A free agent who could sign with any team, Jerry Wunsch has started the last 33 Buc games (including playoffs) at right tackle
It's unusual, when you think about it, how the Bucs dove into free agency this year. For weeks leading up to the kickoff date of March 2, the vast majority of discussions centered around the team's own free-agents-to-be. Would the team be able to retain starters Ronde Barber, Frank Middleton, Damien Robinson and Jerry Wunsch? If not all of them, how many? Which ones would top the list?
Otherwise, the Bucs openly referred to themselves as 'secondary' players on the remainder of the market.
However, nearly a week into free agency, the team hasn't re-signed any of those four but has added a high-profile, high-dollar quarterback in Brad Johnson, perhaps the most significant free agency move in the NFL so far this spring. Obviously, no one's complaining about that.
And Jerry Wunsch understands.
Wunsch understands because he has a good grasp on the NFL's free agent market, and how it is fundamentally different this year than it has been each spring since the current collective bargaining agreement went into effect in 1993.
"Right now, teams aren't overly excited," said Wunsch on Wednesday, the sixth day of his sail into open waters. "It's an interesting year, whereas last year everybody was jumping right out of the gate and picking guys up. This could be something that you see for a couple of years, too, because teams have gone over the cap. For the next two to three years you could possibly see the same kind of scenario playing out, as far as free agents go."
Wunsch spoke to Buccaneers.com on Wednesday regarding his experiences with the open market after four consistently improving seasons in Tampa Bay. Perhaps he will have many more seasons with the Buccaneers, perhaps not – that topic is not up for discussion here. The stalwart offensive tackle is determined not to negotiate his new deal through the media and is thus not making himself available to the press during this whole process.
Likewise, the Buccaneers continue to adhere to a policy of not discussing free agent negotiations or stances.
But Wunsch is still smack dab in the middle of what could be, in a sense, the most stressful part of NFL life and is thus a good witness to the system. He was one of 292 players, league-wide, to become fair game for all 31 teams when the clock struck midnight last Thursday. He is a young, talented player at what many consider a premier position, and he is coming off two years as a starter on one of the league's most successful teams. He is not certain in what city he and his family will be living in come summer.
If Wunsch is stressed by the process, it's not apparent. He's taking a relaxed, wait-and-see approach that is basically dictated by the laws of supply and demand.
On a day to day basis, what free agency means to this former second-round draft pick out of Wisconsin is "right now, a lot of nothing."
Wunsch and his agent have yet to set up any specific team visits, by design.
"Basically, the way the market is at the moment, with so many teams over the cap, there's not a lot movement right now," he said. "They're waiting for the market to soften. There are a lot of guys out there, a lot of guys getting released because of cap issues. So it's not a typical year this year.
"There's a lot of opportunity out there, but guys are still hitting the market right now. I think, because of that, a lot of teams are waiting to see what all transpires in the next couple of weeks before they start signing guys.
"So we're sitting back right now, waiting to see how this whole market works through. We're not going to start making visits until we feel it's necessary. We're going to wait things out for a little bit and take our time, see what happens. We're going to let things come to us. Right now, you may have noticed, no offensive linemen are really moving. Most of the activity has been with quarterbacks, and there are very few of them this year. All the (offensive line) guys are basically sitting tight right now."
For their parts, the Bucs have also never been a team to panic when the gates opened on free agency, though they have now made an early splash two years in a row. Last February, the Bucs jumped on Pro Bowl center Jeff Christy almost immediately.
Christy was a strong linemate for Wunsch, and now Johnson could be a valuable bit of property for both of them to protect. There is obviously quite a bit of talent up and down the Bucs' roster, and moves such as the Johnson signing give further indication that the franchise is dedicated to winning. Again, without commenting on negotiations in any way, Wunsch does concede that the franchise's obvious commitment to success plays a part in the thought process.
"That is going to be something that is factored into the final decision, no doubt about it," he said. "You want to play for a team that, one, you're comfortable with and that, two, is a winner. It's a lot easier going to work every day when you're winning. That is going to be an issue.
"But, with that said, I also have to think about the future of my family and what it's going to take for us to get what we need out of this and go from there. Of course, with the way that the Bucs brought me along and did certain things, took a chance on me, I'm going to be a little more lenient to them than I would to another team. But there becomes a point where, if it's not the right numbers or things don't work right, then I'm going to have no choice. But if it's within the ballpark then, yeah … with the way things are going for the Bucs, it would be a great opportunity for me, an opportunity to be on a good ballclub with a lot of good football players."
As clearly as Wunsch sees the free agency landscape stretched out before him, he has no desire to be the lead pioneer. His trio of passions appears to be football, his family and charitable endeavors with pediatric patients – not, he stated in no uncertain terms, salary negotiation.
"I let my agent handle it," said Wunsch. "I don't want to get involved in it. From what I understand and what I'm seeing, it's a very interesting process, but I don't want anything to do with it. I'm putting it very politely. I really don't anything to do with it; I just want to play football. I'll let my agent take care of the dirty work, so to speak."
For Wunsch, then, the main chore is waiting, which may not be as relaxing as it sounds. What happens in the next few fortnights is going to go a long way towards determining his future in the game, so maybe it's best if the process is not rushed.
"We'll just sit back and take it real easy, try to relax as much as possible," he said. "Hopefully, some time within the next three or four weeks, or a couple of months, we'll know where we're going to play ball."