Jason Licht Has Figured Out Free Agency

May 28, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht watch practice at One Buc Place. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
May 28, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht watch practice at One Buc Place. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht has now strung together two successful free agent periods after disastrous results in 2014 and 2015.

Whenever NFL free agency rolls around there’s always an ensuing debate about how best to approach it. Like most debates in the current political climate, people tend to side on extreme ends of the spectrum; spend a ton of money, or spend none of it. There’s plenty of working examples for both sides to point at, but the best answer seems to have been found by Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht.

The Jaguars’ approach to free agency is one that a lot of struggling teams go with. Without the promise of winning and stability to pitch at veterans these teams have to compensate by over-paying. Often times these teams are bad at drafting, so free agency becomes like a football Walgreens, selling band-aids to stitch together a roster. Wild spending of money usually results in a team without an identity and a locker room without much cohesion, though New York and Oakland have recently had some degree of success after spending big on veterans.

Then there’s the Packers approach, which is typically hailed as the wisest route to take (it isn’t). The Packers are famous for only re-signing their own draft picks, and avoiding free agency as if it were a plague. In fact, before signing tight end Martellus Bennett this off-season, the Packers hadn’t made a big time free agent acquisition since 2014. This philosophy is similar to mine in pick-up basketball: If you don’t shoot a lot, they can’t make fun of you when you miss. This, like the Jaguar approach, is misguided, and has led to a lot of wasted years in Aaron Rodgers prime.

Over the last two off-seasons Jason Licht and his front office have found the free agent sweet spot, the place squarely in between the feuding Jaguar and Packer approaches. The formula is pretty easy to identify. Whereas the Bucs used to take any big-name free agent that would look their way, they’ve recently acquired some standards. First and foremost, players must have the ability to quickly assimilate into the Bucs tight-knit locker room. No more settling for talented malcontents or players that only show up for the paycheck.

On top of being strong teammates, the Bucs want guys who are on their second or third significant contract, guys that have that intense desire to make the playoffs and win a Super Bowl before retirement. Brent Grimes, Robert Ayers, Chris Baker and DeSean Jackson all fit this criteria.

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It took Jason Licht some time to figure out an ideal balance in free agency. In 2014 the rookie general manager had a ton of cap space to work with and he took full advantage, signing eleven new players in free agency. A few of this eleven managed to stick, but none lived up to their contract or had a lasting, positive effect on the organization. 2015 was more of the same, adding mediocre players like Henry Melton, Bruce Carter, Chris Conte and Sterling Moore.

Two people have played key roles in Jason Licht’s free agency awakening. The first is Mike Greenberg, director of football administration for the Bucs, and a respected contract wizard. Greenberg has been with the Bucs for seven years and several ugly free agent periods, but his expertise has allowed Jason Licht to survive his early blunders without putting the team into cap hell.

The second is Lovie Smith. Though we’ll never know for certain, it’s widely believed that Lovie Smith played a large role in the acquisitions of free agent busts Michael Johnson, Bruce Carter, Mike Jenkins, Henry Melton and Chris Conte. Lovie Smith’s defense required players with specific skill-sets, so Licht had no choice but to deliver what his head coach wanted, regardless of whether the players were actually good. The departure of Smith has allowed Licht to freely implement his own philosophy, which is very clearly working.

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No team will ever be perfect in free agency. There’s always going to be bad apples that slip through the filters, and it’s likely that at least one of his signings this off-season won’t pan out. However it’s become clear that Licht has the correct process to approach free agency with – one that focuses on experience, attitude and affordability, as opposed to purely scheme fit and talent. The Bucs are in very good hands for off-seasons to come.