C Tony Mayberry became one of 341 unrestricted free agents on Friday
Valentine's Day is Monday, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are preparing their love notes. Surveying the free agent market, the Bucs don't yet know if they have a match, but they at least have a few dates lined up.
Buccaneer General Manager Rich McKay indicated on Friday that the organization will bring in several free agents for visits with the team next week. The free agency period officially opened on Friday, and McKay met with the media for approximately an hour, answering questions about the team's upcoming roster focus.
"Our first scheduled visit is mid-next week," said McKay. "That could move to Tuesday, but right now it's set for Wednesday. We'll have three or four visits next week."
When the clock struck midnight on Thursday evening, 552 NFL players became free agents of some variety. Of those, 341 are unrestricted free agents, meaning they are not under contract and they have at least four years of accrued league experience. These players are free to negotiate with any team, and the process of testing the market usually begins with a visit to an interested franchise. For the Buccaneers, those visits usually encompass about half of a day, long enough to take a physical and meet with the head coach and the appropriate position coach.
As usual, McKay and the Buccaneers will decline to reveal what players are due to visit. However, once the player has completed his visit, that information will be released and the player can choose to meet with the media. A player visit does not necessarily indicate that he will be offered a contract, but the particular players that come in may give a hint as to what direction the team is leaning.
"I would say that they will be offensive players at the start," said McKay, when asked if the Buccaneers were focusing on the offensive line. "I wouldn't say just the offensive line, but we will look at that position."
One way or another, the Buccaneers are virtually forced to address the position, either through re-signing their own players or bringing in new blood. Two of the team's starters, T Paul Gruber and C Tony Mayberry, are unrestricted free agents and Gruber is also said to be contemplating retirement after suffering a broken leg in the team's regular season finale at Chicago. Re-signing or replacing Gruber and/or Mayberry represents a very significant decision, as the two players rank first and second on the team's all-time games played and games started lists. Gruber has been the team's starting left tackle for all but nine regular-season games since the 1988 season.
"We've talked a lot about (Gruber's situation)," said McKay. "We have a plan to deal with it, but we want to be open to what Paul wants to do, and what his timetable is. It won't be July. He's not the kind of guy that's going to take this lately. For one thing, he's an off-season workout warrior, and I know he would want to get started in March, so he'll probably have a decision by then."
The Buccaneers have a little more flexibility for these types of decisions than they have in the past, as there is room below the 2000 salary cap for some signings. Though that room can be affected by the re-signing of the team's own players and by the money that must be set aside for the draft choices, including two first-rounders, McKay does expect the team to make an impact on the market.
"Last year, we had virtually no cap room at any time," said McKay. "This year, we do. However, if we sign certain guys early, that may run out quickly, though that is not our plan. … This year, our plan is to bring in a few more players than in years past. That doesn't mean we're going to sign every one of them, but we don't bring a player in because we don't like him. We're not going to sign a bunch of free agents – we're not a free-agent team and we are never going to be a free-agent team – but we are going to sign some."
For Buccaneer fans, who have experienced several consecutive years in which their team was virtually out of the free agent market before it began due to a tight salary cap situation, that has to be music to their ears. Just having their team in the game means months of healthy speculation on what players could help the team take another step forward and reach the Super Bowl.
Who knows, maybe they'll even make a love connection.