The opening of free agency in early March marks the beginning of a new league year, and the annual draft in late April seems to bisect the NFL's long offseason. There are other mileposts along the way, though, subtler shifts in what the 32 teams are doing in preparation for training camp in late July.
Since the arrival of the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in 2011, some of those shifts have actually been demarcated very specifically, even if they aren't particularly obvious outside of team headquarters. This relates for the most part to the offseason workout program, which was reduced in length and intensity by the latest CBA and split into three phases.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the rest of the league, are about to move into Phase III. At One Buccaneer Place, that will kick off with the first of 10 organized team activity days (OTAs), the maximum number allowed, on Monday morning. Tampa Bay's coaching staff has spread the allotted 10 OTAs over three weeks, leading right up to the mandatory mini-camp in June that will cap the nine-week offseason program.
That mini-camp is the only part of the offseason program that is not voluntary for veterans (many teams hold rookie post-draft mini-camps that fall under a different category, as the Bucs recently did). All teams are allowed one three-day mandatory mini-camp, although teams with new head coaches are also afforded a second three-day voluntary mini-camp. The OTAs are voluntary but, in Tampa, almost always attended by the vast majority of the roster.
As important as all of the work in the nine-week program is, it's clear that coaches particularly value Phase III and the OTAs, which allow for more in-depth work on the field. In Phase I, which lasts only two weeks, players may only use the field for strength and conditioning activities and physical rehabilitation. In Phase II, which the Bucs completed with a morning workout on Friday, coaches may join the players on the field for, as the NFL describes it, "individual player instruction and drills as well as team practiced conducted on a 'separates' basis." That is, the various positions can work individually, and the offense and defense may drill as units, but the offense cannot go against the defense.
It is the OTAs, however, that most resemble a training camp or in-season practice, though tackling and indeed any purposeful contact is still strictly prohibited by the CBA. During OTA practices, the offense and defense may oppose each other in the usual 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 formats, without pads. As with in-season practices, these usually last about two hours at One Buccaneer Place.
The Buccaneers will use three of their allotted OTAs next week, on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. The rest will take place on May 29-31, June 3-4 and June 6-7. The three day mandatory mini-camp will follow, after which players and coaches (players more so than coaches, of course) will get one last long break before the start of training camp.