Next Buc challenge is free-agent market
When he checked his messages early Monday morning, Bucs free safety Dexter Jackson, the MVP of Sunday's 48-21 Super Bowl victory against the Raiders, had five calls from his agent, Lamont Smith. That's because Jackson, a four-year player, is an unrestricted free agent and has put himself in a strong negotiating position. "The main thing he told me was that this is my stage. I can set my price," Jackson said. "I hadn't thought about it that way yet. I'm going to enjoy this one for a while."
Therein lies the reality of the NFL and, specifically, the challenge for the Bucs. Less than 24 hours after winning the Super Bowl, the wheels of personnel change begin spinning. Jackson said he would like to stay but also expressed the reality of free agency. "Right now I see myself being here," Jackson said. "If it doesn't happen, it was great. I really enjoyed it. They gave me a chance to showcase what I can do in football. I will always be grateful. This was my home. This was my heart. If it doesn't work out, life goes on. I'm not scared to turn the pages. But I want to stay here. I want to be in Tampa."
Jackson, 25, likely will get offers because he was part of the league's No. 1 defense. The same can be said for starting middle linebacker Shelton Quarles and starting strongside linebacker Al Singleton, also free agents. Along with Jackson, the Bucs' unrestricted free agents include quarterbacks Shaun King and Rob Johnson and tackles Roman Oben and Lomas Brown. "We've got some challenges," coach Jon Gruden said. "Obviously, you have to look at the free agents you have on the team, and you've got to do everything you can to forecast who's going to be available and what you can do to stay where you are now, which is at the top. You have to have great players and great chemistry to do that. We've got to do our research and make the proper moves."
The team likely won't be gun-shy considering the production of players such as receivers Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius, Oben, Brown, Kerry Jenkins and running back Michael Pittman. "We've already sat down and mapped some of that stuff out," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "You don't want to get caught up in it (at an emotional time) where you make bad decisions. We like our football team. We know what the core of our football team is about, and we also know that with Jon, we also have to look at that offense. We're a front seven, defensive team. This year, I'm sure we'll have the same discussion, and Jon likely will ask for a little bit more. But we've been a defensive football team, and he did a great job adjusting to that and figuring out, early in the year, that we won games on defense. Then when he got the offense going, it made us more efficient."
The Bucs signed eight offensive players who started at least one game this season. They also signed defensive end Greg Spires and re-signed cornerback Brian Kelly and center Todd Washington. "I don't know where or when, but I know I did something right," Jurevicius said about signing with Tampa Bay. "The Bucs made a good decision to bring in all of us. What's important is the type of guys you bring in. It doesn't matter if they are All-Pro or Joe Schmo. They have to want to win, and if they want to win, if they have heart, then eventually you'll win games."
Added McCardell: "It was a great decision. It was in my mind all the time to come (to Tampa Bay), but I wanted to make sure everything was right for me and my family. Now I look like a genius."
Though still early, McKay said it is unlikely the Bucs would attack free agency the way they did last year. "It wasn't our design, but more a function of since we were going to change on offense because of Jon and Jon ate up our draft picks, then we decided the right formula was to fix the offense by bringing in some new players," McKay said. "Since we were going to change schemes, we might as well have changed offensive personnel."
He said the Bucs won't need as many offensive veterans this year. "The free-agency approach for us last year was that we were looking for veteran guys who could start and could deal with Jon's offense," McKay said. "We knew it was complicated. He forewarned us. The Ken Dilgers, Keenan McCardells, the Roman Obens. We needed guys who could come right in and start and not be intimidated by the verbiage and the challenge."
Whether Jackson parlays his new fame into a lucrative contract with the Bucs or another team will be played out when the free-agent market opens Feb. 28. "We would like to keep continuity, no question about that," Gruden said. "But at the same time, you have to do what is necessary to improve. So we'll do our offseason evaluations and do whatever we can to improve on every area of our play."