TAMPA — In normal times, the Bucs would not still have to wonder if Cadillac Williams is going to be their third-down back. Or if Davin Joseph is going to stand guard in front of quarterback Josh Freeman. Or if Barrett Ruud is going to solve the riddle at middle linebacker.
That's because free agency has always preceded the NFL draft the way the national anthem is played before the coin toss.
But because of the league's labor situation, it appears that order will be reversed. Teams cannot contact, let alone negotiate, with free agents until the lockout is resolved.
So while Bucs general manager Mark Dominik would like to sign free agents, he said his team will approach the draft as if there's an opening at nearly every position.
"It's going to be unusual to have the draft prior to free agency," Dominik said. "That's kind of bizarre. … I think it opens up the draft board for the organization.
"Certainly, there are still questions to be answered on this roster. Again, we're at the beginning in the process with this football team. I like the success we had last year, but we didn't make the playoffs; we haven't won a playoff game. We didn't accomplish much, and we're just getting out of the starting gate. You just look at the board and be honest with yourself and say, 'Where's the right talent for this football team in 2011 and 2014 and 2015?' "
According to some experts, without free agency, teams might reach to draft a player at certain positions because there's no guarantee they can address it once the nearly 500 free agents become available.
"You just might have an extra need and you may have to sit there and fill that position because you don't know you can fill it with free agency later," said former Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly, an NFL analyst for CBS. "It will be interesting to see if teams start reaching for players, and that's where you're going to start making mistakes."
A year ago, players with at least six years in the league were eligible for free agency. That enabled the Bucs to retain the right of first refusal on players like Ruud and tackles Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood by offering a one-year tender.
Tampa Bay has tendered contracts to all their free agents again, but it's unlikely that will mean much once the new collective bargaining agreement is signed.
Dominik has said that whenever the free agent signing period begins, the Bucs will focus on re-signing their own players.
"You have to have a lot of scenarios in place," NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi said. "Free agency is a little bit like signing a junior college kid in college. You fill a need, you move forward to the draft and that gets your rookie class. But the reality of it is this will be very difficult."
The Bucs have not been big players in free agency lately. Dominik is committed to building through the draft, and they've probably had more misses than hits in free agency in recent years — running back Derrick Ward, quarterback Byron Leftwich and guard Keydrick Vincent. Last year, their best free agent acquisition was Eagles safety Sean Jones.
But what normally happens in March — whether it be free agency or a trade — has an impact on draft plans.
"In 2009, when I first got here, I made the trade for Kellen Winslow," Dominik said. "I wasn't going to draft a tight end in the first or third round of that draft because I had filled that spot, even if I felt there was a tight end there and thought, 'Wow, this is a really talented guy.' It just didn't make sense because I had just filled it with what I thought was a Pro Bowl caliber tight end.
"Yeah, it's inverted right now because we haven't filled those spots. And even though we have players that will be or could be unrestricted free agents, you've got to assume you have none of them and work from there going forward."
Of course, there's another form of free agency that won't take place immediately after the draft. NFL teams can't sign undrafted college free agents once the seventh round concludes Saturday. Remember, players such as Earnest Graham and LeGarrette Blount went undrafted.
"It was a three- or four-hour event upstairs that was organized chaos," Dominik said. "That's what you tried to make it. And to not have that is another kind of bizarre feeling.
"When that seventh-round compensatory pick goes in for the Bucs, everybody goes home. That's going to be a lot different feeling. Other than that, you prepare as if you're ready for whenever that day comes that the college free agency opens up and certainly pro free agency."
|Round 1||Rounds 2-3||Rounds 4-7|
|8 p.m. Thursday, ESPN, NFL Network||6 p.m. Friday, ESPN, NFL Network||noon Saturday, ESPN, NFL Network|
Where: Radio City Music Hall, New York
Bucs — Round 1: 20; Round 2: 19 (51st overall); Round 3: 20 (84); Round 4: 19 (116); Round 5: 20 (151); Round 6: 22 (187); Round 7: 19 (222), 35 (238)