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Line of Scrimmage: Have-nots score big in free agency first round

At a time of year known for producing stirring sports rallies, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers appear dead serious on making their own comeback story in 2012.

The Bucs got the NFL's equivalent of March Madness, the opening of the free agency signing period, off to a rousing start by reeling in playmaking wide receiver Vincent Jackson, All-Pro guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright within the first 24 hours. It's a development as shocking as it is impressive, considering it came from a franchise that's established a reputation for frugality as well as a preference of building from within.

Entering the new league year with over $40 million in cap room, Tampa Bay had been widely believed to be a player on the market, but the extent of the notorious cheapskate's sudden big-spending ways still greatly exceeded most observers' expectations. All three new additions received five-year deals, with Jackson's pact worth a total of $55.555 million (an apparent homage to quarterback Josh Freeman's uniform number), and the Buccaneers guaranteed an overall sum of $72.5 million to the trio.

While the price was indeed steep, Tampa is getting three players in the prime of their careers who it can immediately plug in as starters at need positions as it tries to put last season's 4-12 disaster behind.

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Jackson, the jewel of a receiver class whose depth was diminished by a slew of franchise-tag designations, provides Freeman the big- bodied No. 1 target who was conspicuously missing during the young gunslinger's well-noted 2011 regression.

Nicks' insertion opposite two-time Pro Bowl honoree Davin Joseph gives the Bucs arguably the best guard tandem in the league.

Though Wright has battled inconsistency and will be on his third team in three years, he's flashed top-level skills and is a considerably younger upgrade on the likely outgoing Ronde Barber.

It's a radical shift in philosophy from general manager Mark Dominik, who stressed assembling the roster through the draft during his first two years on the job.

Although that mantra delivered a surprising 10-6 record and a near-playoff berth as the NFL's youngest team in his initial season, that inexperience and lack of maturity was glaringly evident in a 2011 meltdown that ended with a 10-game losing streak and was marred by undisciplined and indifferent play.

And as part of an NFC South lot that contains a pair of established powers in New Orleans and Atlanta and a clear up-and-comer in Carolina, the Buccaneers had little choice but to up the ante and expedite Dominik's plan.

A couple of other recent doormats have showed a willingness to be active as well. Buffalo, owner of the league's longest current postseason drought, is making a hard run at pass-rushing demon Mario Williams, the most coveted defensive player among this free-agent crop, and pursued wide receiver Robert Meachem before the talented ex-Saint signed with San Diego as Jackson's intended replacement.

St. Louis, a winner of an NFL-low 15 games over the last five seasons, quickly took the top cornerback off the market by snaring renowned agitator Cortland Finnegan for a reunion with Jeff Fisher, the former Titan's old head coach in Tennessee.

The feisty Finnegan adds both ability and attitude to a St. Louis secondary that was deficient in both traits, and his signing continues what's been a nice offseason run for the beleaguered organization. The Rams lured the most accomplished and sought-after available head coach in Fisher, then set the foundation for a potentially bountiful future with last week's blockbuster trade with Washington that netted the club two future first-round picks and an extra second-rounder in exchange for the No. 2 selection in this year's draft.

Of course, success in free agency doesn't guarantee a carryover into the regular season. Philadelphia was the consensus winner of last summer's offseason transactions war, but that influx of big-name talent didn't translate into a surplus of on-field victories, while the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants had more losses than gains in veteran personnel from the previous year.

Still, for two franchises that have nowhere to go but up, the moves made by Dominik and the new regime in St. Louis at least offer encouragement that both are heading in the right direction.

EXTRA POINTS

* As for the other Pro Bowl receiver who found a new home on Tuesday, Chicago's trade for walking time bomb Brandon Marshall can be viewed as taking a substantial risk on a player with serious behavioral issues and who could in facing some league discipline following another off-field misstep this past weekend (http://tinyurl.com/7eocfkm).

Surrendering a pair of third-round picks for a 27-year-old who has averaged nearly 95 catches and 1,200 yards over the past five seasons isn't exactly a major investment, especially for a team that hasn't had a 1,000-yard receiver since the immortal Marty Booker in 2002. One would believe Marshall's departure would now make Miami a less appealing destination for Peyton Manning, or it could be a sign that the Dolphins already know they're more or less out of the race.

* It's interesting that Washington pried away wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan from their former teams within an hour of the start of free agency. It hints at tampering, so it's hard to feel a lot of sympathy for the Redskins being deducted $36 million in cap space for purportedly manipulating contract bonuses during the uncapped 2010 season, though the timing of the league's heavy punishment can certainly be called into question.

* San Francisco's signing of the now-unretired Randy Moss on Monday makes good sense from a personnel standpoint because the 49ers were in dire need of a vertical presence on offense and Moss can still stretch the field even at age 35 and a year out of the league.

His effect on the locker room will be worth watching, however, for a team where strong interpersonal unity played a major part in last season's return to prominence under coach Jim Harbaugh. In a two-day span, the normally character-cognizant Niners brought in Moss, a player with a long history of moody and disinterested periods, and ex-Denver cornerback Perrish Cox, who also spent the 2011 season out of football due to rape charges on which he was acquitted earlier this month.