G Cosey Coleman is one of the Bucs who became a free agent on Wednesday
The 2003 NFL season ended for the Buccaneers on December 28, and for the league as a whole on February 8 in Honolulu, site of the Pro Bowl. Officially, however, the 2003 season did not terminate until midnight on Tuesday; as such, all player contracts that were valid in 2003 were still in existence until that moment, unless terminated early by their teams.
On Wednesday, however, hundreds of players around the NFL gained their professional freedom and were eligible to sign with any team. Included on that list are roughly 20 players who were Buccaneers in 2003, including defensive tackle Warren Sapp, running back Thomas Jones, linebacker Nate Webster and punter Tom Tupa.
Will all of those players be gone? Almost certainly not. Last year, the Bucs re-signed several of their own key free agents, including linebacker Shelton Quarles, tackle Roman Oben, tight end Rickey Dudley, Tupa and Webster. In general, NFL teams have become increasingly more focused on re-signing their own players following a decade of harsh lessons since the advent of free agency.
Will all of those players be back? That one we can answer definitively, as Jones wasted no time in signing with the Chicago Bears. Jones spent just one season with the Buccaneers, coming over in June in a trade for WR Marquise Walker and eventually recording 627 rushing yards and 24 receptions. Jones' contributions will have to be replaced, as will those of any player who departs, and that is the goal of each team during the offseason.
Thus, there are two parallel pursuits during the free agency period: Re-sign those players you really don't want to lose and identify the men from other teams who can upgrade your roster.
"When you surround good players with good players, you are going to have a very good team," said Bucs General Manager Bruce Allen. "That's what we are trying to do here. And our players will be involved in the acquisition of new talent. Our players are already part of the plan."
The players who became free agents on Wednesday fall into three categories, though only the unrestricted free agent group will have truly significant movement. Unrestricted free agents are free to sign with any team without their former teams receiving compensation of any kind. Restricted free agents can sign with other teams but the former teams can either match the offer or receive draft-choice compensation. Exclusive rights free agents, those who have less than three years of NFL experience, can only negotiate with their existing teams.
For a more detailed explanation of these terms, please click here.
The following Buccaneers became unrestricted free agents on March 3. As their situations are resolved, we will update the chart:
|WR Reggie Barlow|
|G Cosey Coleman||Re-signed with Tampa Bay on March 23|
|TE Rickey Dudley||Re-signed with Tampa Bay on March 5|
|S David Gibson|
|T Cornell Green|
|RB Thomas Jones||Signed with Chicago on March 3|
|QB Shaun King||Signed with Arizona on March 7|
|DT Warren Sapp||Signed with Oakland on March 20|
|RB Aaron Stecker||Signed with New Orleans on March 4|
|P Tom Tupa||Signed with Washington on March 9|
|LB Nate Webster||Signed with Cincinnati on March 4|
|TE Todd Yoder||Signed with Jacksonville on March 5|
The following Buccaneers became restricted free agents on March 3. As their situations are resolved, we will update the chart:
|FB Jameel Cook|
|DT Chartric Darby|
|S John Howell|
(NOTE: DE/DT Ellis Wyms was due to become a restricted free agent on March 3, but he resigned with the team before free agency began.)
Though restricted free agents are much more likely to re-sign with their own teams – and, indeed, all of the Bucs' restricted free agents did so last year – some personnel men around the league may be rethinking their opinions on this class of player. Last year, the Washington Redskins parted ways with a first-round pick in order to pry restricted free agent Laveranues Coles away from the New York Jets, and it paid off when Coles had an excellent season for the 'Skins.
"It just has a compensation clause to it, a draft choice," said Allen of the restricted free agent approach. "I think Washington's signing of Laveranues Coles obviously paid off since he made the Pro Bowl. You can say that he got a big contract, but he's a good football player for them."
The following Buccaneers became exclusive rights free agents on March 3. As their situations are resolved, we will update the chart:
|LS Ryan Benjamin||Re-signed with Tampa Bay on March 22|
|CB Corey Ivy||Re-signed with Tampa Bay on March 30|
|LB Ryan Nece|
(NOTES: S Than Merrill was due to become an exclusive rights free agent on March 3 but was released by the team on March 2; RB Tony Taylor was not extended an exclusive rights tender offer and thus became a free agent.)