RB Warrick Dunn (28) and C Jeff Faine were two of the Buccaneers' additions during free agency last spring
February 1st: Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
We're trusting you know that date. By extrapolation, you probably also know that the 2009 Pro Bowl will be on February 8, one week after the title game, as usual (though that long-standing pattern changes next year). Those are the last two days of football in this NFL season as we know it; but do you know what important dates lie ahead when the league finally puts 2008 in the rear-view mirror?
Technically, the 2009 league year begins on the first day of free agency; that's when the new salary cap takes effect and all ongoing player contracts shift from one year to the next. However, the NFL's 32 teams won't be waiting until that day – February 27, to be exact – to shift into 2009 mode.
In fact, even as the final four teams in the playoffs are preparing for conference championship weekend, the rest of the league is already busy looking ahead to the next league year. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for instance, signed 10 free agents last week to boost their 2009 roster. There is an in-depth team evaluation going on right now at One Buccaneer Place, and preparations for the 2009 NFL Draft are beginning to heat up.
The Buccaneers know they have to have their free agency preparations done by the end of next month, and their draft strategy finalized by late April. What other dates will help direct Tampa Bay's offseason work? Let's take a closer look at the important events looming in the next four months on the NFL's 2009 calendar.
January 18-24: NFL scouts and coaches gather in Mobile, Alabama for the 2009 Senior Bowl
Each January, roughly one hundred of the best college players around the nation travel to Mobile for the Senior Bowl. As is obvious in the game's title, the participants must all be players who just finished their final college season, so some of the best players likely to be available in the draft – juniors such as Florida's Percy Harvin and USC's Mark Sanchez – will not be on hand. Still, the talent pool is deep in Mobile every year, as there are usually seven to 10 eventual first-round picks in the game.
The 2009 Senior Bowl will take place early in the evening on Saturday, January 24. However, for the purposes of the visiting coaches and scouts the real action takes place Monday through Thursday, when the North and South squads hold their practices. The teams are coached by NFL staffs – in this year's case, those of the Cincinnati Bengals and Jacksonville Jaguars – and the participating players are put into positions to prove they can excel on the NFL level.
Most NFL scouting staffs already have well-formed opinions on all of the nation's prospects by the time the run of all-star games arrives in January, but the Senior Bowl is still an opportunity for teams to sharpen their opinions on possible draftees. The Buccaneers fell in love with Auburn running back Cadillac Williams while coaching the South team in the 2005 Senior Bowl and answered their own questions about Tanard Jackson's ability to play safety during the 2007 game.
As always, Buccaneers.com will maintain a connection with Tampa Bay's contingent at the Senior Bowl this year. We'll be checking in with Director of College Scouting Dennis Hickey and his staff on several occasions during the week.
February 18-24: The Scouting Combine in Indianapolis gives approximately 300 young NFL hopefuls an opportunity to display their talents to the entire league
If the Senior Bowl is an opportunity to see some of the nation's best college players compete against each other, the Combine is a chance to put some very specific numbers into the scouting reports of about 300 players.
In order to streamline the process of measuring, timing and interviewing the top talent available in the NFL's spring draft, the league brings virtually all of the prospects together in Indianapolis every February for one long week of evaluation. Virtually every scout, coach and video professional in the league convenes for this intense week of 40-yard dashes, shuttle runs, medical evaluations and Wonderlic tests.
Much as the NFL Draft has become an increasingly large-scale event, the Combine gathers more and more attention every year. Expect wall-to-wall coverage of the week in Indianapolis, including in-depth analysis here on Buccaneers.com.
February 19: Deadline for clubs to designate franchise and transition players
The "franchise" and "transition" tags were purposely inserted in the free agency system during its original inception back in 1993. The intent was to create an opportunity for teams to retain their most important players, even with the new open market that allowed for much greater player movement.
Because franchise players have to be offered a salary that is, at the minimum, an average of the top five salaries at their position, it has developed into a tool that is not necessarily used on what would be considered a team's best player. For example, the Dallas Cowboys put a franchise tag on safety Ken Hamlin last year; Hamlin is obviously a very good player but he's hardly the first name that comes up when one discusses the current Cowboys roster.
Twelve teams employed the franchise or transition tags last February, and some of the tagged players did indeed live up to that billing, such as Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. The Chiefs tagged star defensive end Jared Allen and then traded him to Minnesota, using the franchise designation to protect their asset and help set Allen's value.
Teams may only use their franchise tag on one player at a time, and if that player signs a multi-year contract after receiving the tag, it remains associated with that player for the duration of the contract.
The Buccaneers do not currently have the franchise tag on any players. There has been speculation that the team would consider using it on free-agent-to-be receiver Antonio Bryant, but General Manager Bruce Allen said last week that the team hasn't even begun to consider such options yet while remaining confident that things would work out with Bryant.
February 26: Deadline for teams to make qualifying offers to restricted and exclusive rights free agents
Free agency is mostly the playground of unrestricted free agents, those fortunate gentlemen who have expired contracts and at least four seasons of free agency credit. However, there will be two other groups of players who become free agents on March 2, and teams can affect the manner in which they do so with the proper qualifying offers.
A player with an expiring contract becomes a restricted free agent if he has three seasons of accrued credit. He can negotiate with other teams but his original team can match any contract offer he receives or decline to match it and receive draft-pick compensation from the other team instead. A player with an expiring contract becomes an exclusive rights free agent if he has less than three seasons of accrued credit. He can only negotiate with his original team.
In each case, those players only fall into those categories if they receive a tender offer from the team by the day before free agency. If they do not receive such an offer, they become unrestricted free agents, able to sign with any team without compensation. It is common for teams to extend the qualifying offers to almost all of their impending restricted and exclusive rights free agents. It is also common for restricted free agents to accept those one-year offers as their contract for that season, putting them in position to become unrestricted free agents the following spring.
February 27: Free agency begins
The market opens at 12:01 a.m., and lights will be on in all 32 team offices at midnight on Thursday. Even teams that aren't planning to make an immediate strike will be manning the phones and listening for news. Last year, the Buccaneers had former New Orleans center Jeff Faine under contract on the first day of free agency, and then signed defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson and tight end John Gilmore on day two. All three paid big dividends for the team in 2008.
The Buccaneers head into this year's free agency period with plenty of cap space should they choose to make a move or three. The available talent pool will obviously play a big part in how proactive the team can be, but the Bucs won't hesitate to use that space if the opportunity is right.
"We are looking for a certain type of player to come in here," said General Manager Bruce Allen. "We want a good teammate who is going to be very productive on the field and a lot of those players do get franchised by teams because they are very important to the other team. If we didn't have plans for our cap room, we would not have carried it over for the last three years to make sure we have it. We have that cap room to ensure that our players are going to remain in a Buccaneer uniform. As far as what is going to be out there in free agency right now, it is too early to tell."
Also, teams can trade players beginning on this date, though that is far less common. Most player trades that do occur during the offseason happen during draft weekend or in the days just before and after the draft.
March 22-25: NFL Annual Meeting, Dana Point, California
Commonly referred to as the "owners' meeting," this annual get-together (last year it was in Palm Beach) is a breeding ground for news. Often, the league reviews its rules on votes on various tweaks to the system during that time. For instance, last year the NFL decided during its March meetings to eliminate the force-out call on sideline catches, added the defer option to coin tosses and changed its method of calling facemask penalties. The league also discussed but ultimately left unchanged its playoff seeding format.
There is a spring meeting in May, too, so not all of the big news happens in March. But there are always one or two hot-button issues that dominate the annual meeting.
April 17: Signing period ends for restricted free agents
This deadline always falls about a week before the draft, due to the possibility of draft-pick compensation if a restricted free agent switches teams. It usually passes pretty quietly, however, because by this point most of the restricted free agents have accepted the one-year tender offers that have been extended by their original teams.
If a contract offer is made to a restricted free agent by another team, that player's original team gets a week to decide whether or not to match the offer, and a week after the 17th happens to be one day before the draft.
April 25-26: NFL Draft, New York City
The Buccaneers hold the 19th pick in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, and that won't change regardless of what happens over the weekend in the playoffs.
The Arizona Cardinals finished with a 9-7 record identical to the that of the Buccaneers, which meant the two teams were linked in a five-team segment of clubs with that mark for draft purposes. However, the Buccaneers were already slotted ahead of Arizona (which at the moment would pick 21st), so the Cardinals' potential advancement wouldn't affect Tampa Bay's first-round pick.
However, if Arizona defeats Philadelphia this Sunday and moves on to the Super Bowl, that would affect Tampa Bay's draft status in a small way. If the Cardinals do not make the Super Bowl, they will remain in that 9-7 segment and the five teams will rotate between the 17th and 21st spots as the draft's rounds progress. If Arizona makes the Super Bowl, they will drop down to one of the last two slots in the draft and the 9-7 segment will only include four teams. Thus the Buccaneers would rotate up to 18th in the second round and 17th in the third round, and then drop back to 20th, not 21st, in the fourth round.
This year's draft will follow the new format that was introduced in 2008, with only the first two rounds occurring on Saturday, the 25th. Previously, the league ran through three rounds on the first day and finished up on Sunday. The first day of the draft also starts later now, at 3:00 p.m. instead of noon. The new format was made possible by the decision to shorten pick time limits in the first round from 15 minutes to 10 and in the second round from 10 minutes to seven.