Re-signing exclusive rights free agent RB Earnest Graham is one of the very few things left on the Bucs' free agency to-do list
When last we checked in on the Tracker, the NFL Draft was looming. That is an obvious point at which to survey the free agency landscape because, while nothing officially changes on the open market over draft weekend, the personnel needs of every team in the league obviously do change, and dramatically so.
In that way, draft weekend is the polar opposite of this latest signpost on the free agency path: June 1. Quite a bit changes in a technical sense on the date, but for practical purposes it's just another Thursday during a long offseason.
NFL fans of any tenure will remember that the onset of June used to be a rather significant turning point in the free agency process, at least since the introduction of the original collective bargaining agreement in 1993. The sixth month used to bring a second influx of talented and established players onto the market following the first group in March. Sometimes, the new pool of players would provide a team with a second chance to fill a deep need after the early part of free agency and the draft had passed. Think: Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Keenan McCardell in 2002.
Now? Not so much.
The rules of the game haven't changed (at least not significantly), but the players of the game – NFL management teams – have. June roster cuts have generally been high-priced veterans on teams that a) couldn't or wouldn't pay them anymore, and b) wanted to spread the salary cap hit of releasing such a player over two years. Fewer teams back themselves into such a corner these days, and that's especially true this year, in which a new CBA signed in March added millions to every team's salary cap.
So don't expect any fireworks over the coming week, unless you're the kind of person who considers sparklers fireworks. Here, for the most part, is the list of veterans cut in the first two weeks of last June: Tim Bowens, Scott Gragg, Chad Morton, Johnnie Morton, Koren Robinson, Bobby Taylor, Reggie Tongue, Kyle Turley and Ross Verba.
Gragg started seven games for the New York Giants, Johnnie Morton caught 21 passes for the San Francisco 49ers and Koren Robinson and Chad Morton had good seasons as kick returners, but it's fair to say that no one in this group made a huge impact on the 2005 playoff race. Bowens, Taylor, Turley and Verba didn't even play last year. This year's group of June cuts – yes, there will be some – probably will be a similar group.
So it would be wise not to expect an roster-rocking waiver wire on Thursday. Keep in mind also that June 1 is the first day in which players can be cut and have their cap hit spread over 2006 and 2007, not the only day. The 2005 cuts listed above happened over the course of about 15 days.
All that said, it's worth remembering that building an NFL team for any given season is an ongoing process, not something that happens exclusively over the first two weeks of March and that big draft weekend in April. The Bucs might not have a shot at another McCardell, as they did in 2002 when the Jacksonville Jaguars made the veteran receiver a cap casualty and he ended up being a huge asset in Tampa Bay's Super Bowl run. However, they will continue to scour the waiver wire, including any new additions this month, for players who are worth adding to the training camp roster.
In 2003, the Bucs pulled the trigger on a June trade that brought running back Thomas Jones to town, and Jones ended up having a fine season in Tampa before signing a big free agent contract with Chicago the next year. The Bucs didn't make any significant additions in June of 2004, but they did pick up a sixth-round draft pick by trading tackle Roman Oben to San Diego. And virtually every year the training camp roster is tweaked during June with a handful of first-year players.
June can also be a time to take care of the last bits of one's own free agency issues, such as in 2003 when the Bucs waited until that month to re-sign punter Tom Tupa and wide receiver Reggie Barlow. That won't be much of an issue for the Buccaneers this year, however, as the list of Bucs who became free agents in March has dwindled almost to nothing. Only exclusive rights free agents Earnest Graham and Edell Shepherd remain to be signed, and it's likely both will take care of that business soon. Below is a look at when and where the Bucs' own free agents signed for 2006.
Eleven players from Tampa Bay's 2005 team became unrestricted free agents on March 11, and seven immediately or eventually re-signed with the Buccaneers:
|FB Mike Alstott||[Re-signed with Tampa Bay](/news/article-1/with-new-deal-a-train-rolls-on/FAE5E6FA-C7BC-4723-A158-00E9CFDB58FC) on March 11|
|K Matt Bryant||[Re-signed with Tampa Bay](/news/article-1/go-for-three/4C793698-99A9-4592-9CCF-A302D1A00602) on March 11|
|FB Jameel Cook||[Signed with Houston](http://www.houstontexans.com/news/news_detail.php?PRKey=2441) on March 11|
|CB Torrie Cox *||[Re-signed with Tampa Bay](/news/article-1/back-for-more/02E31727-804C-49FE-B1AA-7F7FA48A5203) on March 20|
|TE Will Heller *||Signed with Seattle on March 24|
|WR Ike Hilliard||[Re-signed with Tampa Bay](/news/article-1/back-for-more/02E31727-804C-49FE-B1AA-7F7FA48A5203) on March 20|
|DT Chris Hovan||[Re-signed with Tampa Bay](/news/article-1/quick-strike/15EF719F-C610-4D59-9C54-F9115845F237) on March 11|
|S Dexter Jackson||[Signed with Cincinnati](http://www.bengals.com/news/news.asp?story_id=5130) on March 13|
|TE Dave Moore||[Re-signed with Tampa Bay](/news/article-1/not-done-yet/A0160F34-82AE-4765-9135-B7CE9D42DF1E) on March 21|
|T Todd Steussie||Signed with St. Louis on April 14|
|T Kenyatta Walker||[Re-signed with Tampa Bay](/news/article-1/walker-returns/A366A548-52B3-490E-ABDC-707AF275042B) 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.)
Also, the Bucs would have had a 12th unrestricted free agent if not for the new contract cornerback Juran Bolden agreed to on February 27, before he could hit the open market.
The Bucs would have had an additional restricted free agent, too, 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](http://www.nfl.com/teams/story/CHI/9327201) on March 22|
|G/T Matt Stinchcomb|
As you can see, neither Gooch nor Stinchcomb has resurfaced with a new team yet, or returned to the Buccaneers. Both spent all of the 2005 season on injured reserve, and it's possible that one or both will choose not to continue their NFL careers.
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](/news/article-1/setting-the-line/BB06B27A-9A51-491A-9FFC-BBD1A5AD780D) 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 exactly 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](/news/article-1/bucs-re-sign-davis/A64E7B49-880D-47CB-B65E-8E1585A691E6) on April 10|
|RB Earnest Graham|
|WR Edell Shepherd||[Re-signed with Tampa Bay](/news/article-1/shepherd-signs-new-deal/F66A8AC0-3316-4BF7-95F6-D5B226F0669B) on July 1|
|G Jeb Terry||[Re-signed with Tampa Bay](/news/article-1/new-deal-for-terry/C8185B7B-D98C-419C-AB99-51313B22BB33) on April 28|
There is another way in which the date of June 1 is technically significant on the NFL calendar. It is the last day on which teams can extend tender offers to restricted and unrestricted free agents that will allow them to retain exclusive negotiating rights with those players if they remain unsigned by July 22. That, too, is irrelevant for the Buccaneers, who have no players remaining in either category.
It all adds up to what will probably be a quiet June and July on the free agency front for the Buccaneers. The key word, of course, is probably. As the signing of former Pro Bowl wide receiver David Boston just a week before June illustrates, anything can happen.