TAMPA — No free agency? No worries, according to Bucs GM Mark Dominik.
The lack of a labor agreement in the NFL could delay, or even further restrict, the movement of veteran players.
That's not great news for guys like LB Barrett Ruud, RB Cadillac Williams and G Davin Joseph, who are among 14 Bucs set to be unrestricted free agents despite a lockout looming March 4.
But to Dominik, who proved you can win big by building through the draft, waiver claims and raiding other practice squads, free agency for 2011 is nearly complete.
"We just had a free agency," Dominik said. "Doug Worthington, Al Woods, Frank Okam, Dominique Harris and Larry Asante … that's how I see it.
"We're going to continue down the same path. We may not be sexy in free agency, because we're going to focus on the draft again. When people ask why haven't the Bucs been active? We just have."
That's not to say the Bucs won't have an interest in re-signing some of their free agents or adding experience. S Sean Jones is an example. But don't look for a Julius Peppers-like free agent signing that the Bears enjoyed last year.
In fact, Dominik should be worried that because the NFL is a copycat league, teams might be picking talent off the Bucs' practice squad next season. Let's face it, other teams might respect his approach, but they certainly don't like it.
They have nobody to blame but themselves, but the Titans look foolish for putting RB LeGarrette Blount on waivers, and the Bengals regret WR Dezmon Briscoe signing with the Bucs' practice squad.
"They respect it," Dominik said. "But I've already told our guys that next year's practice squad could be tough.
"I have a lot of confidence in our college department and to continue to find players to help this team win going forward. But I also have confidence in our pro department, in terms of picking guys up off of practice squads and finding like a Sean Jones in free agency."
Regardless of what happens with the collective bargaining agreement, there will be a Senior Bowl, a scouting combine in Indianapolis and a draft. Eventually, the labor dispute will be resolved. But Dominik feels like the Bucs already got a jump on free agency.
LET'S MAKE A DEAL: The marketplace will determine what becomes of Ruud, Joseph, CB Ronde Barber and others.
"It's going to be a weird offseason," Ruud said. "It's going to test my patience, and I'm going to have to wait around a little bit, but we'll see. Hopefully, things work out sooner than later."
The Bucs believe Ruud, who led the team in tackles for the fourth straight season, had a solid year. Would they like a more physical middle linebacker? Sure. But don't discount Ruud's value to a defensive play-caller like coach Raheem Morris. The Bucs want to see what former South Florida star Tyrone McKenzie can do.
Barber, 35, has indicated he might like to keep playing. But he said the Bucs have to determine if there is a role for him. The Bucs appear committed to Aqib Talib and either Myron Lewis or E.J. Biggers at cornerback. Morris said he believes Barber could play another several years. Compensation is a big factor, and the lack of a CBA won't help. The feeling is that Barber would like to know quickly so he can prepare in the offseason.
"I think that'll be a good private conversation with myself and Ronde and his agent," Dominik said.
Lots of people raved about the way QB Josh Freeman played the final month. "I could say the same about how Ronde Barber played at the end of the season," Dominik said. "For the many years he's got in the National Football League and to play at that level and to feel like he knew what (Saints QB) Drew Brees was already going to do on a majority of the plays was phenomenal. I was really impressed with the way he finished his 2010 season."
BUCS' BEST ROOKIE: Blount led all rookies in rushing with 1,007 yards and six touchdowns (5.0 average). WR Mike Williams led all rookies with 65 catches for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns. So who's the Bucs' most valuable rookie?
"I love not being able to answer that question," Dominik said. "You could just as easily look at special teams and Dekoda Watson and what Cody Grimm was doing. Ted Larsen stepped into the left guard spot and played really well. It's a good debate."