TAMPA — Given the disappointing results of last year's free agent spending spree, it would be understandable if Bucs coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht wanted to keep their checkbooks holstered this time around.
But as free agency begins this weekend, the Bucs have significant room under the salary cap — and significant holes to fill on both sides of a 2-14 team — so expect them to be active, if more judicious, in their spending. Teams can begin contacting players just after midnight tonight. They can't finalize contracts until 4 p.m. Tuesday.
"It's not like we're out of the free agency business," Smith said last week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. "Hopefully we can make some better decisions."
The Bucs must decide which needs they want to address in the eight weeks before the draft, where they have three picks in the top 65.
Some of their biggest moves in the next week might be to fix some of last year's decisions. Tackle Anthony Collins, brought in to be the left tackle of the future, could be cut, and defensive end Michael Johnson could follow. Quarterback Josh McCown — likely to be replaced with the top pick in the draft, perhaps with Florida State's Jameis Winston — already is gone, cut after one disappointing season, going 1-10 as a starter.
Tampa Bay has about $33 million in salary cap room and could have $10 million more if pricey veterans Collins, safety Dashon Goldson and punter Michael Koenen are released. Those moves would also create new needs for the team, so the focus is on nailing the evaluations of which players can best help.
Changes should start on the offensive line, where the Bucs must use free agency and high draft picks to likely replace Collins and upgrade from right guard Patrick Omameh. If the Bucs want to spend big, they could go after 49ers guard Mike Iupati or Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga, but they might be more likely to seek a proven but less expensive option, such as Texans right tackle Derek Newton, a three-year starter on a line that gave up the fourth-fewest sacks in the league in 2014.
With or without Johnson, the Bucs need to find a pass-rusher, and they got a head start on that Thursday by bringing in former Eagles defensive end Trent Cole, a two-time Pro Bowl player with 85½ sacks in 10 seasons. There are several high-dollar options, including the Bills' Jerry Hughes, the Redskins' Brian Orakpo and even the Panthers' Greg Hardy, who will be coveted despite having spent most of last season on the commissioner's exempt list after being convicted of domestic violence. He appealed, and the charges were dismissed last month. Hardy isn't allowed to play until removed from the exempt list, which could deter teams from going after him in free agency, though the league issued a statement Thursday saying he is allowed to sign a new contract.
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For the second year in a row, the Bucs won't be hit hard by their players leaving in free agency. The biggest loss looks to be middle linebacker Mason Foster, who has started 54 games in four seasons but might not be the best match for Smith's defense.
By Tuesday, the Bucs must decide how to handle two restricted free agents, running back Bobby Rainey and nickel defensive back Leonard Johnson, who each would command big raises, from $570,000 in 2014 to $1.5 million in 2015 on one-year contracts.
The Bucs would be hard-pressed to make as sweeping of a roster overhaul as they did last year in the first offseason for Smith and Licht. But after a 2-14 record, there are ample opportunities to make changes and an urgency to have better success with those decisions so the Bucs can be in better position for success next season.