three starts at left tackle and the past two games at right tackle. He also has gotten work as a sixth lineman, and though he is unlikely to be brought back as a starter, he can show the value in having an experienced backup who can step in when injuries happen.
"Every day's an opportunity to go out and prove (yourself) to people," Cousins said. "Versatility, whatever they want me to do, I'll do. They tell me to go in play guard, tackle, tight end, whatever."
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Some players, such as tight end Luke Stocker and defensive lineman Da'Quan Bowers, have played for three coaches in four years. Both have worked at different positions to get on the field, with Bowers sliding inside to tackle and Stocker filling in as a fullback after Jorvorskie Lane was lost to suspension and injuries.
Even first-year Bucs who have played larger roles — Murphy had 31 catches as the No. 3 receiver, and Wright is sixth on the team with 52 tackles — were cut early in the season by Tampa Bay and brought back later. Most would welcome the opportunity to return to the team and help it begin a turnaround.
"It's been great being home. I enjoy it," said Jenkins, who was born in Bradenton and played at USF. He played one game with the Bucs before going on injured reserve with a pectoral injury.
"We haven't spoken yet, but we're worried about the season right now. We'll get in and talk whenever that chance is. We'll just go with the process."