The final game of the NFL's 2016 season has been played, with New England defeating Atlanta in Super Bowl LI on Sunday night. The 2016 league year technically lives on for another month, but all attention will now turn to the 2017 season.
Specifically, there were 31 days left in the 2016 league year as of the Monday after the Super Bowl, with March 9 marking the turning point to 2017. At 4:00 p.m. ET on that Thursday, all 2016 contracts expire and free agency begins for those who don't have deals beyond the current year.
Photos of the 2017 Buccaneers Free Agents.
Between those two dates, teams will take care of a number of housekeeping items in order to be ready for the start of free agency. For instance, the 2017 waiver wire system began on Monday, and on February 15 teams may begin designated franchise and transition players. That tag window stays open to March 1. The NFL Scouting Combine begins on the last day of February and extends through March 6, and team reps will get home just in time for the three-day free agency negotiating window that begins on March 7.
The next 31 days also offer teams an opportunity to negotiate exclusively with their own pending free agents and potentially get some of them under contract for 2017 before the market opens. This could be a busy period for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as they have a very long list of potential free agents staring them in the face.
There are, in fact, 17 players from the Buccaneers' 2016 roster who can become unrestricted free agents on March 9, the longest such list the team has had in many years. That represents just over a quarter of the 67 men the Bucs had on either their active roster or a reserve list (not including the practice squad) at the end of the 2016 regular season.
Here are the current Buccaneers who could become unrestricted free agents in March:
Those 17 players combined to make 93 starts for the Buccaneers in 2016, with six of them opening more than half of the team's games. That includes two defensive linemen who were heavy parts of the front-line rotation and both of the team's starting safeties for much of the season.
On defense, Gholston may be considered a top priority on that list, as his game has developed steadily since the Bucs drafted him in the fourth round in 2013. His size allows him to make an impact at both end and tackle, and his value as a run-stopper was clearly missed when he sat out the last two games with an elbow injury. Gholston may not be the most dynamic pass-rusher on the Bucs' line (10.5 sacks in four years) but his high-effort style of play often yields backfield pressure. The Buccaneers must also sort out what they want to do at safety, with both Conte and McDougald ticketed for free agency, but they did uncover another potential starter down the stretch in 2016 in Keith Tandy, who was just in the first year of the new deal he signed last March.
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On offense, the Bucs may hope to bring back Jacquizz Rodgers, who became a surprisingly important contributor after signing as a free agent after the first week of the regular season. With both Doug Martin and Charles Sims missing a significant amount of time due to injury, Rodgers rushed for a career-high 560 yards and averaged 4.3 yards per carry. He had Tampa Bay's only two 100-yard rushing games in 2016.
The Buccaneers' special teams featured two outstanding punt-coverage gunners in Josh Robinson and Russell Shepard, though Shepard's role in the kicking game was reduced when he took over a larger share of the offense following injuries to Vincent Jackson and Cecil Shorts. It's likely the Buccaneers would like to have Robinson and Shepard back chasing down return men again in 2017.
Another very notable name on the list is quarterback Mike Glennon, who has served as Jameis Winston's primary backup the past two seasons. Though Winston almost never left the field, the Buccaneers placed a high value on Glennon's experience and proven NFL abilities on the roster. Of course, the 2013 third-round pick will now have an opportunity to seek a starting spot elsewhere in the league, if he so chooses. Glennon started 18 games for the Buccaneers before Winston's arrival.
Like Glennon, the other 16 players on the above list can hit the open market if they so choose. Beyond employing a franchise or transition tag, which seems unlikely, the Buccaneers can't stop them from leaving if they so desire. That's not the case for the other nine players who can get a more limited look at free agency this spring.
First, there are three restricted free agents. These are players whose contracts have expired but who have only three years of free agency credit. The Buccaneers can retain a right-of-first refusal on any contracts these players sign by extending qualifying offers to them before the start of free agency. At that point, the player can return to the team simply by signing that one-year deal, which would set them up for a shot at unrestricted free agency in 2018. That is the most common path taken by restricted free agents, though that group is becoming smaller each year, as all draft picks must now get four-year deals. That means, if they finish their first NFL contracts they skip right past restricted free agency.
Here are the current Buccaneers who could become restricted free agents in March:
The fact that the Buccaneers kept Griffin on the active roster as a third quarterback for two full years clearly indicates that they think he has the potential to be Winston's primary backup. Of course, he hasn't seen any regular-season action in the NFL yet, and he'll certainly get some competition for that job during the offseason and in training camp. Still, it would be surprising to see Griffin depart at this point.
A waiver claim from Buffalo early in 2014, Smith has been a real find for the Buccaneers' defense. He was injured after playing exactly one defensive snap in 2016, which was a big blow to Tampa Bay's pass rush. The team is surely eager to get him back into their front-line rotation in 2017.
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DePaola has handled the Bucs' long-snapping duties flawlessly for three years, but his knee injury in Week 17 obviously complicates his situation. He will spend much of the offseason rehabbing after undergoing surgery.
The third class of free agents fall into the "exclusive rights" category. These players have fewer than three seasons of accrued free agency credit but an expiring contract. Often, these are players who entered the league as undrafted free agents but were able to carve out roles of some significance in their first two seasons. That's definitely the case with this list. These players can only negotiate with the Buccaneers, assuming the qualifying offer is extended before the start of free agency.
Here are the current Buccaneers who could become exclusive rights free agents in March:
Brate and Humphries are the names that jump out on this list, as they were the Bucs' second and third-leading pass-catchers in 2016 behind Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans. Adding to Winston's arsenal of weapons is one of the team's primary goals for the 2017 offseason, but they also want to maintain the existing base of talent.
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Brate has developed into one of Winston's favorite targets, particularly in the red zone. The Harvard product has worked on becoming a more complete tight end, but his strength is obviously in the passing game and he has excellent hands and body control when going up for passes in traffic. On an offense that struggled to generate yards after the catch, Humphries was a bit of an exception, as he proved adept at turning quick screens into good gains. Brate and Humphries had 112 catches between them in 2016 and it's reasonable to expect that they can continue to develop into even more productive players.
Adjei-Barimah was the Bucs' nickel back in the middle of the season before he missed the last six games due to a suspension and an injury. He showed some ability to blitz out of the slot, with two sacks, and also broke up two passes and forced a fumble. With cornerback depth always a concern, the Bucs are likely glad that they can bring back this former undrafted free agent without much difficulty.
The Super Bowl is in the rear view mirror and free agency is just around the next bend. If the Buccaneers want to retain some of the players who contributed to a promising turnaround in 2016, they'll have a lot of work to do over the next 31 days.