Bucs must offer signing bonuses to compete for top-dollar free agents
When the NFL’s free-agent signing period begins Tuesday afternoon, the Bucs will be one of the teams to watch. They have repeatedly stated their intentions to be active in recruiting free agents and have the salary-cap space to do it, too.
But there is a sizable obstacle the Bucs will have to overcome to be competitive with the most attractive free agents, and we’re not just talking about the team’s 4-12 record in 2011.
The Bucs have made a habit of offering little or no signing bonuses in most of the recent contracts they’ve written, and when it comes to landing players like Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson or Saints guard Carl Nicks, that won’t cut it.
Why have the Bucs done this? More on that later, but there is no disputing it has been their preference to offer contracts with larger annual (and often guaranteed) salaries, escalators and other mechanisms that are profitable for players, but don’t offer the kind of up-front money it often takes to land the big fish.
Consider recent history. Large contracts for Kellen Winslow, Donald Penn, Quincy Black, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah – each done in the past three years – have been light on upfront money and heavy on guarantees of base salaries and incentives. This is well known in the agent community and the Bucs have earned a reputation for this in those circles.
Unless the Bucs are willing to deviate from their recent history and put up cash for large signing bonuses, any offers they make to top-tier free agents on this year’s market might be inferior. While Tampa Bay’s offers could be extremely competitive in terms of total value, a player will have to be willing to forgo the extra millions that other teams conceivably will deliver immediately.
Take, for example, the contract signed by Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch last week. His $31 million deal included $17 million in guarantees, $6 million of which was a signing bonus. That’s money Lynch can pocket right away. That’s the kind of thing the Bucs will be up against if they intend to continue structuring contracts the way they have in recent years.
But here’s some potential good news: The aforementioned Bucs contracts were executed with the team’s own players. They were not extended to other team’s free agents in situations where the Bucs were competing against other suitors.
So, perhaps that explains the approach and suggests the Bucs might be willing to do what it takes to compete on the open market. And if the Bucs plan to get in on the bidding for the top-dollar free agents available, let’s trust they know what it’s going to take to actually land them.