The Bucs acquired TE Kellen Winslow on the first day of free agency last year, albeit through trade rather than a signing
The calendar flipped to 2010 more than a month ago, but there is still one small matter to take care of before the NFL's 2009 season is complete.
With the Pro Bowl falling a week before the Super Bowl this year, the big game this Sunday will be the last bit of organized football for about six months (cue the gnashing of teeth by young men across the country). Of course, the end of this year's Super Bowl will only mean that 32 teams once again have a shot at the next title at stake, which means 32 teams will be hard at work on their 2010 preparations before the last bit of confetti is hoovered off the Sun Life Stadium field.
Actually, that preparation began weeks ago. Already, the Senior Bowl has drawn scouts and coaches from every team in the league to Mobile, Alabama, and reserve/future contracts have allowed clubs to begin inflating their 2010 rosters towards the 80-man limit.
The Buccaneers know they have to have their free agency preparations done by the end of this 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 2010 calendar.
February 24- March 2: The Scouting Combine in Indianapolis gives approximately 300 young NFL hopefuls an opportunity to display their talents to the entire league
If January's Senior Bowl was 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 11: First day clubs can designate franchise and transition players, AND...
February 25: 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 Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals both used their franchise tags in 2009 to hold on to kickers, Atlanta freezing punter Michael Koenen and the
Bengals tagging kicker Shayne Graham.
In all, 14 teams employed the franchise or transition tags last February, including the New England Patriots, who tagged quarterback Matt Cassel before eventually trading him to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Buccaneers got into the act last year for the first time in many seasons, putting the franchise tag on wide receiver Antonio Bryant.
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.
There will be one substantive change to the system this year, however, if a new CBA is not in place before the 2010 league year begins. In the "final season" of the current CBA, teams are allowed to designate one additional transition player. A transition player must be offered a minimum of the average of the top 10 salaries of the prior season at the player's position or 120 percent of the player's prior year's salary, whichever is greater. A transition player designation gives the club a first-refusal right to match within seven days an offer sheet given to the player by another club after his contract expires. If the club matches, it retains the player. If it does not match, it receives no draft pick compensation from that club.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that, barring a new CBA, players now need to accrue six years of service rather than four in order to become an unrestricted free agent. Thus, some players who might be obvious targets for franchise or transition tags could potentially not need them.
March 5: Free agency begins
The market opens at 12:01 a.m. that Friday, 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. The Buccaneers didn't dip into the free agency pool on the first day of the open market last year, but they did land tight end Kellen Winslow in a trade on that day. Four days later, Tampa Bay signed unrestricted free agent running back Derrick Ward.
How aggressive will the Buccaneers be on the open market this year? For once, the state of the salary cap is irrelevant, as is the case for all the teams, assuming no new CBA. On the other hand, the new rules on unrestricted free agency could thin the available pool of talent.
Also, as the Bucs and Cleveland Browns demonstrated with the Winslow deal in 2009, teams can trade players beginning on this date. Despite last year's activity, trades at the beginning of free agency are not terribly 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 15: First day clubs may conduct offseason workouts
This is the end of the NFL's very brief vacation period for most players. While almost all offseason work is voluntary for NFL players, the vast majority choose to take part in most of their teams' spring and summer efforts in order to prepare themselves fully for the upcoming season.
Each year, the Buccaneers begin an official 16-week offseason training program in March. Again, it is a voluntary program, excluding a pair of mandatory mini-camps, but it is very heavily attended. Players begin with mostly conditioning and weight-room sessions, as well as mental work on the playbook with their coaches, and eventually move into more organized practices. After the draft, the Buccaneers will hold a succession of 16 "organized team activity" days (OTAs), which closely approximate an in-season practice but have some specific rules limiting contact and the sort of work that can be done.
As always, the program will end in June with the only mandatory, full-team mini-camp before training camp begins about six weeks later.
March 21-24: NFL Annual Meeting, Orlando, Florida
Commonly referred to as the "owners' meeting," this annual get-together (last year it was in Dana Point, California) 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 tweaked its instant replay procedure so that plays that may or may not have been fumbles could in some cases be reversed through a review. Officials were given the opportunity to reward the ball to the recovering team if replay clearly showed that the ball was fumbled and recovered by a player on the opposing team.
The league also outlawed the "wedge" on kickoff returns, changed the way playoff advancement affects draft-order seeding and further cracked down on blindside blocks.
This year, of course, the state of labor negotiations will probably take center stage at the owners' meetings.
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 14: 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 14th happens to be one day before the draft.
April 22-24: NFL Draft, New York City
This year's draft will be quite a bit different than in recent years, for several reasons.
For the Buccaneers, specifically, the added interest is in the team's high draft position. The Bucs are slated to pick third, which (barring a trade) would mark the highest the team has picked since it took quarterback Vinny Testaverde first overall in 1987. Tampa Bay is not likely to be in the market for another QB after taking Josh Freeman in the first round last year, but it is certainly in position to add an impact player.
The Bucs have 10 picks overall to spend in this year's draft, though the final number of draftees often changes through trades that reposition picks. Tampa Bay has three picks in the first two rounds, also picking 35th overall (third in the second round) and either 42nd or 44th. That second pick in the second round was acquired in the Gaines Adams trade with Chicago and its final position will be determined by a coin flip at the Scouting Combine.
The draft also will have a new format that affects all 32 teams. Rather than holding all seven rounds during the weekend, the 2010 draft will begin on prime time on Thursday night, April 22. Only the first round will be run that evening, with the second and third rounds conducted on Friday night. The remaining four rounds will take place on Saturday, beginning at 10:00 a.m.
As usual, the draft will get wall-to-wall live coverage from both ESPN and the NFL Network.