TAMPA - When it comes to Midnight Madness, the NCAA has nothing on the NFL.
When the clock strikes midnight tonight, NFL teams won't kick off a series of casual practices designed to work up a good sweat and entertain fans. They'll enter into a mad scramble for talent that will look a lot like the run on bottled water and batteries you see when a hurricane is approaching.
It's the start of what is easily the most important stretch of days in the league's offseason calendar. What NFL teams do during the free agency signing period that starts at midnight can determine their fate for the following season.
Nothing better exemplifies that than the Bucs' signing last year of quarterback Jeff Garcia. Signed by the Bucs hours after abruptly ending a meeting with the Raiders on March 3, Garcia sparked Tampa Bay's worst-to-first run in the NFC South.
He's one of the reasons the Bucs are back on the rise, but he'll be the first to tell you Tampa Bay isn't a finished product. The Bucs need more playmakers and speed on offense, Garcia said at the end of the season.
Coach Jon Gruden and General Manager Bruce Allen appear to be in agreement.
"I think the best way we can improve this team is by addition," Allen said shortly after the season ended. "Would I like to sign a Tiger Woods at every position? Absolutely. We need some players to come in and help this football team and dominate."
Nowhere do they seem to need those players more than at wide receiver. Though the Bucs are replete with receivers, their only true playmaker at the position is 36-year-old Joey Galloway. Finding someone to complement Galloway figures to be one of the top objectives, and for a couple of reasons, the task shouldn't be all that hard to complete.
The Bucs have nearly $35 million worth of cap room, which means they should have no trouble meeting any player's salary demands. Also, the talent pool at receiver is pretty deep, including Bernard Berrian, D.J. Hackett and Donte Stallworth. When you consider his ties to Allen and Gruden in Oakland, Jerry Porter is another to watch.
Someone else to watch is former Falcon Alge Crumpler. He heads up a moderately deep pool of tight ends, another need with Anthony Becht and Jerramy Stevens testing the market.
The Bucs haven't ruled out the possibility of re-signing Becht or Stevens, but they seem to be in the market for upgrades. Signing someone such as Ben Troupe, Eric Johnson or Crumpler may do the trick.
The Bucs also may be in the market for another running back. Though they now know that Earnest Graham can carry the load and have the recently re-signed Michael Bennett in reserve, depth is a concern with a rehabilitating Cadillac Williams and an untested Kenneth Darby also on the roster. And, after B.J. Askew, they have only an untested Byron Storer at fullback.
The Bucs would like to have Michael Pittman back, but he will explore other options. That means the Bucs will be in the market for what Gruden calls a joker back, someone who can play tailback and fullback.
The likelihood that 10-year veteran John Wade will hit the market also opens a need at center, where the Bucs are believed to be seriously considering signing Saints starter Jeff Faine. Though the Bucs plan to re-sign Matt Lehr and have Dan Buenning waiting in the wings, a top-level starter may be on their wish list.
The Bucs also need to fill the hole left by the loss of cornerback Brian Kelly, who bought his way out of his contract; improve the offensive line depth; and add a pass rusher or two.
Attempts to complete the latter already are under way with the Bucs talking to defensive tackle Rod Coleman, who was recently released by the Falcons.