TAMPA — Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht hasn’t lost his passion for big-game hunting. If there’s a lion, a leopard or a white rhino roaming around free agency this spring he’ll definitely set his sights on him.
Just don’t expect him to fire any bullets.
The failure to bag anything worth mounting on a wall during Licht’s first two hunting expeditions as the Bucs talent guide likely will alter both the approach and the outcome of the Bucs foray into the 2016 NFL free agency market.
“We’re not necessarily going to go after the big fish,’’ Licht said Friday. “If the right guy is there, of course we’re going to jump in on that. But we want to be strategic and selective. We’re not just going to spend money to spend money.’’
The Bucs will have plenty of money to spend when the free agency market opens March 7. Though some must be set aside for rookies, emergency signings and players who automatically earned raises last year, the Bucs currently have approximately $53 million worth of salary cap space.
But in terms of free agency, at least, Licht intends to use the bulk of that on either second-tier players or late additions such as the ones he made last summer when he pulled center Joe Hawley, right tackle Gosder Cherilus and defensive tackle Tony McDaniel off the scrap heap.
“We’ve been doing our homework and I think there are a lot of good players that will fall into the middle market,’’ Licht said. “We’ll be active in that. And again, as far as the big fish go, I would never say never — that we’re not going to sign anyone like that. But you do have to careful because the best players ultimately get locked up by their own teams.’’
That goes for the Bucs, too. One of their best players, two-time Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent but the Bucs are working hard toward locking him up.
There’s no guarantee that will happen before the market open, but Licht said both sides are striving for the same goal and he’s confident they will continue to make progress toward that goal.
“We’re having very good talks with (Martin’s representatives),’’ Licht said. “There hasn’t been one second of dissension. Right now it’s just like it is with any other free agent that their team wants to keep.
“Miami has (defensive end) Olivier Vernon and Denver has (defensive end) Von Miller, but neither of them has been sewn up yet. It’s a matter of finding the right contract for both sides.
“So we’ll talk again at the (NFL Scouting) combine (which begins Feb. 23). Sometimes things accelerate there, sometimes they don’t. But Doug’s our guy, so we have the ability to talk to them at any time.’’
The Bucs could be talking with wide receiver Vincent Jackson about his contract, but so far they haven’t. Licht said. And despite the fact that deal calls for Jackson to make $9.78 million in 2016 and carries a $12.2 million cap hit, there’s no guarantee they will.
The same goes for left guard Logan Mankins, who will make $6.75 million should he return for another year; and cornerback Alterraun Verner, who is also slated to make $6.75 million one year after being relegated to a backup role in 2015.
Licht said those contracts will in no way hinder the Bucs’ plans for free agency and added that the team is eager to have all three players back for the 2016 season, which will be the Bucs first under new coach Dirk Koetter.
“We think Vincent is an asset to our team, and Dirk is on record saying that,’’ Licht said. “And we think Alterraun will benefit from having a familiar face in the room in (defensive backs coach) Brett Maxie, who coached (Verner) at Tennessee when he was a Pro Bowler.’’
Licht said Verner and fellow cornerback Johnthan Banks, who also fell out of favor with previous coach Lovie Smith, both will be given a chance to prove they’re worthy of roster spots this offseason.
Whether safety Chris Conte gets that chance is yet to be decided. Conte signed a one-year contract with the Bucs last spring and he may be allowed to re-enter the free agency market.
“Chris Conte did some good things for us and he has a familiarity with (fellow secondary coach) Jon Hoke, who was his coach in Chicago,’’ Licht said. “We will be discussing the possibility of bringing him back, but we still like Bradley McDougald, who we think has upside and we still have Major Wright under contract and we liked what Keith Tandy did in his role for us last year. But it can’t hurt to bring in competition.’’
It doesn’t hurt to have solid reserves either and the Bucs believe they have one in quarterback Mike Glennon. That’s why there are currently no plans to move Glennon, who some see as trade bait, Licht said.
“He’s very valuable to us,’’ Licht said of Glennon. “We are very fortunate to have a backup quarterback that we feel could win games if he needed to play.’’