TAMPA — Receiver Michael Clayton and strong safety Jermaine Phillips remain well apart in their negotiations with the Bucs and almost certainly will become free agents at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
The representatives for both starters have been in talks with the Bucs for weeks, and dialogue continues. But the sides are not on track to strike a deal before free agency begins.
In Clayton's case, the 2004 first-round pick said he wants very much to return to Tampa Bay, but the gap between his contract expectations and what the Bucs are willing to pay might be too great.
"Right now, it's still up in the air," said Clayton, 26, who said his agent was expecting a counteroffer from the Bucs on Tuesday. "I know there's an opportunity for me to come back. I want to be back. But I think it's going to come down to money.
"There's a thin line between taking less money and trying to be a part of this organization and what they're building, and leaving millions on the table. But I love and respect (the Bucs) and I want to be a part."
The specifics of Clayton's contract demands aren't clear, but Atlanta's Michael Jenkins' recent deal can be used as a point of reference.
The Falcons gave Jenkins, also a No. 2 receiver, a reported four-year, $20-million extension in November.
For Phillips, who turns 30 next month, negotiations are complicated by numerous injuries. Though his play has been exemplary, he had two broken arms last season and has a history of forearm injuries.
The Bucs also are in heavy negotiations with cornerback Phillip Buchanon, who is a priority, but there's been no word on whether a deal is close.