WRs Antonio Bryant (left) and Michael Clayton (center) were two of the potential free agents the Bucs hurried to re-sign
It's fitting that the beginning of the NFL's free agency period each year lands on or near the first day of March. As is the meteorological pattern of the third month of the year, NFL free agency seems to go "in like a lion, out like a lamb."
That is, the first week of the open market is usually a storm of activity, with many of the most notable players on the move within the first 48-96 hours. By the time March is giving way to April, the winds of change have died down and teams are already looking forward to spending the coming days outside in the sun.
Ah, but just like folks in Cleveland or Chicago know they might just see snow at an April baseball game, free agency can still bring important news well after the first flurry of moves has died down. Most of the league may be calm, but somewhere there is a front building.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers demonstrated that last week with the addition of linebacker , an unrestricted free agent formerly of the Buffalo Bills. Crowell took his time, relatively speaking, after the start of free agency and reportedly weighed a return to Buffalo before choosing to make his own warm-weather transition and come to Tampa. On a Buccaneer defense that is going to have at least four new starters in 2009 (weakside and strongside linebacker, defensive tackle, left cornerback), the signing of Crowell could prove to be one of the most significant moves the team makes in free agency '09.
And while fellow NFC South teams Atlanta and Carolina have been very quiet since the opening days of free agency, the New Orleans Saints stirred up some news last week. In a span of four days, the Saints re-signed their own unrestricted free agent wide receiver Courtney Roby; signed four new free agents in tight end Darnell Dinkins, center Nick Leckey safety Darren Sharper and defensive end Paul Spicer; and released veteran cornerback Mike McKenzie. Dinkins, Leckey and Sharper were all unrestricted free agents, most recently of Cleveland, St. Louis and Minnesota, respectively, while Spicer had been released by the Jaguars.
Since our own look at the remaining free agents for the Falcons, Panthers and Saints a little over a week ago, former Carolina kick returner Mark Jones has left as an unrestricted free agent for the Tennessee Titans. For the most part, however, little has changed on each team's list of its own free agents in recent days.
That is certainly true of the Buccaneers, though that is in large part due to the team's aggressive approach to its list before and immediately after the start of free agency. The Bucs have re-signed eight of the 13 men who became or could have become unrestricted free agents, while two others have signed with other teams. That all happened rather quickly; the Bucs can now devote most of their attention to the rapidly-approaching draft and on the remaining players from other teams still on the market.
The Buccaneers hit the 2009 open market with a large amount of cap space and a specific plan to bolster last year's division-winning roster. How the team prepares for the draft promises to be the main story of the next month. However, it will still be instructive to keep an eye on those 2008 Buccaneers who have also hit the market, including the men in the "restricted" and "exclusive rights" categories, as well.
We'll follow that all offseason here in our annual Free Agency Tracker feature.
Below are the 13 players from Tampa Bay's 2008 squad who were due to become unrestricted free agents on February 27. Note that the list includes two players whose situations changed before free agency began, as quarterback Luke McCown and defensive tackle Ryan Sims chose to re-sign with the Buccaneers early rather than 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 five 2008 Buccaneers became free agents when they were released just prior to the start of the new league year:
|LB Derrick Brooks|
|RB Warrick Dunn|
|WR Joey Galloway||[Signed with New England](http://www.patriots.com/search/index.cfm?ac=searchdetail&pid=36623&pcid=47) on March 19|
|WR Ike Hilliard|
|LB Cato June|
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 receive no compensation, nor do they have a right of first refusal.
Players with expiring contracts who have three years of credit become restricted free agents, assuming their teams extend the proper tender offers. 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.
The following 2008 Buccaneer became a restricted free agent on February 27 after receiving a tender offer from the team:
|T Donald Penn|
Penn received a tender offer that would require any other team that signs him to surrender first and third-round picks to the Buccaneers.
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. Only one player fell into that category for the Buccaneers in 2009, and he became an exclusive rights free agent on February 27:
|FB Byron Storer|
Unrestricted free agents have almost five months to shop their services, as their signing period runs out on July 22. Restricted free agents have until April 17 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.
Free agency is now well underway. Already some Buccaneers have returned and others have left. Keep the Free Agency Tracker bookmarked to follow these players transactions throughout the offseason.