Relatively sure of what's in store, the Tampa Bay Bucs on Monday agreed to let "franchise" player Paul Gruber shop himself around during a month of restricted free-agency.
By refusing to offer their starting left tackle a minimum tender, and thus retain its exclusive negotiating rights, Tampa Bay granted Gruber what is likely to be a very restricted 30 days of free-agency.
Between today and July 15, Gruber can elicit offer sheets from any other NFL team. Tampa Bay, however, has the right to match any offer and keep the sixth-year veteran. If the Bucs choose to let him go, they'd receive the lofty compensation price of a team's 1994 and 1995 first-round draft choices.
"I think this new option is going to give him the ability to do what he wanted to do from the beginning, go out and talk to other teams, and see his market value," said Bucs president Richard McKay, who announced the decision.
"It gives us a method to help us either end up with Paul Gruber and his services for 1993, or get a resolution prior to training camp. It gives us some certainty, some finality, we hope, by July 15. If he has not signed an offer sheet, then we'll begin bargaining again and hopefully we'll get something done. I don't believe this is the end."
Gruber's agent, however, wasn't convinced that Monday's development was the beginning of anything resembling true free-agency.
"This one was a yawn," Ralph Cindrich said. "They could have gone either way, but this does seem logical for the Bucs. Two first-rounders? Let's face it, that's pretty steep. It's highly unlikely any team out there would pay it. I have tremendous respect for Paul, but teams didn't pay that when Walter Payton and Dan Marino were free agents. This doesn't really change anything."
Under the modified NFL labor settlement, teams had until 4 p.m. Monday to tender at least minimum offers to retain the rights of unsigned "franchise" players. Those offers had to equal an average of the top five highest-paid players at their position based on contracts signed through May 6. In Gruber's case, that would have meant Tampa Bay submitting a one-year offer in excess of $2.3-million.
Much to his displeasure, Gruber was designated Tampa Bay's "franchise" player in February, at the start of the league's new free-agency period. At the time, Tampa Bay made a minimum bid of $1.17-million for 1993, which was the average of the top five offensive linemen based on 1992 salaries.
Throughout the process, the former 1988 No. 1 pick made several unsuccessful requests to be allowed to become an unrestricted free agent. He is one of several "franchise" players who are still in court fighting the validity of the classification in the league's labor settlement.
In opting to not tender Gruber an offer, McKay stressed that it should not be interpreted that the Bucs intend to pay Gruber less than the $2.3-million minimum. Gruber is believed to be seeking a deal that would average near $2.65-million, or slightly more than the $2.55-million for which Colts tackle Will Wolford signed. Gruber made $700,000 in 1992.
"We would have had to tender him a one-year contract at a substantial number," McKay said. "Neither one of us wants a one-year contract. And you must consider the salary cap. Any contract you sign, especially of this size, you have to consider the cap. Where's it going to be next year?
"Under the old guidelines, (two No. 1s) is probably too much to give up. Under the new, we'll see. Does this mean that we're not at risk? No. Any time you send a player into the marketplace you're at risk. But you remember our downside in this instance is two No. 1 picks, which is a good downside to have."
To Cindrich, who said Gruber was vacationing Monday, the downside was a disintegrating lack of trust in Tampa Bay's motives.
"There's nothing wrong with saying we have the cards dealt to us and we're going to do it this way, without regard to what may be equitable," he said. "But there seems to be a lack of integrity with trying to play both sides of it. They're at liberty to respond and move in any direction they please. I might add one thing: As are we."
What's next for Gruber?
Paul Gruber has 30 days (through July 15) to negotiate with other teams as a restricted free agent.
If he signs an offer sheet(s), the Bucs have one week to decide whether to match the offer and retain his rights. If they choose not to, the team that signs Gruber will owe its 1994 and 1995 first-round picks to Tampa Bay.
If Gruber receives no offers, at the end of 30 days his rights revert exclusively to the Bucs. Contract negotiations can resume.