Tampa Bay Buccaneers

June Swoons

The post-June 1 free agency period is less active than it used to be, thanks to better salary cap management and, this year, an unexpected cap windfall for all 32 NFL teams

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The Bucs made a key June acquisition in 2002 in WR Keenan McCardell, but may not be active in the market in 2004

New Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brian Griese is a quick study, according to Head Coach Jon Gruden. Griese has rapidly absorbed the team's playbook and, as the offseason turns the corner into summer and heads into the homestretch, Gruden is anxious to see what the veteran passer can do in Bucs training camp.

Of course, Griese is 'new' only in comparison to the core of 40 or so players retained from the 2003 Bucs team. Since he signed just three days before the beginning of Tampa Bay's 16-week offseason program, Griese has had the full benefit of the team's weight room, classroom and onfield efforts over the past two-and-a-half months.

Now last year…that was a cram session for Griese.

The former Pro Bowler was a June cut by the Denver Broncos, who had signed Jake Plummer from the Arizona Cardinals and decided to – say it with us – go in another direction. Griese latched on pretty quickly with the Miami Dolphins, the team for which his father, Bob, had starred in the 1970s. It was just fine as far as fresh starts go, but it did put Griese behind most of his new teammates in their preparations for 2003.

Fortunately, fewer veterans are finding themselves in that position each summer

The first few days of June remain an important segment on the NFL calendar because there are some significant cuts made at that time each year, just as there are every February before the free agency period officially begins. Teams that release players for salary-cap relief in March are biting the bullet and taking their cap hit right away; teams that wait until June to do the same are spreading out the repercussions over two years and often getting more immediate relief.

How? By postponing the acceleration of prorated portions of a player's salary. Make a cut before June and those prorated figures are immediately applied to the current season's cap; do it after June 1 and they are applied to next year's cap.

That little provision in the collective bargaining agreement rules has been the same for years. It is a loophole of sorts, and it's wide as ever, but teams are pushing problems through it less and less often.

"It's a little bit overrated, I think," conceded Gruden, who has used the June portion of free agency to his team's benefit in the past. Two summers ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars cut wide receiver Keenan McCardell in early June and the Bucs signed him days later. McCardell proved to be an important brick in Tampa Bay's 2002 Super Bowl foundation.

"We got Keenan McCardell after June 1 and he became a really good player and a starter for us," said Gruden. "There's no question, if you see a guy who you have studied and you know has something that you need, you have to do everything you can to get it done. I'm comfortable that that will happen if that case arises."

But it didn't arise in 2003 (the Bucs did pick up RB Thomas Jones in June, but that was through a trade with Arizona) and it may not happen in 2004, either. It will happen somewhere in the NFL, of course; a player such as linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, cut by the Washington Redskins on Wednesday, is bound to find a new home for 2004.

But Trotter may end up being one of only a few significant veterans to hit the market this June, along with linebacker Jason Gildon, quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Vinny Testaverde and a few other rumored release targets. One reason for this could be an unexpected windfall for all 32 teams earlier this offseason.

In February, just a few weeks before free agency was to begin, the NFL reworked its salary cap figures to reflect rising league revenues. Each team suddenly found itself with a couple million more dollars of breathing room, making free agency a more pleasant proposition for all involved. Personnel departments that hadn't been counting on the extra cap space were suddenly a little more willing to eat their existing cap mistakes. Combine that with better cap management in general as teams get more and more familiar with the pitfalls of the 12-year-old system, and you get less active Junes.

Still, there was McCardell two years ago, a hot ticket for both the Bucs and the competing Kansas City Chiefs, and the Dolphins were certainly happy to get Griese last summer. Perhaps Warner will get a chance to start and regain his MVP form in a new NFL home. And perhaps a player teams were not expecting to be available will suddenly hit the market.

"You can always speculate pretty accurately who's going to be there, but you're never sure," said Gruden. "There may be a player or two who makes you say, 'Whoa, I didn't expect that.' You've just got to keep your eyes and ears open, and I know from working with (General Manager) Bruce (Allen) in the past, if there's somebody there he likes he's going to react to it.

"There might be a guy who's been around a little bit who might not be able to fit under the cap or come to contractual terms. Maybe we can provide a home for him. It worked a couple of years ago."

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