Josh Freeman will throw his first contested pass to Vincent Jackson on Tuesday. Hopefully, it's the start of a very fruitful connection.
Freeman and Jackson have been waiting for the opportunity to work together against an opponent since the latter signed a megadeal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the first few hours of free agency in March. They've since met, of course, and spent some time together in the classroom and the weight room at One Buccaneer Place, but they weren't allowed to test a defense until this week.
That may have seemed like a long wait, but the Buccaneers are actually getting an earlier start on such work than the majority of the NFL's 32 teams. While the new collective bargaining agreement, signed into place last July, has significantly changed the ground rules for offseason work, one thing remains the same: Teams with new head coaches are given a little extra time to install their systems.
The new CBA divides the offseason into three "phases," each one allowing a little more coordinated activity than the last. Phase I is mostly just an opportunity to get in strength and conditioning work; there is no interaction between coaches and players allowed on the field (other than strength coaches) and almost no use of an actual football. Phase II allows organized work by offenses and defenses, but not against each other, and helmets are still not allowed. Helmets (but no other pads) are added in Phase III, when teams can run offenses and defenses against each other. There is no live contact allowed in any of the three phases, and no one-one-one drills such as OL/DL pass-rush work.
For much of the league, Phase I began on Tuesday, but the Buccaneers were allowed to start two weeks earlier. The arrival of new Head Coach Greg Schiano made that possible, and also gave the Bucs one extra week to work with overall. Tampa Bay gets a total of 10 offseason weeks to have its players at work, while teams with holdover coaching staffs get nine. That extra week is technically a "Phase III" week, but the Buccaneers are using it now, in between Phases I and II.
Thus, there will be some activity recognizable as practices this week at One Buccaneer Place. The meticulously-manicured fields behind team quarters have been lined, painted and readied for the first real invasion of the 2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Schiano, who has primarily been occupied with building a staff, plumbing free agency and preparing for the NFL Draft, will finally have a whistle around his neck. Helmets will be worn and familiar 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills will take place. And Freeman and Jackson will see what they can do with a defense on the other side of the line.
There are, of course, still quite a few rules of conduct to which teams are expected to adhere very seriously. Among them are a limit of 3.5 hours of on-field work on any given day, of which no more than 2.5 hours can be full-speed practice. Players must be given Monday and Friday off, though they may choose to come in for strength and conditioning work. And again – and certainly most importantly – no live contact is permitted.
In addition, this week's mini-camp is strictly voluntary. All teams are allowed one mandatory mini-camp during the offseason but the Buccaneers, like most clubs, will save that for the end. There are also 10 allotted "organized team activity days" (OTAs), down from 14 under the previous CBA, that will be conducted during Phase III.
That more involved phase will take place in May and June, before teams take the usual month off before the start of training camp. The Buccaneers, however, are getting a little taste of Phase III this week, and there's little doubt they're looking forward to the opportunity to stretch their legs, throw a few passes and get their competitive juices flowing.
Coincidentally, the starting day of the Bucs' practice-type activity coincides with the release of the 2012 NFL schedule. On Tuesday, Buccaneer players will get in their field work in the afternoon, and then in the early evening learn exactly which opponent they are preparing for first. The NFL will unveil its new schedule at 7:00 p.m. ET during a special on the NFL Network. It will also be posted at that time on NFL.com, and the Buccaneers' own schedule will go up at the same time here on Buccaneers.com.
Coach Schiano will wrap up each day of this week's voluntary mini-camp with press conferences, which will be carried live on Buccaneers.com. Look for Schiano's briefings at approximately 5:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday; 5:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday and 2:00 p.m. ET on Thursday. In addition, General Manager Mark Dominik will conduct his annual pre-draft press briefing on Thursday following Schiano's press conference; this will also air live on Buccaneers.com.