As the NFC continues to grow stronger, it can be easy to forget that the Bucs were 10-6 just four years ago and considered an up-and-coming team. As they enter the Lovie Smith era, it will take savvy both in the draft and free agency to get Tampa Bay back into the conversation in the NFC South. Here are ten free agents that could help turn things around right now:
10. B.J. Raji
Gerald McCoy already holds down the top defensive tackle position for the Bucs, but adding grit on the inside should help outside pass rushers get to the quarterback, and help disrupt the pocket when playing quarterbacks like Drew Brees. Last year with the Packers, Raji moved all around the defensive line, and that versatility could prove valuable in trying to confuse opposing offensive lines.
9. Charles Tillman
As Ronnie K pointed out on Feb 13th, (click here) Tillman is a natural fit in Lovie Smith’s system, having spent his career with Smith in Chicago. The Bucs know that they’ll face Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, and Brees twice every year, so a solid secondary is a must. Tilman’s nose for the ball can help Tampa Bay get their offense back on the field.
8. Maurice Jones-Drew
Buccaneers fans hope Doug Martin will return to his rookie form in 2014, where he was one of the most exciting running backs in the league. Jones-Drew shouldn’t come with an expensive price tag given his age, and he could serve as a mentor to Martin.
7. Rashard Mendenhall
Mendenhall could help bring in a different philosophy for the Bucs, if they choose to attempt to eat up the clock and keep the ball away from opposing offenses. Martin would still lead the way, but Mendenhall could provide fresh legs and a different look, helping take the pressure off of Mike Glennon and the passing game.
6. Anquan Boldin
Speaking of Glennon, it seems the most effective passing attacks in the NFL have three solid options at wide receiver. As great as Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are, a third look could help open things up. Even at 33, Boldin’s numbers are still impressive: 85 catches, 7TDs, and nearly 1200 yards for the 49ers in 2013.
5. James Jones
Like with running back, I feel there are a few options Tampa Bay could look at for wide receiver. Jones is especially intriguing, his 14 TDs in 2012 show he’s a red zone threat, and having him alongside Jackson and Williams should give fits to even the most stout of secondaries.
4. Dennis Pitta
The Buccaneers might feel like it’s wiser to draft their third wide receiver to save cap room, but a proven tight end could provide a safety blanket for Glennon. Pitta was always consistently there for Joe Flacco, and could provide guidance to Glennon on how to take his game to the next level.
3. Jared Allen
My final three free agents all address the issue of the Bucs pass rush. With only 35 sacks in 2013, Tampa Bay would be smart to make this a top priority. Jared Allen has consistently ruined quarterbacks’ days in Minnesota and Kansas City, and his 11.5 sacks last year shows he has plenty left in the tank.
2. Lamarr Houston
Houston may not be known among many NFL fans because he started his career in Oakland, but the 26 year old could provide long-term depth and versatility at defensive end. He can play on both the right and left side, and can help stop the run. As a 16 game starter the last two years, he racked up 48 and 56 tackles respectively.
1. Brian Orakpo
If the Bucs want to go after a big name, this is the guy. The 27 year old sack machine could take the pressure off of Lavonte David in the linebacking corps. Tampa Bay would hope he can return to his 2011 form, where he also contributed three forced fumbles and deflected five passes to go with his nine sacks and 35 tackles. Spending big money always carries some risk, but in this case, Orakpo could be worth it.