FB Mike Alstott was a free agent for less than a day, re-signing with the Bucs on March 11
The NFL Draft provides something of a halfway point for the league's free agency period, or perhaps more accurately a turning point.
The draft does fall pretty much at the midpoint of the open market season, which essentially runs from March through June. Of course, most the activity in free agency falls in the first month, so there aren't too many deals left that will measure up with Edgerrin James to the Cardinals or Steve Hutchinson to the Vikings.
But there are significant free agency moves left to be made, perhaps even some that involve the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last year, the Bucs picked up wide receiver Ike Hilliard in early May, and four years ago they nabbed Keenan McCardell in June. Two years ago, the team even took a break from its work on draft weekend to sign free agent linebacker Ian Gold.
The first two months of free agency has surely helped some teams refine their strategy for the draft. The Cardinals, for instance, are not likely to be in the market for a running back with the 10th pick of the first round. The Bucs might feel a little less need to address outside linebacker help after picking up former 49er and Jaguar Jamie Winborn.
Now, the draft in turn will help teams define any remaining needs for the second half of free agency; in that way, the weekend is a turning point. In addition, most restricted free agents will re-sign or sign elsewhere by the draft, as afterward they will no longer be free to negotiate with teams other than their original ones.
The main thrust – but not the only goal – of the Buccaneers' efforts in free agency before the draft was the re-signing of the players from their 2005 division-winning team that could have moved on. That mission has mostly been accomplished, as all but two of the team's restricted and unrestricted free agents remain unsigned as of Friday. Most, including Mike Alstott, Matt Bryant, Chris Hovan and Kenyatta Walker, have chosen to remain in Tampa and build on the success of '05.
A total of 430 players became free agents on March 11, which was eight days later than expected thanks to the extended negotiations needed to create a new collective bargaining agreement. That included a dozen Buccaneers in the restricted and unrestricted free agent categories, plus four more exclusive rights free agents and three other players who hit the market when they were released by the team.
The new CBA changed the landscape of free agency rather dramatically. The new salary cap that resulted from the deal is $102 million, a bump of $7.5 million from what it would have been under the previous CBA. That gave every team in the league more room to maneuver and opened up a lot of new possibilities for those 430 free agents. It also most likely kept several dozen more highly-paid veterans from getting their release at the beginning of the new league season.
The Buccaneers have dipped into the pool of free agents from other teams, as well. The team started by signing massive guard Toniu Fonoti, then added Winborn a week later. Most recently, the Cowboys decided not to match Tampa Bay's offer for restricted free agent tackle Torrin Tucker, making Tucker a Buccaneer.
There are still some intriguing names left on the list of veteran free agents, men who may find new NFL homes after the draft, when those strategies are further refined. Among them is former Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson, who has visited the Buccaneers but has not yet signed with any team. Others still available include defensive end Kalimba Edwards, linebacker Warrick Holdman, cornerback Joseph Jefferson, tackle Stockar McDougle and safety Reggie Tongue.
Only one of the Bucs' own unrestricted free agents remains on the market. Here are the 11 players from Tampa Bay's 2005 team who fell into that category as of March 11:
|FB Mike Alstott||Re-signed with Tampa Bay on March 11|
|K Matt Bryant||Re-signed with Tampa Bay on March 11|
|FB Jameel Cook||Signed with Houston on March 11|
|CB Torrie Cox *||Re-signed with Tampa Bay on March 20|
|TE Will Heller *||Signed with Seattle on March 24|
|WR Ike Hilliard||Re-signed with Tampa Bay on March 20|
|DT Chris Hovan||Re-signed with Tampa Bay on March 11|
|S Dexter Jackson||Signed with Cincinnati on March 13|
|TE Dave Moore||Re-signed with Tampa Bay on March 21|
|T Todd Steussie||Signed with St. Louis on April 14|
|T Kenyatta Walker||Re-signed with Tampa Bay on March 24|
(NOTE: Cox and Heller would have become restricted free agents had they received tender offers. When they did not they became, in effect, unrestricted free agents.)
The Bucs would have had a 12th unrestricted free agent if not for the new contract cornerback Juran Bolden agreed to on February 27.
The Bucs also would have had an additional restricted free agent had quarterback Chris Simms not signed a new deal just before the start of free agency. Simms' contract was the equivalent of the tender offer he would have received at the beginning of free agency had he chosen to test the market.
Every year, the NFL prepares a list of hundreds of players who are going to become unrestricted free agents at the start of the new league year. By the time the market opens, however, the number of players available is even larger, as teams make moves designed to provide salary cap relief. The players who are released in the days leading up to free agency are not technically considered unrestricted free agents in terms of their relation to their previous teams; that is, they are not part of the Management Council formula that determines the value of the free agents gained and lost by each team.
On some occasions, however, the teams that have released these players are interested in signing them back. And quite often they are players who prove attractive to other teams. Therefore, they are worth tracking along with all of the other men who became free agents in the conventional way.
The following 2005 Buccaneers became free agents when they were released:
|LB Jeff Gooch|
|QB Brian Griese||Signed with Chicago on March 22|
|G/T Matt Stinchcomb|
There is a significant difference between restricted and unrestricted free agency. A player must have four years of free agency credit under his belt and an expiring contract to become a UFA. Unrestricted free agents may negotiate and sign with any team, and their previous teams have no compensation or right-of-first-refusal rights.
Players with expiring contracts who have three years of credit become restricted free agents, assuming their teams extend the proper tender offer. Restricted free agents may also negotiate and sign with any team, but their previous teams have the opportunity to match any contract that is signed. If the previous team does not match the contract and the player goes to a new team, that team must immediately surrender draft-pick compensation. The amount of compensation is determined by the type of tender offer that the original team extends at the beginning of free agency. Had Simms tested the market and signed with another team, the Bucs would have been due first and third-round picks in the 2006 draft as compensation had they chosen not to match.
The following 2005 Buccaneer became a restricted free agent on March 11:
|G Sean Mahan||Re-signed with Tampa Bay on April 19|
Players with expiring contracts and less than three years of credit fall into a third category: exclusive rights free agents. That is what it sounds like – the player's existing team retains exclusive rights to negotiate a new contract as long as they extend the necessary tender offer at the beginning of free agency.
The following 2005 Buccaneers became exclusive rights free agents on March 11:
|T Anthony Davis||Re-signed with Tampa Bay on April 10|
|RB Earnest Graham|
|WR Edell Shepherd|
|G Jeb Terry|
The Buccaneers' unrestricted free agents have a little less than four months to shop their services, as their signing period runs out on July 22, or whatever day the first NFL training camp opens. Restricted free agents have until April 21 to court outside offers, after which, if still unsigned, they can negotiate only with their previous team. This deadline allows for one week between that date and the start of the draft, in which compensation would come into play.
That draft is almost upon us. Look for the activity of that critical weekend to bring the rest of the free agency period into sharper focus.