DE Jimmy Wilkerson is part of a relatively small group of pending UFAs for the Buccaneers
Most of the deadlines have passed and most of the groundwork has been laid...with the exception, of course, of a new collective bargaining agreement.
Soon the starting gate will be lifted on the NFL's free agency period, and because the existing CBA is still in effect, it is somewhat of a mystery as to how it will unfold.
The movers and shakers for all 32 teams are currently together in Indianapolis, watching the defensive players run through their drills as the NFL Scouting Combine enters its last two days. Most will return to their respective headquarters on Tuesday afternoon, just over two days before that open player market kicks off.
There is some work to be done for those returning personnel pros. The deadline for extending tender offers to potential restricted free agents is Thursday, March 4, and there are more players than ever in that category this year. The most impactful proviso of the "Final Year" of the current CBA is that players need six accrued seasons to become unrestricted free agents, not four. As a result, more than 200 extra players fall into that group, many of them rising stars. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have nine such players, including Barrett Ruud, Jeremy Trueblood and Donald Penn.
Teams that wished to hold on to players who were on the verge of unrestricted free agency had an extra option to do so this year, as well. Each team in the league was allowed to tag one franchise player (or one transition player in lieu of a franchise player) and, this year only, one extra transition player. Tagging a player in this manner - as the Buccaneers did last year with wide receiver Antonio Bryant - gives a team, at a minimum, the opportunity to match any contract offers the player receives from another team. To the player's benefit, these tags also carry rather hefty salary requirements.
Players can receive either an exclusive or a non-exclusive franchise designation. The latter allows the player to negotiate with other clubs, the former does not. If a non-exclusive franchise player signs a contract with another team, the original club can match the offer and retain the player or let him leave and receive two first-round draft picks as compensation. Teams can match offers to transition players, as well, but there is no draft-pick compensation if an offer is not matched.
The Buccaneers did not choose to use either of their available tags this year, and that was the most common choice around the NFL as a whole. In fact, only six players used even one of their available tags, mostly to lock defensive linemen into place. The Green Bay Packers (DT Ryan Pickett), New England Patriots (DT Vince Wilfork), Oakland Raiders (DE Richard Seymour) and San Francisco 49ers (DT Aubrayo Franklin) all used franchise tags; Seymour is the only one of those four to receive the exclusive franchise designation. In addition, the Pittsburgh Steelers (Jeff Reed) and Seattle Seahawks (Olindo Mare) used franchise tags on their kickers.
No team used a transition designation this year, which means none of the extra tags available in this Final Year of the CBA were utilized.
The vast majority of the players eligible for restricted free agent tender offers will receive them, as teams seek to retain their own key contributors. The main decisions for team officials in the next few days will be the size of the tender that is extended to each player. There are five different levels of tender offers available for use, each one calling for a certain level of compensation to the tagged player and a commensurate level of protection for the team. The highest level, for instance, carries a one-year salary requirement of a little over $3 million, but if that player is signed by another team and allowed to leave his original team would receive first and third-round draft picks in compensation.
All of this action will lead up to a long night on Thursday, as team officials stay by the phones past the midnight star to free agency. That's true even though some analysts believe there will be significantly less action in the first 24 hours of free agency than is usually seen. Of course, the smaller pool of unrestricted free agents (UFAs) as a result of the new system is one obvious reason for that belief. The rest is conjecture; Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik has said that it's difficult to predict exactly what will happen in this unusual offseason.
Now that the franchise tags are in place, however, teams have a better feel for what will be available on the free agent market this spring. The list will grow, of course, as veterans who do have ongoing contracts are released by their teams, an annual occurrence that can add spice to free agency. The NFL set the initial market, however, with the release of its list of 2010 unrestricted free agents-to-be.
That list includes such intriguing names as Arizona LB Karlos Dansby, Carolina DE Julius Peppers, Green Bay T Chad Clifton, Houston CB Dunta Robinson, New England G Steve Neal, New Orleans S Darren Sharper, Pittsburgh S Ryan Clark, Seattle WR Nate Burleson and Tennessee LB Keith Bulluck.
Tampa Bay's own list of pending UFAs is relatively small. It includes S Will Allen, WR Antonio Bryant, LB Angelo Crowell, S Jermaine Phillips and DE Jimmy Wilkerson.
Regardless of how quickly it happens, things are about to heat up in the NFL. Before this week is over, the free agent market will be open for business.