The NFL's 2015 season came to an end on Sunday with Denver's win over Carolina in Super Bowl 50. The very next day, the waiver system began for the upcoming campaign.
The Broncos will surely spend a few weeks celebrating their championship, but the rest of the league has now turned the page to 2016. Player contracts that end in 2015 will expire on March 9, bringing on the free agency period; between now and then, teams will contemplate what they wish to do with their own pending free agents.
RB Doug Martin led the NFL in rushes over 20 yards. Check out his 20+ yard gains in ascending order.
Let's take a look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers whose contracts are expiring. They will fall into three groups: unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents and exclusive rights free agents. The first group consists of players with at least four accrued seasons, and they are free to sign with any team. The second group consists of players with three accrued seasons, and they general receive qualifying offers that give their existing teams the right to match any outside deals. The third group consists of players with less than three accrued seasons, all of whom can only re-sign with their existing teams provided they receive a qualifying offer.
The Buccaneers have 10 players who will become unrestricted free agents on March 9 if they do not receive a new deal before then:
- DT Da'Quan Bowers – Re-signed with the team in December to provide D-Line depth and played about 13 snaps per game over the final three weeks.
- S Chris Conte – Started 13 of 14 games before ending season on injured reserve and was reasonably productive with 78 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
- DE Larry English – Former first-round pick in San Diego who spent all of last year on the Bucs' injured reserve list.
- CB Mike Jenkins – Started early in the year but was mostly a reserve after midseason.
- RB Doug Martin – Had tremendous bounce-back season, ranking second in the NFL with 1,402 rushing yards and averaging a robust 4.9 yards per carry.
- DT Tony McDaniel – Signed in August after release by Seattle and saw most of his playing time in December.
- DE Henry Melton – Provided valuable D-Line depth throughout the season, contributing 30 tackles, two sacks and 12 quarterback hits, second on the team to Gerald McCoy.
- CB Sterling Moore – Stepped into the starting lineup at midseason and was generally the team's most effective cornerback in a season of upheaval at the position.
- RB Bobby Rainey– Not needed much on offense with Martin and Charles Sims providing so much production, but was the team's primary kickoff and punt returner.
- S Keith Tandy – Mostly a special teamer over his four seasons in Tampa but has played well on defense in limited opportunities.
The name that jumps out from that list is Martin, who was one of the NFL's best running backs in 2015 after two seasons that were marred by injuries. The fourth-year back recovered his rookie form, or perhaps an even better version of it, and was a constant source of big plays. Dirk Koetter, then the offensive coordinator and now the head coach, took a liking to Martin early in the offseason and made him a centerpiece of his offense. If the Bucs are prioritizing their potential UFAs, Martin would seem to be at the top of the list.
Moore came from Dallas to Tampa on a one-year deal but may have shown enough in the second half of the season for the team to warrant trying to get a second contract done. The same could be said of Melton. Most of the rest of the list is potential defensive depth, and it's a bit early to guess which of those players remains a good fit in the new defense being installed by Mike Smith.
Tampa Bay has four players who will become restricted free agents on March 9 if the team submits the necessary tender offer prior to that date:
- FB Jorvorskie Lane – Generally played between 10 and 20 snaps a game as a lead blocker but ended the season with a serious leg injury.
- LB Danny Lansanah – Won the starting strongside linebacker job in 2015 after playing all three LB positions the year before and recorded 47 tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack and four passes defensed.
- S Bradley McDougald – Played more snaps (887) than any other defensive back for the Buccaneers in 2015 and had 88 tackles and two interceptions.
- WR Russell Shepard – Continued to shine on special teams, serving as a team captain, and also got an occasional look on offense.
Check out some of the best photos shot by the photographers of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the 2015 season.
That list includes two defensive starters and a special teams captain, so those tender offers from the Buccaneers should be expected. Lansanah and McDougald may need to prove themselves as starters again in a new defense, but one would expect them to get the chance. Most of Shepard's value is on special teams, but that has been enough to keep him on the team over other receiver candidates for each of the last three seasons. Obviously, the first issue for Lane is his recovery from his Week 17 broken leg.
Another four Buccaneers will be exclusive rights free agents if they receive the necessary tender offer before March 9:
- LS Andrew DePaola – Handled all of the team's long-snapping duties for the second straight season without incident.
- DE T.J. Fatinikun – Like English, a pass-rusher with some promise who spent the season on injured reserve.
- LB Jeremiah George – Came aboard as a waiver-wire pickup at the beginning of the season and played well on special teams.
- DE Jacquies Smith – Injuries limited him to 11 starts but he still finished second on the team with 7.0 sacks while also forcing and recovering three fumbles.
It's not terribly common to find an established starter on the list of ERFAs because that generally means they came in as undrafted free agents but quickly emerged as a significant contributor. The Bucs got Smith, a former undrafted free agent, off waivers from Buffalo before the 2014 season and he had a surprising breakout season with 6.5 sacks. Smith was the team's starting right end when healthy in 2015 and he obviously has additional pass-rush potential the Buccaneers will want to keep around.
DePaola has done a fine job handling the long-snapping duties for the Bucs the past two years, so it is likely that he'll get a tender offer and be the front-runner, at least, to hold that job again in 2016. One would expect Fatinikun and George also to get another shot at making the roster this season.