Why the Bucs and every NFL team prefers the draft over free agency this year
It's easy to doubt the sincerity of the Bucs when they say they are committed to building through the draft. (Which team isn’t?). Or that they won’t be big players in free agency (because the ownership won’t spend the money).
It’s a cynical business and a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2002 has used up much of its credibility.
But hanging around the NFL scouting combine this week made a couple things pretty clear.
The 2010 draft class is one of the best and deepest in years, thanks to 53 juniors who declared for it, many of whom fear an impending rookie wage scale.
The 2010 free agent class is one of the worst in years, thanks to the impending season without a salary cap. That rendered more than 200 players who would’ve been unrestricted free agents to restricted free agent status.
Let’s start with the draft.
"First of all, this is the best first round I've seen since 1983,’’ said NFL draft analyst Charley Casserly, the former Texans general manager. “In talking to general managers throughout the league, decision makers. I think it's the result of two things: Last year, there was a concentrated effort to keep players in school. Conversely, both sides in the labor negotiations have talked about a rookie wage scale…you have a perfect storm to have the best junior crop you've had since all the way back to '83.’’
That’s why Bucs general manager Mark Dominik spent last year stockpiling 10 draft picks, including five in the top 99.
“That remains our main focus for good reason,’’ Dominik said. “It's a talented pool, it's a talented draft.’’
That certainly won’t be the case a year from now when the emphasis will shift to free agency. Why? Because if the NFL and it’s players’ union reaches an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement – and assuming a player will still be eligible for free agency after four years – there could be more than 400 free agents available.
Why spend lavishly this season on UFA’s that are mostly 29 and 30 years old when there will be a much deeper pool of younger stars in 2011?
At least that approach seems logical. As a Bucs fan, the team wants you to just buy into it.
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QB DERBY: The Bucs won’t release QB Byron Leftwich soon because he didn’t reach his play-time incentives that would’ve triggered a roster bonus. More importantly, Tampa Bay is not opposed to not having an experienced player behind Josh Freeman. They are high on both Josh Johnson and Rudy Carpenter and would like to create a situation like that Green Bay Packers had at one time when Brett Favre was backed up by young, inexperienced quarterbacks such as Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Kurt Warner. All those players eventually had trade value.
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BYE-BYE BRYANT: Antonio Bryant will turn 29 in a few days, so he’s not the oldest receiver in the NFL. But the Bucs had two main concerns that prompted his release: He struggled with his knee injury and he did not run good routes. Several of Freeman's interceptions last season were the result of Bryant not being precise in his route-running.
What looks bad for the Bucs is that Michael Clayton still is on the roster. But that may not be the case in Sept.
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MORE RELEASES? Punters Josh Bidwell and Dirk Johnson will be among the players released by the Bucs before March 5. But DT Chris Hovan will not. Not only was he a starter, but the Bucs want to wait until they see how they fare at that position in the NFL draft.
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TRADEWINDS: Don’t expect the Bucs to trade down in the draft until they are on the clock in the first round.
"It would be hard to do that,’’ Dominik said. “You're not 100 percent certain who's going to be there at No. 3. I've seen other clubs in the past who’ve traded down before the draft started and I guarantee you, they never would've traded down had they known that player would've still been available. So that's a very big risk.’’