WR Maurice Stovall is one of four rookies who will be looking to complete deals on Thursday
The first few players will probably arrive at the Celebration Hotel around noon on Thursday, ready to report for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2006 training camp. That will be jumping the gun a bit – the designated reporting period is from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. – but no one coach has ever complained about eagerness. Most veterans, of course, will swing in closer to the far end of that three-hour window.
No matter when the players arrive, it's sure to be hot. Consider that the temperature at midnight in Lake Buena Vista on Wednesday was 80, with a humidity level of 90%. This one could rival the Bucs' memorable first summer in Central Florida, 2002, when the heat was almost visibly rising from the Celebration streets. Of course, that season ended in the franchise's first Super Bowl championship, so perhaps a sweaty first day should be considered a good omen.
And things are only going to heat up from there. Reporting day will dawn with four 2006 draftees still without finalized contracts, guaranteeing a morning, afternoon and, possibly, evening of ongoing, layered negotiations. It's a bit dramatic, but it's also common, and it rarely ends badly. Last year, for instance, the Bucs signed off on six rookie contracts on the same day they reported to camp, then finished the process overnight with a deal that got first-rounder Cadillac Williams into town in time for the first practice.
"The players want to be there on time," said General Manager Bruce Allen, who is sure to be busy on Thursday. "It's just dividing up the pie so everybody's happy, because you have the rookie cap within the salary cap. I anticipate that [all the rookies will sign on time]. I know the motivation of both of our top two picks is to be here on time, so I believe that."
The players still needing deals as Wednesday ended were first-round guard Davin Joseph, second-round tackle Jeremy Trueblood, third-round wide receiver Maurice Stovall and sixth-round tight end T.J. Williams. As Allen indicated, all 10 of the draftee's deals have to combine to fit under a rookie salary cap within the overall cap, which is determined by an NFL formula that assigns specific values to each of the 355 slots in the draft. The Bucs' 2006 rookie cap is roughly $4.5 million. Since the early rounds take up bigger portions of that allotment, and thus affect all the other deals, they are the most complicated to finish.
Since both of the Bucs' first two picks are offensive linemen, it's Bill Muir's crew that will be most affected by Thursday's contract work. The offensive line will be the focus of intense scrutiny – and heated competition – over the next three weeks, and the longer that competition is fully-joined, the better. Last year's camp was most memorable for the plague of O-line injuries that taxed that crew and made it hard for the coaches to hold a full practice. This year, the Bucs are looking forward to measuring a deep group of talented linemen against each other.
"It's been a great competition so far this offseason," said Allen. "Both of [the rookies] fit perfectly into the locker room and we're happy we have them. We're going to have two solid lines of great competition. All of you who saw camp last year, it was hard to have one line, whether it was competition or not. If you could walk, you were starting last year. [The competition] will be healthy this year."
Allen said Joseph and Trueblood are motivated to be in camp from Day One. The stiff competition, and the belief that every job on the line is truly attainable, is surely the reason for that shared motivation. Still, Allen doesn't believe that either or both of the rookies have to earn opening-day starting jobs in order to make their additions to the team a success.
"No, I don't judge it based on that," said Allen. "We judge the team. I think they're going to fit into this team. They're going to make us better and they're going to be here for a long time and they're going to learn our football. We're going to judge our success based on what we do on the scoreboard."
The scoreboard, the action on the field, is ultimately what it's all about. Hopefully, by the time reporting day is through, Tampa Bay's training camp will be about sweating on the grass, not in the negotiating room. Still, Allen knows that today's NFL fans reserve a good portion of their interest in football for the business side of the game, so Thursday may prove exciting on several levels.
"See, the salary cap is important to fans because many of the fantasy leagues are built on real cap numbers," he said. "It's evolved into a whole new game within fantasy football, and I love it. It keeps people involved in our game, it keeps people watching our game and rooting for our game."