In 1993, the first collective bargaining agreement ushered in the modern era of free agency in the NFL. The system has undergone some tweaks in the interim, but the main structure remains pretty much the same as what was put in place 20 years ago. There are unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents, franchise tags, transition tags and a salary cap. There were huge free agency hits when the market first opened (Reggie White) just as there are now (Drew Brees). And, of course, there were (Scott Mitchell) and are (Nnamdi Asomugha) just as many big-ticket misses.
Like every team, the Bucs have had entries in both categories. The less we speak about Alvin Harper the better, but from Hardy Nickerson to Vincent Jackson, some of the team’s best performers have come to Tampa through unrestricted free agency.
NFL teams have now had exactly 20 cracks at unrestricted free agency. With the 2013 market about to open on Tuesday, let’s count down the best UFA signings in Buccaneer history. This is a topic ripe for debate, so feel to share your thoughts (and/or derision) in the comments below.
(Note: For this exercise we are ONLY considering players who were officially unrestricted free agents when the Buccaneers signed them. Not included are restricted free agent signings, like Jackie Harris, or “street” free agents that were on the market because they had been released by their previous clubs, like Randall McDaniel.)
#20: S Kenny Gant, 1995
Honestly, Gant is something of a placeholder, or maybe a representative, here in the #20 spot. He represents a handful of UFAs who signed with the Bucs and had decent three or four-year runs with the team without really leaving any remarkable numbers. Gant was a special teams demon for the Dallas Cowboys, and he pretty much filled the same role in his three years with the Buccaneers, starting just three games. He was nicknamed “The Shark” and had an infectious personality, both in the locker room and in the stadium with thousands of fans mimicking his shark-fin gesture on top of his helmet. Other similar free agents Gant represents include S Barney Bussey (’93), CB Charles Dimry (’94), RB Jerry Ellison (’00), TE Anthony Becht (’05), TE John Gilmore (’08) and S Sean Jones (’10).
#19: G Kerry Jenkins, 2002
The Buccaneers signed a number of free agents, most of them on the offensive side of the ball, when Jon Gruden arrived in ’02, and almost all of them paid off handsomely. Some, such as TE Ken Dilger, T Roman Oben and WR Keenan McCardell, weren’t technically UFAs, but some were, including Jenkins. After a five-year stint with the New York Jets, Jenkins signed with the Buccaneers and immediately stepped in as the team’s starting left guard. He played 15 games during the regular season, famously gutting out a cracked bone in his leg, and was part of a dominant front in the playoffs. Jenkins only played two seasons for the Bucs, but his 2002 performance was enough to get him on this list.
#18: P Michael Koenen, 2011
Might as well get this out of the way early: Yes, a punter. Just as those who scoff at teams that use franchise tags on punters are missing the point, those who would deride a team for spending in free agency on a field-position changer are ignoring an important part of the game. Koenen is not only an outstanding punter, particularly in terms of angled kicks and ball placement, but he was the NFL’s best producer of touchbacks on kickoffs in 2012. Rest assured, the Buccaneers feel just as good about signing a punter as a UFA now as they did in the summer of 2011.
#17: P Josh Bidwell, 2004
We have to give Bidwell the slight nod over Koenen at this point for two reasons: 1) Bidwell played five seasons as a Buc and Koenen has just two so far, and 2) Bidwell is the only Buccaneer punter ever to make it to the Pro Bowl. The Buccaneers signed Bidwell away from the Green Bay Packers in 2004 and ended up with one of the NFL’s most consistent punters for the next half-decade.
#16: C John Wade, 2003
Sometimes free agency is about getting a good, solid starter at a position of need so that you don’t have to spend draft resources on it. The Buccaneers did just that in ’03 when they nabbed Wade after he had played five seasons in Jacksonville. Wade won’t be confused with a superstar, but he started all 72 games he played over his five Buc seasons (missing one half of one campaign due to injury but returning the next year to start all 16 again) and helped the team to two playoff appearances.
#15: DE Jimmy Wilkerson, 2008
Another kind of very enjoyable success when it comes to free agency is signing a player who was a backup elsewhere and finding out that he can indeed fill a starting role. Wilkerson had played five under-the-radar seasons in Kansas City and started just five games, but the Buccaneers liked his hustling style of play and his pass-rush potential. He ended up starting 16 games for the Bucs over the next two years and contributing a very useful 11 sacks.
#14: DT Chris Hovan, 2005
Hovan had a somewhat unusual NFL career. He was drafted in the first round by Minnesota in 2000 and at first looked like he might be that rare find of an interior pass-rusher. He had 13.5 sacks in his first three seasons and gained league-wide notoriety both for the elaborate eye-black swatches he wore during games and an entertaining war of words with Green Bay QB Brett Favre. In Tampa, Hovan was something of the opposite, in terms of both his demeanor and his production. He was a voice of reason in the Bucs’ locker room, and a good interior plugger, without the sacks, on the field. Hovan started all 63 games he played over four seasons in Tampa.
#13: C Jeff Faine, 2008
Four years before the Bucs nabbed Carl Nicks away from the Saints, they swiped New Orleans’ starting center in 2008. Faine had started his career as a first-round pick in Cleveland, and had then been traded to the Saints when the Browns signed LeCharles Bentley away from New Orleans. He was coming off a season as the NFC Pro Bowl alternate in 2007 when the Bucs brought him on board to replace Wade. Faine immediately settled in at the middle of the Bucs’ line and gave the team four strong years, both on the field and as a leader in the locker room, though injuries limited him during several of those years.
#12: C Jeff Christy, 2000
Christy may or may not have been a better center than Faine, and he lasted one fewer year with the team, but he gets the slightly higher spot on the list because he was a starter on the 2002 Super Bowl Championship team. In fact, that Super Bowl XXXVII victory over Oakland was the last game of Christy’s NFL career. The Buccaneers signed him from Minnesota in ’00, also adding non-UFA Randall McDaniel at the same time, and both ended up in one more Pro Bowl, wearing Tampa Bay jerseys.
#11: LB Lonnie Marts, 1994
The Buccaneers signed Marts from the Chiefs in 1994 and he slotted right in as the starting strongside linebacker, but his best season came after Tony Dungy took over in 1996 and Marts found himself in a pass-rushing role. In ’96, Marts finished second on the team to Warren Sapp with seven sacks, giving the team pressure from the outside to take advantage of Sapp’s impact in the middle.
#10: WR Joe Jurevicius, 2002
Jurevicius signed with the Buccaneers in Jon Gruden’s first year, along with the likes of Michael Pittman, Ken Dilger (not a UFA), Kerry Jenkins, Keenan McCardell (not a UFA) and several others. Jurevicius wasn’t a starter in Tampa and injuries kept him from being much of a factor after 2002. Still, his impact in helping the Buccaneers to their first NFL title can’t be forgotten. He was an extremely productive third receiver behind McCardell and Keyshawn Johnson and he turned in several enormous plays in the postseason, including his unforgettable catch-and-run for the length of the field in Philadelphia.
#9: CB Martin Mayhew, 1993
The Buccaneers had one extremely critical signing on defense in 1993, the first year of true free agency, as you’ll see below. Cutting a somewhat lower profile, but still quite successful, was the signing of former Washington cornerback Martin Mayhew. What the Buccaneers got out of Mayhew was four solid years of starting at a key position, as well as another leader in the locker room. Mayhew, who is now the Detroit Lions’ general manager, had eight interceptions in that span and missed only four games.
#8: QB Jeff Garcia, 2007
No, the Buccaneers didn’t win a playoff game with Garcia at the helm, or make it back to the postseason in his second year. In addition, Garcia struggled with minor injuries that kept him out of a couple games in both 2007 and 2008. Still, he did lead a team that had won four games in 2006 back to the playoffs in ’07, and he put up some rather impressive numbers in the process. Garcia completed 64% of his passes in 2007 and 65% in 2008 and finished with a 25-10 TD-INT ratio over the two years combined. He topped a 90 passer rating both years, too, and won 14 of his 24 starts.
#7: G Carl Nicks, 2012
There’s a very good chance this signing will move up the list before it’s all said and done, but we can’t rank it any higher after just seven games played. Nicks was very good during those seven games, despite the fact that he was playing through a painful toe injury that eventually ended his season. The two-time Pro Bowler is still only 27, and it’s not often that a team can sign a free agent lineman who is considered the best in the game at his position.
#6: DE Greg Spires, 2002
Spires was a very low-key signing during the 2002 offseason, as he had started just seven games over his first four NFL seasons, split between New England and Cleveland. He wasn’t even expected to be a starter upon his first arrival, but by the beginning of the season he had taken the left end spot away from incumbent Marcus Jones. Not only did Spires start every game at that spot for the Super Bowl champs, he actually went on to start for the majority of six seasons in Tampa. There may not have been another UFA signing in team history that delivered so much more than was originally expected.
#5: RB Michael Pittman, 2002
Warrick Dunn departed for Atlanta after the 2001 season, so new Head Coach Jon Gruden and the Bucs had a need for a starting tailback in ’02. Pittman had been that for most of the previous two seasons in Arizona, though he did not have a 1,000-yard rushing campaign to his name. Pittman never got one of those in Tampa, either, but he became one of the best two-way threats in team history, gaining 3,362 yards on the ground and 2,361 through the air over the next six years. Pittman is the fifth-leading rusher and seventh-leading pass-catcher in team annals and he turned in an MVP-caliber performance in the team’s Super Bowl victory at the end of his first year.
#4: WR Vincent Jackson, 2012
Jackson came to the Buccaneers directly off a Pro Bowl season with the Chargers, and he went right back to the all-star game at the end of his first year in Tampa. That made him the first receiver since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to play in back-to-back Pro Bowls but for two different conferences. Obviously, Jackson’s signing was nothing short of an unqualified success, as he nearly broke the team’s single-season record with 1,364 receiving yards and led the entire NFL with 19.2 yards per reception.
#3: DE Simeon Rice, 2001
Monte Kiffin wanted Rice, the former first-round pick and Arizona Cardinal, to complement the unstoppable Sapp as an outside-inside pass-rushing duo. He got him, and it worked like a charm. Rice racked up 69.5 sacks over six seasons in Tampa, including 67.5 over his first five years. He peaked at 15.5 sacks during the 2002 Super Bowl season and then had four more sacks during the team’s run to the title.
#2: QB Brad Johnson, 2001
Would the Buccaneers have won the Super Bowl in 2002 without signing Johnson the year before? It’s hard to imagine. Johnson not only put up good numbers, but he was a bulldog of a leader on the field and he managed games well, minimizing risk to help the Bucs’ top-notch defense dominate. Johnson threw for 3,000 yards and a 22-6 TD-INT ratio in 2002 and then topped that with a then-team-record 3,811 passing yards in 2003. Johnson was rewarded with a Pro Bowl berth following his second year with the team, and overall threw for more than 10,000 yards in four seasons in Tampa.
#1: LB Hardy Nickerson, 1993
The first significant UFA signing for the Buccaneers remains the best. Nickerson had six good years in Pittsburgh, the last three as a full-team starter, but he got his chance to shine as the heart of the Bucs’ defense, beginning in 2003. In his first year with the team, Nickerson broke the team record for tackles, setting the new bar at 214, which has still not been topped. He was a sideline-to-sideline monster from the middle linebacker position, racking up 1,028 stops over season seasons, the third-most in franchise history. Nickerson helped set a new tone in Tampa, and after the arrival of John Lynch, Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and Ronde Barber, he became a critical part of the team’s long-awaited turnaround.