TAMPA — It has been a brutal winter for 212 NFL players who are part of the most severe free agent crop damage in history.
That's how many players will become restricted free agents — rather than unrestricted — because there will be no salary cap in 2010 as the result of no new collective bargaining agreement being reached.
Players such as Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall and Cowboys receiver Miles Austin might have received lots of interest from the Bucs and other clubs when the signing period begins at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
But Marshall received a first-round tender and Austin a first- and third-round tender. Tenders represent the 2010 draft picks a team must give up in order to sign the players.
So what's left to ponder is a weaker list of mostly 30-something unrestricted free agents — those with at least six seasons of experience — such as receivers Terrell Owens, Chris Chambers, Joey Galloway, Derrick Mason and, yes, Antonio Bryant.
No wonder most of the focus for the Bucs and other teams will be on the draft. But Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik said his team still plans to participate in the NFL's version of March Madness.
"We'll still burn the midnight oil," Dominik said. "I don't do anything different because at the same point, you don't know if there's going to be more trade opportunities. That's the way I think we really helped our club last year in acquiring (tight end Kellen Winslow). And if you think there's something that can be had that way, sometimes those things can happen in the first day of free agency.
"There's a lot of speculation going on, but no one really knows how this is going to play out."
Because of the 53 juniors who declared for the draft (much larger than normal) teams such as the Bucs are reluctant to forfeit draft picks for restricted free agents.
But Dominik believes some trade opportunities might arise. A year ago, the Bucs' biggest offseason move was trading a second- and fifth-round pick to Cleveland for Winslow.
"I think you certainly have to look; as much as I appreciate what we have," Dominik said. "Last year, when we determined to trade for Kellen, our selection was in the 50s. To me, at 50-something, you would never get that kind of talent. We'll look at each player individually like that and say, 'If they're asking for this, could we find that in this year's draft class.'
"Now this year's draft class is a very strong draft class. Those second, third, and fourth rounds are very talented; certainly the first. It's a deeper draft class. So it's going to make it that much more difficult to part with a pick."
Dominik's colleagues agree.
"I will be interested to see how much interest there is going into free agency with the fewer numbers," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said last week at the scouting combine. "I think there are some really good players out there."
But Browns general manager Tom Heckert said teams believe there's better value in the draft.
"I don't think we're going to sign 12 guys," Heckert said. "But if there are players out there we think can help us, we'll go after them.
"No one wants to give up draft picks. That's just the way the NFL works. You're so excited about the draft guys coming out that you're saying instead of giving up a second-, third- or fourth-round pick, you think you can get a better guy in the draft."
A year ago, the Bucs were among the few clubs bidding for defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who signed with the Redskins. But don't expect Dominik to go after top-tier names such as Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers or Jets running back Thomas Jones.
"The situation we're walking into is unknown for everyone," Dominik said. "Since '92, we've not dealt with this kind of situation (of no salary cap). So no one can really look at the crystal ball and say, 'Here's what people are going to spend,' or 'Here's what people are not going to spend.' It's all pure speculation."
Rick Stroud can be reached at email@example.com.