Bucs’ free-agent class hasn’t been a healthy upgrade

TAMPA — Tom Brady gets a lot of credit for his recruitment of the Bucs’ top free agents, but that boast may turn into blame.

It’s the nature of the beast in some ways, but the Bucs’ top six unrestricted veteran free agents signed contracts this offseason valued at more than $47 million — and have missed the bulk of the season through injury or just being inactive.

There are a lot of reasons for the Bucs’ 3-3 record, and a lack of contribution from this free-agent class is one of them. Here’s how the top six have fared:

WR Julio Jones

Julio Jones (6) catches a long pass as Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown (3) defends in the first half of the season opener.

Contract: 1 year, $6 million ($8 million with incentives)

Games missed: Four

Injury: Partially torn posterior cruciate ligament in his knee

Impact: Jones had an excellent training camp and looked to be the perfect No. 3 receiver, much like Antonio Brown in the Super Bowl 55 season. He got off to a great start in the Bucs’ 19-3 win at Dallas in the opener but injured his knee while making a spectacular reception of a 49-yard pass from Tom Brady. He has totaled four receptions for 76 yards.

What to expect: The Bucs say they are playing the long game with Jones, who last took the field Oct. 2, when he had one reception for 7 yards against the Chiefs. He had missed seven games in each of the past two seasons, rarely practiced and his history of injuries continue. The hope is that Jones can be back at least by the time the Bucs return from Germany in mid-November, if not sooner. The Bucs have struggled to find a No. 3 receiver, alternating between Russell Gage, Breshad Perriman and Scotty Miller. None has stood out, combining for two touchdowns.

DE Akiem Hicks

Saints tight end Taysom Hill tries to get around Akiem Hicks during the first half of their Sept. 18 game.

Games missed: Four

Injury: Plantar fascia tear in his foot

Impact: The Bucs planned to pair Hicks with defensive tackle Vita Vea in the middle of their defense as a younger, slightly cheaper version of Ndamukong Suh. But Suh never missed a game in his career. On the field, Hicks has contributed five tackles and one quarterback hit more than a third of the way through his 12th NFL season. The Bucs have had to rotate Rakeem Nunez-Roches and rookie Logan Hall (two sacks) in Hicks’ place.

What to expect: The Bucs believed Hicks had a chance to come back within four weeks or they would have put him on injured reserve. But he hasn’t even returned to practice on a limited basis, suggesting the injury is more serious than originally thought. The Bucs’ run defense, meanwhile, has slipped to seventh overall.

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S Logan Ryan

Logan Ryan (26) intercepts a pass thrown by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) during the third quarter of a Sept. 25 game in Tampa.

Contract: 1 year, $1.12 million ($5.95 million paid by Giants)

Games missed: Two

Injury: Jones fracture in foot

Impact: The Bucs were anxious to add some experience to their secondary at the safety position opposite Antoine Winfield Jr. and Mike Edwards. All three played together when they went to five defensive backs, with Winfield moving to the slot corner. A cerebral player, Ryan was expected to improve communication on the back end of the defense. Now Edwards is also out with a hyperextended elbow, leaving the Bucs to scramble a bit at safety with Keanu Neal taking over for Ryan.

What to expect: Bad news for Ryan, who is undergoing surgery and will be placed on injured reserve. The hope is that he can return late in the season or playoffs, should the Bucs qualify.

TE Kyle Rudolph

Fans haven't seen much of tight end Kyle Rudolph, though that may change this weekend if Cameron Brate can't go.

Contract: 1 year, $2 million

Games missed: Four (inactive)

Injury: None

Impact: Rudolph was among the last free agents signed before training camp to give the Bucs the best available veteran at tight end to offset the loss of Rob Gronkowski. But he lacks foot speed, and rookies Cade Otton and Ko Kieft have played better and can contribute on special teams, making it hard for Rudolph to get a helmet on Sundays.

What to expect: With Cameron Brate’s neck sprain, Rudolph could play at Carolina on Sunday.

WR Russell Gage

Russell Gage (17) gains yardage after catching a pass, while being defended by Packers cornerback Keisean Nixon.

Impact: Gage missed a lot of training camp and some practices. He hasn’t gotten in sync with Brady, catching 25 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown. Twelve of those receptions came against the Packers but for only 87 yards. His 7.7 yards per catch are underwhelming.

What to expect: If he stays healthy, Bucs need him to emerge as the third receiver.

S Keanu Neal

Injuries may open up more playing time at safety for Keanu Neal.

Contract: 1 year, $1.047 million

Impact: Neal was reduced to special teams duty until the injury to Ryan. He has 15 tackles on the season and one quarterback hit.

What to expect: With Ryan going on IR, Neal will take a more prominent role in the defense at safety and could see significantly more playing time, at least until Edwards also returns.

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