By Tom Krasniqi
The NFL season is over and now the offseason of intrigue now begins.
Seattle won Super Bowl 48 over Denver in dominating fashion. Both teams took different roads to get to the big game and both proved to be effective.
So, what can the Bucs learn from this? Plenty. The Bucs would be wise to learn a thing or two from how Denver and Seattle went about their business.
Denver took a unique approach as they utilized free agency to plug holes.John Elway and John Fox did a masterful job in picking players who not only fit their system—the majority of their free agent acquisitions from a year ago didn’t break the bank.
Last offseason, the Broncos went shopping in free agency and made 5 terrific signings. Their strategy was simple and effective—splurge for one or two guys, then grab a few guys on modest deals.
They grabbed guard Louis Vasquez from the Chargers on a 4 year deal worth $23.5 million. He’s only 26 years old and made the Pro Bowl this season. They also gave Peyton Manning another weapon in the passing game when they took WR Wes Welker from New England for a modest deal—2 years at $12 million. Welker caught 73 passes and scored 10 touchdowns. Brilliant. Next, they beefed up their defensive line by signing DT Terrence Knighton to another modest 3 year deal worth $4.5 million. Another fantastic pickup at a more than reasonable price. The man they called “Pot Roast” was a force inside and made big plays throughout the postseason. CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie hopped aboard on a 1 year deal worth $5 million and proved to be a valuable addition to the secondary. Maybe the wisest pickup came when they signed LB Shaun Phillips to a 1 year deal worth $1 million with no signing bonus. All he did was pick up the slack when Von Miller went down and racked up 10 sacks in the process. And how can we forget the best free agent signing from two years ago when Manning came to Denver. He fell woefully short in the Super Bowl but he put up the best season any QB has ever had.
When it came to the draft, Denver did not get significant contributions from their 2013 class. First round pick—DT Sylvester Williams—had just 2 sacks in 13 games played. Second rounder Montee Ball was a solid backup behind RB Knowshon Moreno after a bout with fumbling early in his rookie campaign. Former USF CB Kayvon Webster saw some playing time and came up with one interception in 14 games. If you look back to Elway’s 2012 draft, the biggest contributor to this point out of that draft is LB Danny Travathan, who was a 7th round pick.
Seattle took a different approach—GM John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll have a done a wonderful job of building through the draft.QB Russell Wilson was the 75th overall pick back in 2012. His 28 victories are the most by any quarterback in NFL history in the first two seasons. CB Richard Sherman was a 5th round pick in 2011. Safety Kam Chancellor was a 5th round pick in 2012. LB Bobby Wagner was a 2nd round pick in 2012. Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith was a 7th round pick.
When it came to free agency and trades, Seattle picked and chose their spots when to strike. Last offseason, they traded for WR Percy Harvin. They gave up a king’s ransom—a 1st, a 3rd and a 7th along with a huge contract containing a $12 million signing bonus. Although he was injured for much of the season, Harvin proved to be an X-Factor in the Super Bowl so Seahawks fans aren’t complaining. Back in 2010, the Seahawks acquired RB Marshawn Lynch from the lowly Bills for two late picks—a 4th rounder and a 5th rounder. Highway robbery. The only thing missing from that negotiation was a ski mask and a shotgun.
Last year, the Seahawks beefed up their defensive line through free agency with two terrific signings: Former Bucs DE Michael Bennett got $5 million for one year. He led the ‘Hawks in sacks and had a terrific postseason. Bucs fans are still crying. DE Cliff Avril was signed to a 2 year deal worth $13-million. Avril had 8 sacks during the regular season and like Bennett, he was an impact player in the postseason—1.5 sacks, 5 tackles, 2 forced fumbles and 2 pass breakups.
So there you have it. Two winning organizations with slightly different approaches. Broncos leaned more on free agency. The Seahawks relied more on the draft and supplemented it with shrewd free agent signings and trades.
So how should new Bucs head coach Lovie Smith and new GM Jason Licht proceed? I believe the Bucs should use principles from both teams. Dabble in free agency and build through the draft. Licht says he wants to build through the draft. He took some credit for Arizona’s drafting of CB Tyrann Mathieu (3rd round) and RB Andre Ellington (6th round) last year. That’s has been Seattle’s MO in the draft—find those gems late. If Licht can prove to be skilled in drafting well late, then the Bucs will be back in business sooner rather than later. Tampa Bay has the 7th overall pick in this May’s draft. If the Bucs play their cards right in free agency, then they can sit back and take the best available player. That’s what the good NFL teams do in the draft.
What about free agency and the Bucs? Licht says he believes in “value” when it comes to free agent pickups. The Bucs would be wise to mimic Denver’s approach—spend big for one or two players at a premium position, such as pass rushing DE (Jared Allen? Michael Johnson?). The Bucs could then spread the wealth and spend for a WR/KR (Dexter McCluster? Devin Hester?) or TE (Brandon Pettigrew?) or QB (Michael Vick?). Tampa Bay is projected to be about $17 million under the salary cap. If they restructure some deals, they could have more room to play with.
The belief here is that the Bucs can make a quick turnaround. As you saw in the Super Bowl, stifling defense can still take you far. Lovie already has some pieces on defense to run his variation of the Tampa 2. Quarterback remains a big question mark and the Bucs will address it. But you have to look at it from this perspective—no matter who you bring in, the Bucs starting QB will still be the worst in the NFC South. Build up your strength on defense so you have a chance against Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan six times a year.
If the Bucs can copy some of Denver’s blueprint and incorporate Seattle’s strategy, they can go from being 4-12 this season to 10-6 and a possible playoff team next season.