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For Bucs, it's buyer be aware
Tampa Bay has to be quick with its cash in tough free-agent market.
By STEPHEN F. HOLDER
Published January 26, 2007
MOBILE, Ala. - It has become a spring ritual for Tampa Bay: the Bucs stressing over a bloated payroll, forced to find creative ways of getting below the NFL's salary cap by the start of the league calendar.
But there is good news this year: They have more than $24-million in cap space. The bad news: Because of sizable increases in the cap in 2006 and 2007, there are thought to be 14 teams with more cap space than the Bucs in a year that could see unprecedented spending in free agency.
What does it all mean for a 4-12 team desperately trying to turn its fortunes on the field?
"You're going to have to be aggressive and proactive to get the player you want because everybody has money," said agent Ben Dogra, who has 34 active clients including Bucs running back Cadillac Williams and guard Davin Joseph.
"If the player makes his first visit to a particular team, it might be his last."
San Francisco has about $42-million, the most in the league. Buffalo has a $39-million cushion. The Bucs are barely in the top half of the league when ranking teams with the most cap space.
The consecutive increases in the cap have raised it $15-million in two seasons to about $109-million per team.
The Bucs can expect high-priced bidding wars for a free-agent class that isn't considered blockbuster. And the depth of that class is being diminished by the day as teams continue to take advantage of their newfound cap room to re-sign key free agents to contract extensions. Such was the case with Bucs quarterback Chris Simms, who signed a deal in December that will keep him off the market.
"Teams are going to find a way to lock these guys up," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said.
Don't be surprised if big-ticket free-agents-to-be such as linebacker Lance Briggs of the Bears are designated as franchise players, making it prohibitive for other teams to acquire them. Most years, teams aren't anxious to tag players because of the exorbitant salaries they then command.
All this will make for an ultracompetitive free-agent market, much like last season when there was a similar increase in the salary cap after the implementation of the collective bargaining agreement. This year, the free-agent period begins at midnight March 2.
"As soon as the gate opens, you've got to be ready to go," Browns general manager Phil Savage said. "Last year, there were a couple cases where we couldn't even get the paper in the fax machine and (the player) was already off the market. It happens that quickly."
The key for the Bucs and others needing a quick fix is doing so without mortgaging the future.
"You've got to be very smart," Chiefs president and general manager Carl Peterson said. "You look at the New Englands and the Pittsburghs, they lose players, find a way to replace them and don't jeopardize the (financial) state of their team. It's not always the teams that make the biggest splash in free agency that come out best. Look at the Washington Redskins. Each year, they seem to lead the pack in spending dollars in free agency, but they were 5-11 last year.
"I think all of us who have been in free agency long enough realize that it's not the end-all to redoing your football team. You still have to focus on the draft."
The situation will stabilize in the near future as the increases in the cap decrease. But for now, it's a great time to be a free agent but perhaps not the best time to be in the market for them.
"I believe there are some great salesmanship techniques that we'll be able to use," Gruden said before conceding, "I've talked to some of the agents, and we have our work cut out for us."
These numbers are fluid and can change based on bonuses, roster moves, contract extensions, etc. Teams with high draft picks, such as the Bucs, will need to reserve considerable cap space for their picks.
Figures are approximate. Sources: media reports, club officials and NFL Players Association