Director of College Scouting Tim Ruskell (left) may be privy to the Rich McKay's plan for free agency, but most of us will have to see how it plays out
When it comes to roster shaping – be it through free agency, the draft or re-signings - NFL teams generally hold their cards close to the vest. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and General Manager Rich McKay, are no exception.
Despite a solid hour spent with the print press on Friday and another 40 minutes of banter with the electronic media, McKay avoided completely revealing his hand, understandably. That doesn't mean there was nothing to learn from this free agency primer, however.
What is clear – and what McKay readily admitted – is that the Buccaneers are indeed comfortably beneath the NFL's 2001 salary cap at this moment. McKay also said this much in plain speak: the Bucs do have a plan to address free agency.
Unless you are McKay himself, or one of his inner circle with the Bucs, you're not likely to know the full details of that plan until it has been carried out. However, there were some salient points shared on Friday that certainly allow a glimpse at the Bucs' free agency road map. Such as:
· It is extremely unlikely that the Buccaneers will be able to re-sign all four of the starters who became unrestricted free agents (UFAs) on Friday – Ronde Barber, Frank Middleton, Damien Robinson and Jerry Wunsch;
· New contract conversations have begun with Wunsch and will continue;
· Just as with Hardy Nickerson last year, the Bucs appear to be in a position to lose at least one player who, in a perfect world, they would prefer to keep … McKay gave no indication of who that might be;
· The Bucs are not likely to address the offensive line with a big-name free agent, other than their own players;
· McKay does not expect any significant developments for the Buccaneers in the opening days of free agency.
In effect, it is a typical year for the Buccaneers in free agency, a spring in which Tampa Bay is not expected to be a major player on the open market. In fact, the Bucs generally prefer to build through the draft and develop and re-sign their own players, meaning last year's binge on Jeff Christy, Randall McDaniel and (through a trade-and-sign) Keyshawn Johnson was more of an aberration than the beginning of a trend.
"We're a team that is perceived to have a lot of room (under the salary cap)," said McKay. "We do have some room. But we have some plans for that room, so we're not a team that sits there with this idea that we have an empty bucket and we need to figure out what to fill it with. We have a pretty good idea of what we want to fill it with."
The Bucs actually began filling the bucket early last fall when they locked up potential free agents S John Lynch and DE Marcus Jones to lucrative extensions. As usual, the team wishes to turn to its own standout players first in free agency, even if a return of all of the new shoppers is impossible.
"We have talked to a number of our guys over the past couple of weeks, with the understanding typically being that these deals do not happen on the eve of free agency, because it's just really hard to decide on what market value is without entering the marketplace," said McKay. "All of the guys that we have that are UFAs are on the market today."
On one hand, McKay predicts that this year's free agent spending will start slowly, with only a few big name signings in the first few days followed quickly by a tapering off of activity. On the other hand, he also admits that this year's market is vastly different than the first seven years under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, due to the large number of high-profile cuts in the last few days. Some of the salary cap maneuverings of recent years around the league are now resulting in teams well over the limit, teams forced into releasing players they would prefer to keep.
"I've never quite experienced anything like the last three days since we've been in this system, where you've seen so many good players let go," said McKay. "I know this: there are a lot of UFAs this year, based on what's happened over the last couple of days, and the UFAs that were going to come out of contract anyhow. And there are clearly less teams with money available to sign those UFAs. That is a fact of life. Now, what is the reaction to that? I don't know, we'll wait and see.
"The fact that a team has room today or does not have room today does not mean that team can or cannot sign a player. Don't get caught up in that. The team that's at the cap can still sign a player in about 15 seconds. All they have to do is let another player go or restructure a deal, and then sign that player. When you read that Team X has no salary cap room, that does not mean Team X is not going to sign a player. They very well may. It just means that when they do, they're going to have to do some swapping or some salary-cap maneuvering."
Thanks to very specific planning over the first seven years of free agency, the Bucs have not been caught up in the league-wide purge of recent days. However they do face the same issue as the other 30 teams when it comes to re-signing their own players, even if there are opponents with much longer lists. The uncomfortable prospect of losing key players exists in virtually every NFL corner.
"When you look at free agency, and you look at re-signing your own guys, it's a pretty good idea," said McKay. "When you start from the (assumption) that there is no salary cap, would everybody like to re-sign their own guys? Yes. They wouldn't have been on the team for as long as they've been on it and played as much as they played if you didn't have an interest.
"Now, when you enter the salary cap into it, there are a lot of factors that go into who can be re-signed and who can't be re-signed and why. Part of that is the value of the player to your team, the value of the position to your team, the ability to replace that player on your team and the salary structure of your team. Those factors, and probably even a couple more, all enter into it. In our case, they've entered into it on a couple of our guys that just will not fit into our plans going forward, based on what we think their contract will end up looking like."
Obviously, McKay is not going to do the team any good by divulging which players have been prioritized in negotiations and how those negotiations are progressing. Still, he was asked about a couple of players on the list and shared what information he could. Tops on everyone's list of questions was Jerry Wunsch, who has started the last two seasons at right tackle.
"I'm not a player-specific guy (in discussions with the media)," prefaced McKay. "I really leave that to the agents. Suffice it to say, we did have some conversations. I have talked to his agent and will continue to do that. But the phrases like, 'We're close' and 'We're making progress,' don't mean much. What means much is when you do reach agreement, which we have not."
Next on the list was, of course, Ronde Barber, the team's starting right cornerback and one of the most impactful players on the Bucs' defense last year.
"He's a very important player on our football team," said McKay. "I'm not going to comment on negotiations, but be assured that we do have an interest and we are pursuing it. It becomes a matter of what is his value to us in our system, in our scheme, with our players versus what it may be to somebody else. It may be more to somebody else. He wanted the right to explore that, and he earned the right.
"You're natural assumption is to say, 'A player has played very, very well for you. Why don't you just pay him whatever it takes.' It's just too hard. There are teams that have done that, and quite frankly, they're going to look like those teams have looked in the last 48-72 hours. It's going to be quite ugly. We're not going to do that."
There are, of course, difficult decisions like these each year at the advent of free agency. McKay and the Buccaneers have managed to minimize those through the years by locking their core players up to extensions before free agency became an issue, such as with Lynch and Jones, and Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Donnie Abraham, Mike Alstott and many more before them. All of it has been done in the spirit of salary cap sanity.
With that in mind, expect the Bucs to make the right decisions in the coming months in order to keep Tampa Bay in prime Super Bowl contention. Just don't expect them to go crazy.