This year’s NFL free agency period figures to be one of the most exciting – and hectic – in history. With the lockout seemingly coming to an end soon, most teams will begin feverishly trying to sign some of the league’s top available talent, while other teams will be scrambling to cut cap space.
According to ESPN’s John Clayton, the 2011 salary cap will be set at $120 million, with over $20 million more per team allotted for ancillary benefits. The new rules will require teams to spend at least 89 percent of their cap space, which means that every NFL team will have to spend at least $106 million in pure player costs.
Because of this new salary cap, compounded with the fact that the Bucs are currently $59 million under the cap, the Bucs will likely have to be one of the bigger go-getters in free agency. This is an exciting time for Bucs fans. The Bucs haven’t signed a big-name free agent in several years, but at least we know GM Mark Dominik isn’t afraid to make aggressive pushes for top free agents recently – most notably, Albert Haynesworth.
The Bucs are one of the few teams that can afford to splurge in free agency. They can choose to spend some cap space resigning current players to new contracts, or they can pursue multiple free agents. With this in mind, here are five players who I believe can make an immediate impact for Tampa Bay this season.
Running Back Darren Sproles (San Diego Chargers) – He may not be as hyped as fellow free agent running backs De’Angelo Williams, Reggie Bush, and Ahmad Bradshaw, but Sproles is one of those players you feel every time he gets the ball, he’s going to juke a couple defenders, and make a big play. I compare him to a super-charged Clifton Smith – a guy who can help out in special teams, be a 5-10 carry a game guy, and a weapon on short passes in the open field. Sproles is a jitter bug that can drive any defensive coordinator crazy. He also attended Kansas State University, so perhaps Coach Raheem Morris will have a soft spot for him.
Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (Oakland Raiders) – Considered by most to be the best free agent available. He allowed a mere 13 passes to be completed against him last season – none of which went for touchdowns. He is the best shut-down corner in the game. However, he is also the most expensive. Asomugha is asking for $18 million a year, which would make him the highest paid corner in history. That asking price is high but let’s look at the positives he would bring. First off, his addition to the secondary would take pressure off young corners E.J. Biggers and Myron Lewis. Secondly, Aqib Talib’s status for this season remains unknown, and let’s not forget that Ronde Barber isn’t getting any younger. Assuming Talib plays 16 games this season – and the defense remains healthy – having Asomugha would likely propel the Bucs defense to one of the league’s elite.
Safety Eric Weddle (San Diego Chargers) – Weddle is coming off a career year, recording 96 tackles, 10 passes defended, and has developed into a big play-maker for San Diego. At 26 years old, Weddle is entering his prime. The Sporting News ranks Weddle as the top free agent safety available. Although safety Tanard Jackson has been seen participating at Bucs involuntary workouts, his status for the season remains a mystery because of his suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Young safety Cody Grimm performed well last season, but a broken fibula last November cut his season short, and Sean Jones was solid, if unspectacular. Weddle won’t be cheap, but would make a valuable addition to the secondary.
Cornerback Johnathan Joseph (Cincinnati Bengals) – If the Bucs miss out on Nnamdi Asomugha, Joseph is likely the next best option. He is an injury risk, having missed 12 games over the past three years, but he has shown he can be a solid cover corner in the AFC North – nine interceptions over the last two years. It is also worth noting that the Joseph’s name has been whispered by several teams as being a far less expensive alternative to Asomugha, according to NFL writer Len Pasquarelli.
Middle Linebacker Stephen Tulloch (Tennessee Titans) – If the Bucs decide to bring back middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, Tulloch has virtually no chance of ending up in Tampa. However, he is the best middle linebacker available. He finished second in the league last season with 159 tackles and always seems to be around the ball. He’d bring some physicality to the point of attack, without a drop off in athleticism. The Titans drafted two linebackers in the first four rounds of April’s draft, so it is very likely Tulloch will be on the move.