Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Entering the Unknown

It seems likely that the NFL will enter its most unusual offseason in 18 years in a little over two weeks, and no one is completely certain how the new rules of free agency will affect the way rosters are constructed in the coming months


The Bucs and C Jeff Faine moved quickly to strike a deal at the beginning of free agency two years ago; will there be such action on March 5 this year?

In just over two weeks, the NFL will enter its free agency period for 2010, and it could be the most unusual open market since free agency become a reality with the first collective bargaining agreement in 1993.

This year's free agency could take one of two shapes. If sudden progress is made in the negotiations for a CBA extension between now and March 5, the landscape could look very much like it has for the last 17 offseasons, depending upon the specifics of the new agreement. However, if nothing new is in place before that March deadline, then a free agent market of dramatically different rules will reign.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have prepared a plan for either occurrence, but General Manager Mark Dominik conceded last week that more time is being spent on the latter scenario. With so little time for a new agreement to be put in place and no obvious signs that one is near, it appears as if the "Final Year" in the current CBA will move on apace.

All the principles in the league know and understand what the rules are in the "Final Year." We outlined some of them, with the NFL's help, recently here on Buccaneers.com. Among the most significant rule changes: players need six accrued seasons to become an unrestricted free agent (UFA), not four; the final eight teams in the 2009 playoffs, and particularly the final four, are seriously limited in their ability to sign unrestricted free agents; additional transitional player tags are available; and, of course, there is no salary cap or salary floor to affect teams' spending.

What nobody knows with any certainty - not owners, G.M.s, players or agents - is what is actually going to happen after midnight strikes on March 5.

"The situation we're walking into is certainly unknown for everyone," said Dominik. "Since '92 have we not dealt with this kind of situation. So no one can really look at the crystal ball and say, 'Here's what people are going to spend or here's what people aren't going to spend.' It's all pure speculation by everybody."

One reasonable guess is that the number of young, attractive players who will be available in free agency will be less than in year's past, due simply to the six years now needed to qualify as a UFA. That guess could lead teams - and the Buccaneers certainly seem to be taking this approach - to pay even more attention to what is considered a loaded draft in April.

"It's a dramatic difference," said Dominik. "Over 200 players would not become [unrestricted] free agents [in the current system]. I think that's been well-publicized. All of them would be young players. The thing is, these rules were collectively bargained by both sides, trying to get to the point where both felt those rules were fair. So those are the rules we're working with, just like all 31 other clubs. There were absolutely be less players hitting the market, and certainly those players who do hit the market have to have six or more years of experience in the National Football League, which would obviously equate to their age being older."

The other side of the four-to-six-year change is that all those players who would have become unrestricted free agents after four or five seasons will now be restricted free agents (RFAs) if and when their contracts expire. That requires a different approach by the teams with those impending free agents, including a tiered series of tender offers that affect what the player will earn and how costly it would be for another team to sign him away.

Moreover, the uncertainty following this "Final Year" in 2010 - not just in terms of when a new CBA is in place but exactly what the structure of that CBA will be - makes these RFA decisions a little more complicated.

"That's the biggest thing - what do you do with all these guys that we have that are restricted free agents?" said Dominik, who notes that the new number for accrued seasons could end up anywhere from two to five years. "How do you tender them? How do you talk to them? How do you work through this? Because don't know what the rules will be going forward. It could be five, it certainly could be back at four - we don't know. No one knows what the future really holds."

That's true even of the very near future. Will the opening hours of free agency by characterized by a handful of large, overnight deals, or will it be more quiet than usual? Will teams take longer to scope out the lay of the land before acting? Will there be more action with restricted free agents than usual? Will any teams use the lack of a cap to spend much more than they could have otherwise?

There is certainly reason to believe that Day One of free agency will have fewer opportunities for big-name deals. And the Buccaneers have already stated that April's draft is their top priority in terms of player acquisition this offseason. Still, Dominik and his 31 counterparts around the league will still be up and working the phones overnight on the fifth. Sometimes there are opportunities adjunct to free agency that arise, such as the Bucs' trade for tight end Kellen Winslow on the first day of the open market last year.

"We'll still burn the midnight oil," said Dominik. "I won't do anything any different. You don't know whether there are going to be a lot more trade opportunities. That's a way that I think we really helped our club last year in terms of acquiring Kellen. If you feel like there's something that can be had that way, sometimes those things can happen in the first day of free agency, so you have to be alert and ready. And again, there's a lot of speculation going on but no one really knows how this is going to play out. There's just no way to really determine what clubs are going to do or aren't going to do, what they will want to do or not want to do.

"Just working within the rules that we are, what we want to do for us internally, the focus is building through this draft, keeping our core players and developing a nucleus of talent on this football team. That doesn't mean that we wouldn't go out there and look for a guy that we think can help this football team. There's no governor that's been placed on myself or this organization saying we can't do anything. It hasn't been like that. But certainly as anything goes you equate ability and value and decide whether it makes sense for you going forward with any player."

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