The new league year begins on Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. ET, bringing with it unrestricted free agency, and history suggests that a pocket of teams will accelerate right to the front of the pack. Even before a pre-market negotiating window was added, free agency always opened with a flurry of big-money deals for the most coveted free agents. Any team that wants to skim off the very top of the list has to be ready to not only spend big, but commit immediately.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been part of that front-running group the last two years, quickly signing
Of course, free agency is a two-way street, and as certain as the Bucs are to welcome a few new players to Tampa this month, they are just as sure to be bidding farewell to some familiar faces. The Buccaneers have 18 players who could become unrestricted free agents on Tuesday – it was 19 before linebacker
(From left) WR
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
CB Mike Adams
LS Andrew Economos
LB Adam Hayward
FB Erik Lorig
K Lawrence Tynes
WR Tiquan Underwood
LB Dekoda Watson
RESTRICTED FREE AGENT (pending qualifying offer)
TE Kyle Adams
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS (pending minimum salary tenders)
That the Buccaneers' list is heavy on unrestricted free agents (UFAs) and light on restricted and exclusive rights free agents (RFAs and ERFAs) means a lot less paperwork this year. UFAs are the least complicated variety; once their contracts expire on Tuesday, they are immediately free to sign with any teams they choose, including their original clubs. On the other hand, RFAs can negotiate with other teams but their original teams have the opportunity to match any offer that is received or accept draft-pick compensation in return. ERFAs can only negotiate with their original teams. Of course, players slated for either of those two latter categories must receive a qualifying offer (for RFAs) or a minimum salary tender (for ERFAs) in order for their teams to retain those rights; if they do not, they become the equivalent of UFAs. The Buccaneers avoided that process altogether with pending RFA
While the Buccaneers' list of pending UFAs includes some valuable role players, they are not the names most likely to shake up the league on Tuesday. NFL.com's list of the top 101 players due to hit the market this year begins with Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd and a handful of offensive and defensive linemen (Eugene Monroe, Alex Mack, Jared Veldheer and Brandon Albert on offense;
Since that list was first posted, Mack received a transition tag from Cleveland, as did Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worilds (15th on the list), while Miami cornerback Brent Grimes (12th on the list) returned to the Dolphins with a new four-year deal. There has been a trickle of such activity around the league in the final days before free agency, but there will still be hundreds of players on the market come Tuesday afternoon.
The Buccaneers are thought to be looking for a depth chart upgrades at a number of positions, including both lines, and perhaps at quarterback, tight end, cornerback and kick returner. Again, with Smith and Licht preparing to rework the roster but not making the results of their internal evaluation public for obvious strategic reasons, the Bucs could go after some surprising targets in the weeks to come.
If the Bucs want to join the teams trying to land an edge rusher, they would likely be targeting Johnson, Houston or Bennett). Even with Everson Griffen re-signing with Minnesota on Monday, the position still features some 30 -year-old vets in Jared Allen, Antonio Smith, Anthony Spencer and Justin Tuck and some younger guys with the possibility of untapped potential like Corey Wootton, Robert Ayers and Tyson Jackson.
The potential cornerback market has already lost Grimes and Green Bay's Sam Shields but is still deep enough with the likes of
All of those players have one day left on their existing contracts. Their current teams have the same amount of time to prepare for the new league year, when those deals come off the books but continuing contracts suddenly carry new cap figures. As of 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, the 2014 cap values on each team's top 51 contracts must be under the new 2014 salary cap. Most teams have already done whatever work was necessary to comply – e.g., the Cowboys restructuring the contracts of Tony Romo and several others – and others have cleared additional space to approach free agency with more flexibility. That, for instance, was a by-product of the Buccaneers' release of Joseph on Saturday.
That sound you hear is 32 teams revving their engines for the start of free agency. On Tuesday afternoon, the pace car will leave the track and the race will be on.