Heading into the current offseason, defensive end Jacquies Smith was an incumbent starter and a pending exclusive rights free agent (ERFA), which is an uncommon combination but one that made it a virtual certainty he would remain with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2016.
READ: KEY OFFSEASON DATES
Smith will indeed be back in Tampa to start a new offseason, as will two fellow ERFAs, long-snapper Andrew DePaola and linebacker Jeremiah George. All three have received tender offers from the Buccaneers. In addition, two restricted free agents (RFAs), safety Bradley McDougald and wide receiver Russell Shepard, are also likely to return as they have also received qualifying offers from the Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers announced these bits of business on Wednesday, hours before the start of a new league year and the NFL's free agency period. For the three ERFAs, who are only free to negotiate with their existing teams, their tender offers essentially become their contracts for the upcoming season and no further action is necessary. Defensive end T.J. Fatinikun, a potential ERFA who spent all of last season on injured reserve, did not receive a tender offer and is free to sign with any team.
The Bucs had four players who could have become restricted free agents but chose not to extend offers to fullback Jorvorskie Lane and linebacker Danny Lansanah. McDougald and Shepard still have the ability to negotiate with other teams but the Buccaneers retain a right to match any outside contract agreement and are also eligible to receive draft pick compensation if they sign with other teams. At any time between now and April 22 – a week before the draft – McDougald and Shepard can sign their tender offers and play on the resulting one-year contract in 2016. This is the eventual path that almost all restricted free agents follow, and it sets them up to be unrestricted free agents a year from now.
Though all eyes will soon turn to this year's higher-profile unrestricted free agents, the list of players above is a relatively significant one for the Buccaneers. Smith and McDougald were the team's primary starters at right defensive end and free safety, respectively, last year, and should be front-runners for those jobs again in 2016. Shepard has been the team's top non-kicker on special teams the past three seasons and was a team captain in 2015. George and DePaola were also key performers in the kick-and-return phase of the game for Tampa Bay last year, and DePaola for the past two seasons.
Smith originally joined the Buccaneers as a waiver claim from Buffalo just before the start of the 2014 regular season, after previously spending time with the Dolphins, Falcons and Bills. An undrafted free agent in Miami in 2012, the University of Miami product had not seen action in a regular-season game before he got his shot in Tampa, but he surprisingly emerged as the team's best edge rusher that season. After recording 6.5 sacks and moving into a starting role at midseason of 2014, Smith contributed another 7.0 sacks in 2015 to rank second on the team, though his continued development was held back a bit by injuries that forced him to miss roughly a third of the season.
Drafted players tend to skip ERFA status because they begin their careers with four-year contracts. Players who enter the league as undrafted free agents or otherwise take a few years to get their first real opportunity to play are often operating under one or two-year deals, which can put them in position to have an expiring contract but not enough accrued seasons to qualify as restricted or unrestricted free agents. That Smith was in this situation but was also an established starter for the Buccaneers is what made him one of the club's most prominent pending ERFAs in several years.
George joined the Buccaneers in a similar fashion to Smith, coming over as a waiver claim from Jacksonville just prior to last year's season opener. He went on to play in 15 games as a core special-teamer, ranking fourth on the team with six kick-coverage tackles. Originally a fifth-round pick by the New York Jets in 2014, he played in six games for the Jaguars that fall and had three tackles on defense and three on special teams. George is a Bay area native and was a prep standout at Clearwater High School before playing his college ball at Iowa State.
UPDATE: MOCK DRAFT ROUNDUP[
](http://www.buccaneers.com/news/article-1/Buccaneers-Mock-Draft-Roundup-40/9b989b1f-b5b4-4fa6-8196-d1af1512ad03)DePaola is technically not a starter but he has been the team's long-snapper for all of the last two seasons, so the team's motivation for extending a tender offer is clear. He has played in all 32 games for the Bucs the past two seasons and handled all of the snaps for punts and placekicks without incident. The 28-year-old DePaola also has eight special teams tackles in that two-year span.
The Buccaneers claimed McDougald off waivers from Kansas City in November of 2013 and quickly saw the promise of a potential starter in the former undrafted free agent. McDougald did indeed move into the starting lineup for the final five games of 2014 and was the starter there again for all but one game last season. In 34 games for Tampa Bay, including 20 starts, he has recorded 136 tackles, three interceptions and 11 passes defensed. Last year, McDougald tied for second on the Bucs' defense with two interceptions.
Shepard also landed in Tampa as a waiver claim in 2013, though in his case it was at the beginning of the season. He became a standout on special teams almost immediately, which has kept him in the Bucs' plans for three years and allowed him to develop as a wide receiver. He has 30 kick-coverage stops over the past three seasons, the most by any Buccaneer in that span, including a team-high 10 last year. In his occasional playing time on offense, Shepard has also caught seven passes for 91 yards over the past two seasons, including his first career touchdown grab last year in the Bucs' Week 11 win at Philadelphia.
The NFL's free agency period begins on Wednesday afternoon at 4:00 p.m. ET. Players with four or more accrued seasons become unrestricted free agents who can sign with any team, provided they do not receive a franchise or transition tag. Players with three accrued seasons become restricted free agents as long as their existing team has extended a qualifying offer prior to the start of free agency. Those players can negotiate contracts with other teams but their original teams retain a right-of-first-refusal and are also eligible to receive a certain level of draft-pick compensation based on the type of qualifying offer extended.