Jamie Duncan's four interceptions in 2000 were the most by a Bucs middle linebacker since Cecil Johnson picked off five in 1981
Because the National Football League's collective bargaining agreement, introduced in 1993, grants limited free agency to players after three seasons and full free agency after four seasons, team architects have had to confront a new type of problem.
Here's the pattern NFL general managers now fear: draft a promising player who needs development; successfully develop the player over several years; lose the player to free agency just as he becomes more valuable.
Jamie Duncan could have been the perfect example of this pattern. He and the Buccaneers avoided that outcome, however, when Duncan agreed to a one-year contract on Wednesday. As always, the team declined to announce the terms of the contract.
Duncan originally joined the Buccaneers as a third-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt in 1998. One of the higher-rated middle linebackers available that spring, he was seen as the eventual heir to Pro Bowl MLB Hardy Nickerson. However, Duncan was pressed into action earlier than expected, as Nickerson was sidelined for the final six games of the 1998 season by a startling bout of pericarditis, a heart ailment. The Bucs' defense actually improved in the rankings during that span and Duncan's surprisingly strong performance (46 tackles, one pass defensed) gave the Bucs enough confidence to let Nickerson go after the 1999 campaign.
So Duncan came into his third season as the starter and, following the pattern above, proved to be a very capable replacement. Though slowed slightly in midseason by an injury and ceding snaps from time to time to rookie Nate Webster, Duncan finished with 97 tackles, seven passes defensed and, most surprisingly, four interceptions. Duncan returned one of those picks 31 yards for a touchdown against Miami on December 10, scoring the only TD in the Bucs' crucial 16-13 victory.
After that positive experience in 2000, Duncan wished to remain with the Buccaneers, believing he is a good fit in Monte Kiffin's defense.
"I hope everybody else feels the same," said Duncan. "I felt like I came on last year and got more comfortable as I got a lot more playing time. I think I'm only going to get better the more I play."
Still, Duncan admits that he eyed the free agent market, if only to stay prepared for any eventuality. Like the Bucs' other five restricted free agents, and the team's slightly longer list of unrestricted free agents, Duncan was due to hit that open market on Friday.
"I gave it some thought, just because I wasn't sure where I would be," he said. "I thought about all of my options, but my first option was to stay here and I'm glad that was taken care of. It's good to just get it over with. Now, to know that I'm going to be here for another year, I'm very excited about that."
Actually, the Bucs took action on five of the six players on that restricted free agent list. In addition to the signing of Duncan, the team extended tender offers to RB Rabih Abdullah, DT James Cannida, CB Brian Kelly and C/G Todd Washington. By doing so, the team has maintained its right-of-first-refusal on these players and guaranteed that it will receiver some sort of draft-choice compensation if the Bucs choose not to match an offer from another team. For example, if another team extended a contract offer to Washington, the Bucs could choose to retain Washington under the terms of that offer or would be sent draft-pick compensation if they chose not to. The size of the tender offer determines the value of the compensation. The team did not tender a contract offer to TE Blake Spence.
No such complex issues will apply to Duncan, however, as he returns to head into the 2001 training camp as the team's starter at middle linebacker. The business-like Duncan took his typical low-key approach to the development.
"From early on, when the season ended, I felt confident that they wanted me back," he said. "They said they wanted me back and I wanted to be back, so it was a good fit. It was just a matter of getting it done."