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Tampa Bay Buccaneers' hopes to sign big stars dwindle

It's the time of year when the term "fantasy football" takes on quite a different definition.

With the start of the free agent signing period drawing nigh, it becomes irresistible for fans to imagine top would-be free agents joining their favorite teams.

For those who follow the Bucs, the thought of adding Eagles game-breaking receiver DeSean Jackson or maybe Ravens all-purpose running back Ray Rice is downright dreamy.

But the reality is stars are never likely to hit the market, and that has been reinforced over the past few days. Jackson on Thursday was the first player to get a franchise tag, and a flurry followed. By Monday's deadline, many of the top players will see their ability to change teams all but eliminated.

Each team is allotted one franchise tag, providing it the opportunity to keep a free agent at a predetermined salary under a one-year deal. If another team wants to make a franchise player an offer, it must not only back up a Brink's truck but yield two first-round draft picks. That's not happening.

And now it's easier for teams to decide to hand out franchise tags. The new labor deal changed the way salaries for franchise players are determined. As a result of the new (and complicated) formula, the salaries have dropped, in some cases drastically.

Rice, for example, will make roughly $7.7 million if he plays under the franchise tender. Under the previous labor deal, he would have earned $9.6 million.

Had Jackson gotten a franchise tag in 2011, he would have been in line to earn $11.4 million. If he plays under the tender in 2012, he'll make $9.4 million.

That's still more money than most of us will make in a lifetime, but the change makes it easier for teams to accommodate those kinds of salaries under the cap.

For the Bucs, the high number of franchise designations will affect their efforts to acquire top talent, something they seem interested in doing.

Take the Falcons' decision to put a franchise tag on cornerback Ben Grimes. By taking him off the market, they create greater competition for the remaining top-tier defensive backs, such as Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan (provided Finnegan doesn't get a franchise tag).

The Eagles' decision on Jackson means competition could be more intense for receivers such as Vincent Jackson, the Chargers' impending free agent.

Free agents can sign with new teams starting March 13.

Zuttah's status: Bucs left guard Jeremy Zuttah is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. But if all goes according to plan, that will never happen.

There's reason to believe Zuttah and the Bucs can strike a deal before the signing period begins; he continues to be the team's top free agent priority. The sides have begun talks.

Given the Bucs' huge stash of cap space ($60.496 million), Zuttah's age (25) and experience (44 starts over four seasons), re-signing him is an easy decision.

Barth situation: Bucs kicker Connor Barth is also an impending free agent and seems likely to get the franchise tag. It makes too much sense for the Bucs.

By tagging Barth, the Bucs hang on to the kicker who tied for most accurate in 2011 (93 percent on field goals) for less than $3 million. It also prevents the Bucs from having to commit to him for the long term if they're reluctant to do that.

Help still wanted: Ben McDaniels, hired as a Bucs offensive assistant Thursday, won't be the quarterbacks coach, as some speculated.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @holderstephen.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' hopes to sign big stars dwindle 03/03/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 3, 2012 9:35pm]

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