It has been said that there is no offseason in the NFL anymore. The first three weeks of July come the closest, however.
All NFL teams have finished up their nine-week offseason workout programs at this point. Most of those clubs will also start training camp at some point during the week of July 22-26. And just about all of the coaches and players in the league will use some portion of the time in between to get one last dose of rest and relaxation.
Free agency? Well, that's technically still ongoing, but most players of note have already found their homes for 2013. Rookie contracts? The collective bargaining agreement passed in 2011 simplified the salary structure for draft picks, so these days there are far fewer deals that still need to be done in July than in years past. Rehab? Some recovering players are still reporting to their respective team facilities for help, but it's a small percentage of the work force, and that is mostly quiet, behind-the-scenes activity anyway.
In other words, by the frenzied standards of the NFL news cycle, there won't be much going on in the next three weeks. But that calm won't last long. Here are the dates to keep an eye on between now and that time we're all eagerly awaiting – Week One of the regular season.
July 15 – Franchise Player New Contract Deadline
Actually, this date might be the source of some news in the coming weeks…or at least reports on the lack of news. Only eight players around the league received franchise tags this year, down significantly from 21 in 2012, but none of those eight has yet to sign a long-term deal.
They don't have to, of course. Most of those eight players went ahead and signed the (very large) one-year tender offers that came with their franchise tags and they can play the 2013 season on those one-year deals. However, most teams view the franchise tag as the beginning of a negotiation process leading to a longer-term extension. That process has not been completed in any of the eight cities with franchise players, and time is beginning to run out.
The precise deadline is 4:00 p.m. ET on Monday, July 15. If a team and its designated franchise player can't get a long-term deal worked out by then, the player can only sign a one-year deal. No extension to that deal can be made until the 2013 regular season is over. At that point, the franchise player would be only a few months away from the option to test free agency again – or having the franchise tag put on him again, where possible.
So you're likely to be hearing some news in the coming weeks about the state of negotiations between Buffalo and safety Jairus Byrd; Chicago and defensive tackle Henry Melton; Cincinnati and defensive end Michael Johnson; Dallas and linebacker Anthony Spencer; Denver and tackle Ryan Clady; Indianapolis and punter Pat McAfee; Kansas City and tackle Branden Albert; and Miami and defensive tackle Randy Starks.
That July 15 deadline does – or perhaps should – serve as a spur to action for the players. Since the only option after the deadline is the one-year deal, there won't be any real leverage to be gained after the fact from holding out in training camp. A player could make a statement in that manner, but he couldn't get the deal he wanted until after the regular season.
Mid-to-Late July – Training Camps Open
There is no single specific date upon which all teams can start camp, but there is a formula that can help you find the approximate date each squad will gather. The formula is this: Teams cannot bring their rookies in for training camp any earlier than 22 days before their first preseason game, and they can't bring their veterans in any earlier than 15 days before that camp. Since every team in the league will open its preseason between August 4 (the Hall of Fame Game) and August 11, you can expect the reporting dates for veterans to be scattered between July 20-27. Some teams will also choose the option of bringing in their rookies a week earlier.
July 22 – End of Unrestricted Free Agency
The free agency period usually goes out with a whimper, especially compared with the bang that accompanies its first hours in March. The biggest deals happen during the first few days of the open market, but important signings continue throughout March and April leading up to the draft. Usually only a few deals of note take place after the draft, such as the recent signing of running back Ahmad Bradshaw by the Colts.
There are a few names of note still available, however, from defensive end John Abraham to guard Brandon Moore. A couple additional players have joined the market in recent weeks after being released by their former teams, including fullback Vonta Leach and running back Willis McGahee.
These players would like to find a suitor by July 22. Otherwise, their rights revert to their previous clubs – e.g. Atlanta for Abraham – if "June 1 tenders" were made by those clubs. If a free agent hasn't signed by June 1, his original club can submit a one-year tender offer at 110% of what he made the year before. If that player is still unsigned on July 22, then the original club gets exclusive negotiating rights with him until 10 weeks into the regular season.
August 3-4 – Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony and Hall of Fame Game
The first of those two dates means something to Buccaneer fans for the first time since 1995, when defensive end Lee Roy Selmon became the first Tampa Bay player inducted into the Hall. This summer, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, part of the Class of 2013, will get his yellow jacket and his bronze bust and join Selmon in that Canton institution.
The Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys will play the first live football of the new season the next day, kicking off the 2013 preseason.
August 8-11 – 2013 Preseason Begins for 30 of the 32 teams
After Miami and Dallas get the action started on August 4, the rest of the league will follow suit in what is technically called the "first" preseason weekend. The Buccaneers and Ravens will actually be the next two teams on the field. There are six games scheduled for Thursday, August 8 and the Bucs-Ravens tilt at Raymond James Stadium starts earliest, at 7:30 p.m. ET.
The Ravens, coming off their victory in Super Bowl XLVII, will take their first live snaps of 2013 in Tampa, marking the first time the Buccaneers have ever opened their preseason against the defending champs.
August 27 – Rosters Cut to 75 Players
This first mandated roster reduction occurs between the third and fourth preseason games and requires the elimination of roughly 17% of the squad that was taken to training camp. Cuts must be made by 4:00 p.m. ET on that Tuesday, which for the Buccaneers comes just two days before their preseason finale against Washington.
This is a somewhat deeper cut than it used to be, when teams would take 80 players to camp, plus a few extra as determined by whatever NFL Europe exemptions they had. Still, it is generally the least dramatic and most predictable of the two rounds of cuts, largely made up of younger and less experienced players.
August 31 – Rosters Cut to 53 Players
Two days after the final preseason game, and eight days before the Bucs will open their regular season against the Jets, the 53-man roster must be "finalized." We put that last word in quote marks because the roster is never really final, and there are almost always a few tweaks in the days that follow that big cutdown. Last year, for instance, Tampa Bay claimed four players off waivers the day after the final cuts (RB D.J. Ware, DT Corvey Irvin and OL Cody Wallace and Julian Vandervelde) and released three players to make room (DE Wallace Gilberry, G Bradley Sowell and CB Brandon McDonald). Ware, Irvin and Wallace all remained with the team the entire season, and McDonald later returned.
It's not surprising to see teams work the edges of their roster on the day after the big cut, because there are suddenly close to 700 new players on the waiver wire. Invariably, some of those are veterans who, while no longer good fits with their previous teams, can be of help to another. Ware was a good example of this for the Giants and the Buccaneers last year. This is also an opportunity for a team to acquire a young player or two that it had coveted a few months earlier during the draft and the rookie free agent signings that followed. General Manager Mark Dominik fittingly calls this time of the year the "Second Draft," using it in the past to acquire such useful players as LeGarrette Blount and Ted Larsen.
September 1 – Practice Squads Can Be Formed
Many of those 700 players who are suddenly jobless don't have to wait long to find homes. Even if they are not claimed off waivers to another team's 53-man roster, they often find homes in the next day or so as all 32 teams form the first iterations of their eight-man practice squads.
This crew is even more fluid than the main roster during the regular season, with near-weekly changes caused by injuries, promotions, changing needs on the depth chart and the occasional availability of other players the team had been tracking. Still, that first group of practice squad players often produces several players who either get subsequent promotions to the active roster or at least remain with the team the entire season. Last year's first practice squad set included two players in each category – LB Jacob Cutrera and DE Markus White in the former and TE Drake Dunsmore and QB Adam Webber in the latter.
September 1 is a Sunday. By the next day, those eight players will be on the practice field with the rest of their Buccaneer teammates, preparing for the opener in New York. That's when the real fun begins, but there are still plenty of important and interesting tasks to be accomplished between now and then.