Monday was the last day for NFL teams to elect to use a franchise or transition tag on any of their pending free agents. Eight teams did, 24 declined…and now the clock is ticking on the final week before the start of free agency.
The teams that used their tags know with virtual certainty that those players will remain with them in 2013. Conversely, the teams that had what appeared to be viable candidates for franchise tags but didn’t use the option are not necessarily saying good bye. In fact, this last week – and especially the next four days – is a last opportunity for deals to get done before the market opens and all 32 teams are in play.
The remainder of this work week represents the last exclusive window for teams trying to re-sign any of their pending unrestricted free agents. Beginning on Saturday, there is a three-day window in which all teams are allowed to negotiate potential contracts with these players. No actual deals can be struck between pending free agents and new teams until the official start of free agency on March 12, but they can certainly be put in place.
The Kansas City Chiefs got started on that process early, re-signing wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (five years) and punter Dustin Colquitt on Monday. However, that was likely the result of a self-imposed deadline; the Chiefs knew if they could get Bowe signed they could use their franchise tag on tackle Branden Albert. The Buccaneers did something similar last year, re-signing center Jeremy Zuttah and then using the franchise tag on kicker Connor Barth on the same day, eight days before the start of free agency.
Still, even with the possibility of a few more players coming off the market and re-signing with their original teams this week, the free agency field is much more in focus than it was a month ago. Some players who were considered possible tag candidates can now be targeted by teams in need, including San Francisco safety Dashon Goldson, Atlanta safety William Moore, Miami cornerback Sean Smith, New England tackle Sebastian Vollmer, New England wide receiver Wes Welker and Tennessee tight end Jared Cook.
Here’s a ranking of the top 85 available free agents (as of now) by Gregg Rosenthal on NFL.com. The list appears to be particularly deep at wide receiver, safety, cornerback and, surprisingly, offensive tackle. Teams looking for running backs and linebackers are not going to find as fertile a market, and the quarterback pickings appear slim, as well, although there might be some decent #2 options out there.
The Buccaneers’ own list of pending free agents remains the same with one week to go: Ronde Barber, E.J. Biggers, Michael Bennett, Dallas Clark, Andrew Economos, Brandon McDonald, Roy Miller, Roscoe Parrish, Sammie Stroughter and Jeremy Trueblood. Barber, of course, is likely only choosing between retirement and a return to the Buccaneers, though he is free to go elsewhere.
Free agency actually begins – that is, all 2012 player contracts expire – at 4:00 p.m. ET on March 12. Generally, the first really big signings hit the wire within a few hours, as was the case last year with the Buccaneers and wide receiver Vincent Jackson. That should definitely be the case this year thanks to the three-day negotiating window before the market opens.
At some point before that 4:00 p.m. bell, teams must also extend tender offers to any pending restricted or exclusive rights free agents on their rosters…that is, if they want to keep them in those categories of free agency. A restricted free agent who does not receive a tender offer in effect becomes an unrestricted free agent. The Buccaneers have only three players in the pending-RFA category, should they choose to extend such offers: RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Jacob Cutrera and DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim. Nesheim is the only one of the three who started for the Buccaneers last fall.
One week remains until the NFL launches into a flurry of free agent activity. Expect a gradual build-up, with a few re-signings and some weekend reports of negotiations, before that big day.