There are two types of free agents. The restricted free agents are those not under contract but with fewer than four years experience in the NFL. The Bucs can match any contract offer made to those players.
Unrestricted free agents usually have five or more years of experience. The Bucs cannot match any offer made to UFA's, though they can use their franchise or transitional tags to offer those players a one-year tender that is the average of the Top 5 or Top 10 players at their respective position.
There are also players that have what are called "voidable" contracts that can be triggered either by team or player option. Those options must be triggered, usually, before free agency begins.
So who might the Bucs lose this spring? In this article, I explore the free agents we know — and the ones that could be — along with their odds of returning.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
LB ANTOINE CASH
THE SKINNY: Cash had the makings of a steady special teams producer before he blew out his knee against Jacksonville in the preseason. No one knew it at the time, but Cash was just the beginning of a rash of season-ending injuries that seemed relentless throughout 2007.
ODDS OF RETURNING: Both Quincy Black and Adam Hayward made strides on special teams in spots that Cash would have filled. The Bucs have at least six linebackers under contract for 2008. It would seem unlikely that Cash would fit into Tampa Bay's plans in 2008. If someone signs Cash in free agency, the Bucs could receive some compensation in return (likely a late draft pick). I would take the pick.
DT JOVAN HAYE
|Tampa Bay DT Jovan Haye is a restricted free agent this spring. (Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)|
ODDS OF RETURNING: I don't see the Bucs allowing Haye to get away. He'll be in his fourth season, won't require much compensation and can play outside, if necessary. If I were the Bucs, though, I'd get something done before free agency begins. The secret's out. And I think they would rather have the player than any compensation they might receive for losing him.
S KALVIN PEARSON
THE SKINNY: Pearson has been one of the team's top special teams performers that past two years. He led the team in special teams tackles in 2007. He's a serviceable backup safety who got some needed playing time late in the season.
ODDS OF RETURNING: Solid. The Bucs made him a deal last offseason because they knew they couldn't lose him to free agency. Entering his fourth year, the Bucs might seek to wrap him up for more than a year to keep him off the market for a while.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
FB MIKE ALSOTT
THE SKINNY: Spent the entire season on injured reserve.
ODDS OF RETURNING: Slim. He's already hinted at retirement, saying he won't have another neck surgery just to play another year of football. It would seem all we're waiting on is the formal announcement.
RB MICHAEL BENNETT
|Tampa Bay RB Michael Bennett is free to negotiate with any club come March. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)|
ODDS OF RETURNING: Unclear. Bennett said he wants to return to the Bucs in 2008, but most players say that the day after the season. Bennett will certainly explore his options and there are several teams who could use a player with Bennett's higher gear — including the Bucs. If they're interested, I would suggest the Bucs knock on Bennett's door early in free agency.
CB SAMMY DAVIS
THE SKINNY: Signed as depth after the Bucs released him before the regular season. Made a few good plays in nickel packages.
ODDS OF RETURNING: The Bucs need some depth at cornerback, but they may be looking to find a player with more impact than Davis, who hasn't lived up to his first-round selection since his rookie year. Davis gives them experience and a fill-in for injury purposes, but not much more. However, there likely won't be many teams interested in Davis, so I wouldn't lose his number if I were the Bucs. Their priority, however, should be finding a player good enough to eventually take over for Ronde Barber or Brian Kelly, the latter of which is in the final year of his contract.
TE KEITH HEINRICH
THE SKINNY: Played sparingly as a blocking tight end.
ODDS OF RETURNING: There certainly won't be a long line at his door come free agency. If the Bucs lose Anthony Becht, they'll probably sign Heinrich because he's cheap and can block. But he'll give them nothing more than that. This may be his last shot with the Bucs. As a five-year veteran, I can't imagine he can go on the practice squad again.
WR MARK JONES
THE SKINNY: Was on his way to his best season as a returner before injuring the patellar tendon in his knee against Detroit. He spent the rest of the season on injured reserve.
ODDS OF RETURNING: His injury was devastating in that he was finally solidifying a position Jon Gruden had long sought to solidify — the return game. Jones faces a difficult rehab, much like Carnell Williams, who has the same injury. Whether the Bucs let Jones do that on his own or help him out by signing him to a veteran minimum deal and putting him on PUP in July is anyone's guess.
C MATT LEHR
ODDS OF RETURNING: He didn't make much of an impression on me, frankly. I saw him botch snap exchanges during sled drills in training camp. There's a reason three different teams released him before he arrived in Tampa Bay. He's nothing more than depth. But the Bucs may have to re-sign him if they lose John Wade because Lehr has experience at center and Dan Buenning — the perceived heir apparent — does not. The center market is barren, so watch Wade's situation closely.
TE JERRAMY STEVENS
THE SKINNY: He caught 10 passes — three of which went for touchdowns — in the season's final two games.
ODDS OF RETURNING: If his personal issues are truly behind him, then I would re-sign him. He's a huge target, has better hands than advertised and I think the final two weeks he showed that he's grasping the offense. A full offseason catching passes from Jeff Garcia may make him the weapon the Bucs thought he might be when they signed him last year. And since the Bucs took a chance on Stevens when no one else would, they might get him at a slight discount. I think he's poised to have a big year in this offense in 2008 — if the Bucs use him properly.
LB JEREMIAH TROTTER
THE SKINNY: Signed for $1 million to back up Barrett Ruud. Showed he could still be a starter during the season's final two games.
ODDS OF RETURNING: Slim. I still believe Trotter can be a starter in the NFL and I think he'll pursue a job that will allow him that chance. He earned a lot of points around the league for going to Tampa, accepting his role and still being a leader. The respect level for Trotter is huge. He'll find a job. It just won't be in Tampa.
THE POTENTIAL FREE AGENTS
C JOHN WADE
|Tampa Bay C John Wade could opt out of the final two years of his contract and become a free agent. (Getty Images)|
ODDS OF RETURNING: I think this will depend on Wade. If Wade hits the market, he quickly becomes the top center in free agency. That means Wade will likely entertain offers that will be larger than in other seasons when the market had more choices. So his agent can drive up the price. Plus, Wade is 32 and this is likely his last contract. He'll want to cash in so he can take care of his family. I could see a team offering a contract with an average value of $3 million per year, and I don't think the Bucs would match that since they see Buenning as the future of the position.
TE ANTHONY BECHT
THE SKINNY: The final two years of Becht's five-year contract are voidable. He is scheduled to count about $1.152 million against the salary cap in 2008.
ODDS OF RETURNING: Becht has already said he's opting out of his contract. With Alex Smith under contract and the Bucs more likely to re-sign Jerramy Stevens, Becht has likely played his last game in a Bucs uniform. I think he wants to be more utilized in an offense, and five catches — including two touchdowns — isn't getting it done.
RB MICHAEL PITTMAN
THE SKINNY: The final two years of Pittman's four-year contract are voidable. He is scheduled to count about $1.152 million against the salary cap in 2008.
ODDS OF RETURNING: I think it would be a mistake for the Bucs to let this guy go. He's too valuable to what Jon Gruden wants to do offensively. But it will be his decision to stay or leave. But even if he tests free agency, he may get no better deal than he already has in Tampa Bay, with the added advantage of not having to learn a new offense.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.