The NFL's 2018 free agency period begins on Wednesday, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held a press conference on Tuesday featuring two high-impact players grinning about new contracts, flanked by the equally-pleased duo of General Manager Jason Licht and Head Coach Dirk Koetter. Did the Buccaneers didn't jump the gun on free agency. No; rather, they set the table for the work ahead by taking care of some very important internal business.
Tuesday's gathering at One Buccaneer Place wasn't an introduction; everyone in attendance was familiar with the two young men sporting shiny new six-year deals. It was more of a celebration of a plan well-executed, by team and by player, one that began just months after Licht stepped into the Buccaneers' G.M. role in January of 2014. The first player the team drafted under Licht's stewardship was Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans. One of the first hidden gems it uncovered was Harvard tight end Cam Brate. Those were the two grinning young men seated between Licht and Koetter on Tuesday.
That's how it is supposed to work, and Evans and Brate may only be the first wave.
"Jason and I both believe that that's how you build a successful franchise," said Koetter. "In Mike's case, you draft them. In Cam's case, you develop them, or they develop themselves, a combination of the two. These guys are two great examples. To grow your own guys, whether they were drafted in the first round or developed, and then get them to their second contract, that's the best way to grow a franchise. We do have a really good young core and we're really looking forward to how the future goes with these guys."
The news about the deals for Evans and Brate came to light as the Buccaneers, and the league as whole, were preparing for the opening of the free agent market. No deals can be official until after 4:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday, but there are clearly plenty of moves ready to take place as soon as the gates come up. The Buccaneers plan to be involved, but first they needed to secure some of their own most important assets. Free agency can be used to fill needs on a team ready to compete, but the Buccaneers didn't want to create any more needs. Licht and Koetter addressed several other moves that haven't been officially confirmed but are obviously important to the team, such as the expected return of cornerback Brent Grimes.
"Our philosophy is, the stars on our team, the majority of them are going to come through the draft and then we're going to lock them up," said Licht. "The ones that embody the qualities that I outlined before. These guys have them and we have several more. To get these guys done – including Brent Grimes, very excited about him, Adarius Glanton – it's very important going into the offseason here as it kicks off, free agency, just knowing that you have your guys on your team. Then you can make moves from there – which we will, and we'll supplement the roster – but right now it's about these guys."
Licht came on as the Buccaneers G.M. on January 21 of 2014, and the pick of Evans took place on May 8 of that year. In between those two dates was the start of free agency, where the Bucs find themselves now, looking to add to a squad which they believe has a strong young foundation. They would be in a much tougher position, and perhaps more desperate in free agency, if that Evans pick hadn't worked out, and if they hadn't found Brate through a tryout camp. Those two are now locked in, and others added in subsequent years are on the way, such as Jameis Winston, Ali Marpet, Donovan Smith and Kwon Alexander.
But Evans and Brate didn't just work out due to sheer luck. Those two and Bucs management were in position to be smiling on Tuesday because they had put in so much hard work over the last four years.
"They're both being way too humble today," said Licht at Tuesday's press conference. "Mike just mentioned he couldn't fail [but] plenty of first-round draft picks do fail; just look around the league. Mike's done it by how hard he's worked and how hard he's played. And then Jason and Cam both told Cam's story, the other end of the spectrum, the guy that comes up undrafted."
Indeed, every team has tales of failed first-round picks, the Buccaneers included. Evans is the opposite, a star since Day One who is driven every day to be better. He's also on the cusp of becoming the leading receiver in franchise history, in just his fifth season.
"It's just a testament to my hard work, and they just showed me respect," said Evans. "As soon as I got here, I just worked, I had great teammates, I've just been in an awesome position. It was hard for me to fail because I had so many great people around me. I just worked hard and it happened."
As for Brate, he's the perfect example of the player from a modest (football) background who still works each day as if he has to prove himself all over again, often staying on the field long after practice is over.
"He just kind of fell into our lap, and sometimes that happens," said Licht. "We decided to work with Cam, decided he was a good developmental guy. He just worked extremely hard. He's a different player than he was that day because now he's one of the best tight ends in the league."
Licht spoke about getting the right sort of people in the locker room at One Buccaneer Place. Evans is the perfect example, one who will continue to be just as committed now that his second NFL contract is in place. That's how the Bucs want to build their team.
"[It's the] same plan as always, just work my tail off and try to be the best player I can be," said Evans. "And by that, I think I can be one of the best in the game, hopefully one of the best all-time."