As they did at the Senior Bowl, Buccaneer coaches will get an up-close look at draft prospects during the Combine
An unusual football week in the Bay area begins on Monday.
Nearly 100 players from Europe, Japan and Mexico will hit a half-dozen fields in order to prove they can play alongside NFL hopefuls in the NFL Europe League this spring. At the same time, Tampa Bay Buccaneers employees will be leaving Florida in order to begin preparations for the NFL Scouting Combine.
Many Bay area employees will be enjoying some time off Monday thanks to Presidents Day, but One Buccaneer Place will be bustling with activity. That's a virtual necessity with the Combine, the commencement of free agency and the beginning of the NFLEL's joint training camp colliding in the last days of February and the onset of March.
The Buccaneers, in fact, opened Monday with a 9:00 a.m. staff meeting that convened all of the team's coaches, scouts and player personnel employees. The purpose of the meeting was to go over planning for the Combine and touch on the beginning of free agency.
The first few Buc employees left for Indy on Monday morning, as the league's video professionals annually convene at the same spot in the days before the Combine. The Combine itself will begin on Wednesday, Feb. 23, and last approximately one week, with draft-eligible players at different positions coming and going through Tuesday, March 1. Most of the Bucs' personnel men will be in Indiana by Wednesday; the coaches will visit the Combine on the days that coincide with workouts at their positions.
The last day of the Combine is also, in effect, the last day of the 2004 league season, in that contracts expire on March 2 and free agency begins. March 1 is the last day on which teams can submit the necessary qualifying offers to their restricted and exclusive rights free agents in order to retain right-of-first-refusal or exclusive negotiating rights.
Also, just before the Combine begins, teams must make their final decisions on franchise and transition players. Tuesday, Feb. 22, is the deadline for teams to put those tags on pending free agents. A few teams, such as Cincinnati with RB Rudi Johnson, San Diego with QB Drew Brees and New Orleans with DE Darren Howard, have already applied their franchise tags.
Other teams have already begun releasing veteran players in salary cap-related moves (technically, these players cannot be released until Tuesday, but they have already been informed of their team's decisions). That's a group headed by quarterbacks in Buffalo (Drew Bledsoe) and Cleveland (Jeff Garcia). Because teams are required to be in compliance with the 2005 salary cap by March 2, there are sure to be other recognizable names on the waiver wire this week. The Bucs might even be involved; last year, Tampa Bay waived TE Ken Dilger, LB Dwayne Rudd, WR Karl Williams and TE Roland Williams on the last day before free agency.
Meanwhile, as the NFL's increasingly busy "offseason" kicks into high gear, the NFL Europe League prepares to open training camp. Players from 13 countries in Europe, Asia and North America have already arrived in Tampa for the first wave of practices. They'll get in about a week of work, and hopefully earn permanent roster spots on one of the six NFLEL teams, before the NFL's allocated players arrive on Friday.
Ten Buccaneer players, including the recently-signed Akili Smith, won't have far to go, as the NFLEL camp will be spread around the Bay area for the fifth year in a row. That also makes for a short trip for any Buccaneer personnel men who wish to get in some extra scouting on the prospects who make up the European rosters this year. The teams will even hold a series of scrimmages, beginning on March 9.
There are other notable events just ahead on the calendar. The Buccaneers' 14-week offseason player training program begins in mid-March; it is non-mandatory but always heavily attended. After the Combine, there will be dozens of "Pro Days" at campuses across the country as draft prospects make one last effort to show off their skills. And there are the daily developments of free agency, an area in which the Bucs have proved to be very active.
In other words, things are heating up. Monday is just the beginning.