Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Deadline Day

With free agency scheduled to begin on Friday, the Buccaneers and their NFL brethren face several Thursday deadlines

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By extending tender offers, the Buccaneers can gain 'right-of-first-refusal' on potential restricted free agents like S Damien Robinson

To observers, this might seem like the calm before the storm. Across the country, NFL fans who are anticipating the onset of free agency know that Friday is the day shopping can begin. Thus, while Thursday may seem like a final day of rest, it is in fact a very busy day for 31 personnel departments across the league.

NFL teams are generally quite active the day before free agency begins, attempting to protect their resources as fully as the collective bargaining agreement allows. This includes such measures as re-signing potential free agents before they can negotiate with other teams, restructuring or terminating contracts to provide salary cap relief and taking steps to ensure compensation for the loss of certain types of free agents. To do many of these things, there are deadlines that must be met on Thursday.

Thursday's first deadline is 4:00 p.m. Eastern time, the endpoint for pre-free agency transactions that will affect the enforcement of the 2000 salary cap. That means a team that plans to cut players to get under the cap must do so by 4:00. In addition, a team that plans to designate a potential free agent as a 'franchise player' or 'transition player' must indicate this by 4:00.

A team that wishes to extend qualifying offers to any of its own players who are scheduled to become restricted free agents or exclusive rights free agents also faces a 4:00 p.m. deadline for postmarking a notification of such a move. By extending offers to pending free agents, a team retains draft choice compensation for the loss of that player at varying levels depending on the size of the offer. The most basic gain of this process is the 'right-of-first-refusal', by which a team retains the right to match any offer a player may receive from another team, thereby keeping that player.

That is only the beginning of what could be a long evening for the personnel departments in Tampa and 30 other NFL cities. The second deadline of the day is midnight, the time by which all contracts must be signed or renegotiated to keep a player from entering free agency and open bidding. From the end of the season until February 11, teams have had the exclusive rights to negotiate with their pending free agents, a window that was short for the Buccaneers and any team that advanced well into the playoffs.

The free agency player issues for Tampa Bay are much deeper in 2000 than they have been in recent years, and with the team clearly a top contender for the Super Bowl, there may be critical decisions ahead. As Thursday began, the Buccaneers had 18 players who fell into either the restricted or unrestricted free agency category.

Tampa Bay's unrestricted free agents, as of Thursday morning, are: LB Don Davis, TE John Davis, QB Trent Dilfer, T Paul Gruber, C Tony Mayberry, RB Fred McAfee, TE Dave Moore, LB Hardy Nickerson, T Jason Odom, P Mark Royals and QB Eric Zeier. That list includes six players – Dilfer, Gruber, Mayberry, Moore, Nickerson and Odom – who were starters when the 1999 season began, though Dilfer and Odom were injured by the end of the campaign. The Buccaneers declined to exercise a two-year team option on Dilfer's contract on January 25 and the seventh-year quarterback indicated he would sign elsewhere.

Tampa Bay's restricted free agents, as of Thursday morning, are: CB Ronde Barber, G Kevin Dogins, TE Patrick Hape, G Frank Middleton, QB Scott Milanovich, S Damien Robinson and CB Floyd Young. That list includes four players – Barber, Dogins, Middleton and Robinson – who were in the starting lineup at the end of the regular season.

A Thursday flurry of activity would surprise no one. Last year, the Bucs prepared themselves for free agency by designating DE Chidi Ahanotu as the team's 'franchise player' and releasing four players, K Michael Husted, S Charles Mincy, FB Lorenzo Neal and CB Anthony Parker. Ahanotu's tag required a sizeable tender offer that immediately counted against the Bucs' cap and was part of the decision to release the four veterans. The Bucs also extended tender offers to Don Davis, John Davis, LB Jeff Gooch and Odom, all of whom were eventually re-signed. In 1997, the Bucs beat a similar deadline by re-signing Gruber, the cornerstone of the offensive line, before he could become an unrestricted free agent.

In other words, don't let the date fool you. February 11 may be the day that NFL fans are anticipating with thoughts of a free agent haul, but many important decisions will be made on the 10th. As we all know, the calm before the storm can be very misleading.

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