INDIANAPOLIS — 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 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 scouting combine last week made two things clear.
The 2010 draft class is one of the best and deepest in years thanks to the 53 juniors who declared.
The 2010 free agent class is one of the worst in years thanks to the impending season without a salary cap. That turned more than 200 players who would've been unrestricted free agents into restricted free agents.
Let's start with the draft.
"This is the best first round I've seen since 1983," NFL Network and CBS analyst Charley Casserly said. "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 GM Mark Dominik spent last year stockpiling 10 draft picks, including five among the top 99.
"That remains our main focus for good reason," Dominik said. "It's a talented pool. It's a talented draft."
A year from now, the emphasis will shift to free agency. Why?
Because when there is 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 players who 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.
The team wants you, as a Bucs fan, to buy into it.
QB derby: The Bucs won't release QB Byron Leftwich soon because he didn't play enough to trigger a roster bonus. More important, Tampa Bay is not opposed to having exclusively young players behind Josh Freeman, 22.
They are high on Josh Johnson, 23, and Rudy Carpenter, 23, and would like to create a situation like the Packers had at one time when Brett Favre was backed up by young, inexperienced quarterbacks such as Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Kurt Warner. Eventually, all of those players had trade value.
Bye-bye Bryant: Antonio Bryant turns 29 on March 9, so he's not the oldest receiver in the NFL. But the Bucs had two main concerns that prompted them to not re-sign him. He struggled with his left 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 Michael Clayton still is on the roster. But that might not be the case in September.
More releases?: Punters Josh Bidwell and Dirk Johnson will be among the players released before Friday. 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 draft.
Trade winds: Don't expect the Bucs to trade down in the draft until they are on the clock in the first round.
"You're not 100 percent certain who's going to be there at No. 3," Dominik said. "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."