Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Enter free-agency pool at your own risk
TAMPA - NFL transactions and jury deliberations share a common trait. You never know in advance how they'll turn out. Adding significant players via trade or free agency is always risky. It's uncertain how they will fit in the locker room or adapt to a new scheme and coaching staff. On Oct. 15, 2008, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones couldn't contain his glee after Dallas sent three draft picks, including a first-round choice, to Detroit for wide receiver Roy Williams. As NFL owners gathered in downtown St. Petersburg for their annual fall meeting, an effervescent Jones was surrounded by reporters in the Vinoy lobby. He kept talking Williams up as a difference-maker in Big D, but the Cowboys just released him, acknowledging what everyone else already knew … that $20 million they gave Williams in guaranteed money was a colossal mistake.In 40 games with the Cowboys, Williams caught only 94 passes for 1,324 yards and 13 touchdowns. During that same span, Miles Austin, signed by Dallas as an undrafted free agent in 2006, registered 153 receptions for 2,410 yards and 18 touchdowns. And if the Cowboys hadn't traded away that first-round pick (20th overall) in 2009, they would have had a shot at linebacker Clay Matthews, cornerback Vontae Davis or tackle Michael Oher. You never know. In the early stages of free agency this year, the Buccaneers have focused on re-signing their own players — known quantities to the organization. Other clubs, including each of Tampa Bay's division rivals, reached out to add players who might be major contributors in 2011. Unable to reach common ground with Reggie Bush on a restructured contract, the Saints signed Chargers running back Darren Sproles, a 5-foot-6 sparkplug with an uncanny knack for making defenders miss. "I think Sproles is an exceptional talent," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "He is very versatile and dynamic." When Drew Brees spreads the field, Sproles will emerge as a dangerous target out of the backfield. He led San Diego with 59 receptions last season and averaged 5.3 yards on his 50 rushing attempts. Tampa Bay's special teams also will face a serious challenge in containing Sproles, who has returned two punts and two kickoffs for scores. With Ron Rivera replacing John Fox on the Carolina sideline, the new-look Panthers are up and running. The first order of business was keeping defensive end Charles Johnson and running back DeAngelo Williams off the free-agent market. Mission accomplished. Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith is also staying, and Carolina gave rookie quarterback Cam Newton another weapon by trading for tight end Greg Olsen, who had 18 touchdown catches for Chicago the past three seasons. That's three more touchdowns than Dallas' Jason Witten in the same span. Olsen is a big-time addition because tight end has been a black hole for the Panthers since Wesley Walls was finding open seams downfield a decade ago. The Panthers also locked up middle linebacker Jon Beason to a long-term extension, offering Carolina fans another tangible sign of commitment by the organization. Atlanta finally secured some pass-rushing help for John Abraham by signing fellow defensive end Ray Edwards, who was effective in Minnesota opposite Jared Allen. Abraham has received a steady diet of double-teaming off the right edge, although Bucs left tackle Donald Penn usually neutralizes Abraham without help. New England created a stir by trading for 30-year-old defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and 33-year-old wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. When healthy and motivated, both are capable of Pro Bowl seasons. The Patriots have a track record (Randy Moss, Corey Dillon) of helping veterans resurrect their careers. "If you're here, we'll welcome you with welcome arms," Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfolk said. Although the Texans didn't land Nnamdi Asomugha, Houston bolstered its shabby pass defense by signing ex-Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who at 27 is three years younger than Asomugha. "We filled our primary need of getting an experienced, big-time corner," coach Gary Kubiak said. "I can't tell you how excited I am about it." Joseph, who would have been a good fit for the Bucs, has picked off nine passes in the past two seasons. New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, switching to a 3-4 alignment, is counting on Joseph to shore up a defense that yielded 33 touchdown passes in 2010.