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While browsing the new market, the Buccaneers have not forgotten about their own free agent players

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LB Hardy Nickerson was one of 11 Bucs to become unrestricted free agents on Friday

On Thursday, the Buccaneers' 18 pending free agent players had one team with which to negotiate; on Friday, they had 31.

Of course, that's the case for all of the 341 NFL players who became unrestricted free agents in the NFL's free agency period, which opened on Friday. In the past, many teams, including the Buccaneers on several notable occasions, have avoided the fear factor of free agency by getting their potential free agents to agree to new contracts before the open market period began. Thus, Tampa Bay fans may have been expecting some activity on Thursday, the last day of exclusive negotiations. Instead, all of the team's restricted and unrestricted free agents remained unsigned on Friday.

That's no reason to panic, as General Manager Rich McKay assured the assembled media on Friday. While McKay adhered to team policy by not discussing the contract situations of specific players, he did indicate that the Bucs are interested in retaining several of their own free agents. He also asserted that the failure to sign any of them before February 11 was not unusual or particularly concerning.

"There are not a lot of deals that get done on the 11th hour anymore," said McKay, referring to such signings as the Bucs' locking up of T Paul Gruber on the eve of free agency in 1997. "That's a change in how things are done. Agents are less inclined to want to do deals before the start of free agency these days. How many deals were done last night? Three?"

Indeed, there was little pre-free agency movement on Thursday, apart from several teams releasing high-priced veterans to make room under the 2000 salary cap. Instead 552 players decided to test the free market waters in some manner or another, including 341 who are unrestricted free agents. That includes 11 Buccaneers, five who were starters when the 1999 season began: T Paul Gruber, C Tony Mayberry, LB Hardy Nickerson, TE Dave Moore and T Jason Odom. That they walked through the door doesn't mean it was shut behind them. Nickerson, for instance, re-signed with the team in 1996 after free agency had begun and after he had visited the Detroit Lions.

Though he stuck to an agreement with Nickerson's agent not to discuss the negotiations in the media, McKay did confirm reports that the club has made an offer to the five-time Pro Bowler. He also indicated that he has spoken with Nickerson's agent several times since then.

Of course, while the Buccaneers understand the value of retaining their own players, perhaps better than any other NFL team, they know that the free agent market holds no guarantees. "Any time free agency starts, you can lose a player," said McKay. "You have to go into it realizing that any player that hits the street could be gone."

Should Nickerson sign elsewhere, the Buccaneers do not plan to seek a replacement. Third-year player Jamie Duncan, who filled in superbly for Nickerson during the last six games of 1998, Duncan's rookie year, would be asked to step into that role full-time.

Still, that's a secondary decision, necessary only if the Buccaneers cannot bring back one or more of their own. McKay simply wanted to indicate that the team has taken time to plan for the possible loss of any player. He reiterated that the lack of last-minute signings was not necessarily a negative sign.

"We didn't anticipate any of our UFA's (unrestricted free agents) signing before the deadline," said McKay. "Without speaking specifically to any player, the team is not as worried as it once was. I think we have become a better location, a better organization for free agents to consider. I remember in years past, every one of our calls during free agency was outgoing. That's not true anymore."

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