The Bucs signed C Jeff Christy just a few days into last season's free agency period
During the course of the recently-concluded 2000 season, 53 different players saw action in at least one game for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Thirteen of those players, or 24.5% of the total, had never played in a single game for the Bucs before.
The most obvious additions were, of course, starters Keyshawn Johnson, Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel. But Tampa Bay's roster, like that of every NFL team, goes through this annual flux, keeping the squad fresh each year with a new infusion of talent.
That process is just now beginning for the Buccaneers, who will spend the coming weeks in deep self-evaluation, preparing for the period of player movement about to begin. Let's take a quick refresher course of our own on how and when that roster re-shaping is going to take place.
The first thing to happen to the Buccaneers, roster-wise, after the season ended on Sunday, was the re-classification of the team's five practice squad members. All five – DT Chartric Darby, CB Anthony Midget, WR Yo Murphy, DE Mawuko Tugbenyoh and QB Ted White – became free agents as soon as the Bucs' season ended.
However, Tampa Bay has an exclusive period of seven days during which it is the only franchise that can sign these players to its 2001 roster. Last year, the Bucs did just that with three of the four players on its practice squad at the end of the season, re-signing C Eric DeGroh, WR Drew O'Connor and RB Aaron Stecker. Stecker went on to make the team in 2000 and lead the Bucs in kickoff return yardage.
Also, beginning immediately, the Bucs may begin signing what are known as 'futures' contracts, adding players to the roster who were not with any team when the 2000 season ended. An example of this type of player from last January would be CB Deshone Mallard. Mallard, who had been in the Eagles' training camp in August of '99 but had not made any NFL active roster, was signed and then sent on to NFL Europe, where he received valuable playing experience. Mallard then performed well in the Bucs' 2000 training camp, though he was waived before the regular season.
All the teams that did not make the playoffs have already had seven days to re-sign their practice squad players; any ones that were not re-signed can also be signed to 'futures' contracts. As reported on Buccaneers.com on Wednesday, Tampa Bay has already signed five players to futures contracts: WR Eddie Hardaway, G Kendell Mack, TE Randy Palmer, DB Terrance Parrish and DT Matt Sweeney.
On February 22, the NFL's waiver system begins for 2001, meaning some additional players could become available to be claimed if they are released by their current teams. Any players that are waived at this time remain in a 'claiming' period until the 2001 season officially begins on March 2.
The Bucs and other NFL teams may also use this current period to make decisions on Franchise and Transition Player tags. With these labels – and there are several distinct levels within those two categories – teams can give themselves exclusive negotiating rights with players, put themselves in a position to match contract offers from other teams and/or set themselves up for possible compensation after the loss of a player.
NFL teams must make these decisions by 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time on March 1, because player contracts that were set to end in 2000 expire that afternoon, and the free agency period begins on the next day. Those players whose contracts have run out and who have not re-signed become either exclusive rights, restricted or unrestricted free agents, depending on their years of experience. This day, March 2, also opens up the trade market, though that is an option used rather infrequently in the NFL.
Exclusive rights free agents are players out of contract who have less than three years of NFL experience. Because they can re-sign only with the team for which they just played (assuming the appropriate tender offer has been made), there is usually no terrible hurry to get these contracts done. For instance, S Shevin Smith, who accrued two NFL seasons with the Buccaneers, wasn't re-upped last year until July 10.
Restricted free agents are players with three years of NFL experience whose contracts have expired. They are free to negotiate with other teams but their original team may match whatever offers are received. Depending on the player's original draft status and the tender offer that has been extended, his original team will be compensated with draft choice(s) if the player is lost to another team. Last year, the Bucs eventually re-signed most of their restricted free agents to one-year contracts, including G Frank Middleton, CB Ronde Barber, S Damien Robinson and CB Floyd Young.
Unrestricted free agents are players with four or more years of NFL experience whose contracts are up. They can negotiate and sign with any team without compensation to their former squad. Last year, the Bucs re-signed several of its own free agents, including P Mark Royals, TE Dave Moore and T Jason Odom, after the free agency period had begun. Often, a team will attempt to re-sign its own unrestricted free agents-to-be before the mid-February opening date.
There is often quite a bit of high-profile free agent action on and around that opening day, however, as teams on the market look to make an immediate splash and lock up their most coveted targets. Last year, Tampa Bay signed unrestricted free agent C Jeff Christy on February 15, just four days after the free agency period began on February 11.
After that initial feeding frenzy, most teams will switch focus to the league scouting Combine, which is held every year in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. It begins on February 22nd this year and, as usual, will attract most of the draft-eligible college players who are considered good bets to be selected. By consolidating all the teams and all of the player hopefuls at one site, the league can accomplish the necessary timing and testing without having to schedule constant individual workouts all spring.
The combine will run through February 26th, after which some players still hold individual sessions over the coming months. All of this is in preparation for the 2001 Draft, which will be held on April 21 and 22 in New York, NY, as usual. Last year, the Buccaneers traded two first-round draft choices to the New York Jets to acquire WR Keyshawn Johnson, then used their second-round pick to nab G Cosey Coleman of Tennessee. As usual, the Bucs draft efforts drew strong reviews.
Immediately after the draft, NFL teams work the phones to contact interesting players who were not selected. Generally, this avenue results in five to 15 additional players for the roster; last year, TE Todd Yoder was acquired in this manner. Yoder went on to make the Bucs' active roster and appear in nine games, playing mostly on special teams.
This also begins the period in which teams attempt to sign their new draftees to contracts, preferably before training camp opens in July. Last year, as usual, the Bucs got all of their draft picks into camp on time with new contracts, though Coleman didn't sign until July 23.
Most restricted and unrestricted free agents come to terms with one team or another before mid-July, when the signing period ends, roughly five months after it all began. Depending on need and roster space, teams often add one or two additional free agents between the draft and training camp, either another undrafted rookie or an attractive veteran that has been released by his former team due to salary cap reasons. The Bucs, for instance, inked WR Andre Hastings on August 3, shortly after releasing second-year wideout Darnell McDonald.
Then it's time to forget the free agency period and get down to some football. The 2001 preseason may seem like a blip on the horizon right now, but with the growing activity of the NFL 'offseason', it will roll around before you know it.