TAMPA — The consensus among NFL general managers these days is that free agency has become a tool used largely to correct mistakes made in the draft.
That would explain the Buccaneers’ plans to target mostly defensive ends, quarterbacks and offensive linemen during the free-agency signing period that begins at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
In the past five years, the Bucs drafted six defensive ends, two quarterbacks and one offensive lineman, but not one developed into what first-year coach Lovie Smith would classify as an impact starter.
The closest is defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a 2011 first-round selection, who has sandwiched 13 sacks around a 2012 season lost to a knee injury.
“Clayborn has been a good, solid player, but solid gets you 4-12,’’ Smith said, referring to Tampa Bay’s record in 2013 under previous coach Greg Schiano. “We have to be better at that position. We have to get more guys that can run and hit.’’
The Bucs need some more guys that can throw, too. After their decision to draft Josh Freeman as a franchise quarterback in 2009 blew up in their faces last year, the Bucs are left with only second-year pro Mike Glennon as a starting option.
Neither Smith nor general manager Jason Licht is sure about Glennon. Though both liked much of what the 2013 third-round pick did during his 13-game stint as starter last year, neither is ready to put him back at the top of the depth chart just yet.
Of course, one reason the Bucs are unsure about Glennon is that he never really had a chance to perform in an optimum setting. Glennon took over an offense that was already being ravaged by injuries, including along the offensive line, a spot the Bucs have all but ignored on draft day.
Their only selection there the past five years was fifth-round pick Xavier Fulton in 2009, something the Bucs have clearly paid a price for the past two years.
With no one to push or adequately replace aging, struggling or absentee starters such as left tackle Donald Penn, left guard Carl Nicks or right guard Davin Joseph, the line’s play quickly deteriorated. Once considered a strength of the Buccaneers – and at a cost of more than $25 million last year it was paid like one – Tampa Bay’s line became a weakness Smith has vowed to fortify if not rebuild altogether.
The first step in that project came Saturday, when Joseph was released. The next could come when the signing period begins, as the team’s need for offensive linemen has almost begun to match their need for defensive ends.
The good news for the Bucs is that the free-agent talent pool at offensive line is considered deep, with former Colts executive Bill Polian rating eight tackles and guards as B-level or better players.
“Offensive line is the one area where maybe free agency can benefit you,’’ Polian said during a conference call last week. “It’s a good place to get a specific veteran player who fits your parameters and at a reasonable cost.’’
Cost is important. Though the Bucs enter the market today with about $24 million in salary cap room, Licht has made it clear he is a bargain shopper when it comes to free agency.
That might explain the reports, none of which have been confirmed by the Bucs or the respective players’ agents, that Tampa is targeting Bengals swing tackle Anthony Collins and Rams guard/tackle Roger Saffold. Neither Collins nor Saffold is considered an elite-level player, but both are believed to have plenty of upside and could step in as starters or at least push an incumbent to perform better.
The same can be said of Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, also reportedly a target of the Bucs. The 6-foot-7, 270-pound Johnson recorded only 3.5 sacks last year, but had 11.5 in 2012, indicating big-play ability.
The Bucs also could be among a handful of teams interested in Bears backup quarterback Josh McCown, who caught everyone’s eye a year ago when he replaced an injured Jay Cutler for five games and led Chicago to victories over Green Bay, Baltimore and Dallas.
McCown has made it clear that after spending the bulk of his 12-year career as a backup he would like to go to a team that will give him a chance to start. Considering their hesitancy with Glennon, the Bucs might be a good fit.
But the Bucs’ needs don’t necessarily stop there.
With the possible exception of running back and safety, Smith and Licht see a need for upgrades at every position, so there is plenty of work to be done beginning today.
“Hey, we’re a 4-12 team in a tough division,’’ Smith said. “And there’s no such thing as a rebuilding year anymore. So, we’re looking to make decisions that will sustain us, but at the same time, hopefully, pay immediate dividends. And, eventually, I think you’ll like what we put together.’’