It's a time filled with rumors and speculation, but it's also a time filled with hope. Some teams hope to retain players with expired contracts in order to maintain or improve upon what they had accomplished last season while other teams hope to sign other teams' free agents so they can increase their chances of having a successful season.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have certainly made the free agent signing period an interesting one in recent years. Bucs general manager Rich McKay, who has what is arguably the best poker face in the NFL when it comes to contract negotiations, will likely deliver yet another exciting offseason this spring.
Fresh off of its Super Bowl XXXVII championship season, Tampa Bay will not be in a rebuilding mode, which means they'll try not to change what wasn't broken.
A total of 10 Tampa Bay players will become unrestricted free agents on February 28. Four of those players were starters last season and three of them were members of the league's top-rated defense.
The Bucs won't be able to re-sign all of its free agents. In fact, Tampa Bay probably won't even be able to re-sign all three of its defensive starters.
Some players will, of course, take priority over other players in terms of the team's interest and ability to retain them. PewterReport.com has prioritized Tampa Bay's top five free agents-to-be.
1. MLB Shelton Quarles: Tampa Bay's No. 1 priority in terms of re-signing players this offseason will be starting middle linebacker Shelton Quarles. He had an outstanding 2002 campaign, which was his first season as Tampa Bay's middle linebacker. Quarles finished last season with 113 tackles, which ranked second on the defense only behind NFL Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brooks. Quarles played an important role in strengthening Tampa Bay's run defense. He also added speed to the "Mike" linebacker position. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden's offense will likely still be considered a work in progress next season, which means the defense will have to carry the torch again. It will be tough for Tampa Bay's defense to dominate opponents the way they did last season if they don't have Quarles guarding the heart of the defense.
It took the Bucs two long seasons to find a replacement for ex-Bucs and future Hall of Fame MLB Hardy Nickerson. Quarles is capable of playing all three linebacker positions in Tampa Bay's defense, and although he made the Pro Bowl by default, his agent will likely still use all of these things as leverage for a lucrative deal.
While teams like Dallas and Indianapolis, who will both run the same defensive scheme as Tampa Bay next season, will be interested obtaining Quarles' services, other teams might look at him as a product of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's system. That's what happened to cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly when they both tested the free agent waters.
Don't be surprised if McKay and Co. make a huge push to re-sign Quarles on the eve of the free agency signing period in order to keep teams from possibly outbidding the Bucs for his services on the free agent market.
2. LT Roman Oben: Expect Roman Oben to re-sign with Tampa Bay during the offseason and return as the Bucs' starting left tackle next season. The Bucs and Oben could even agree to a new deal before the free agent signing period starts at the end of the month.
It would appear Oben is very interested in returning to Tampa. Oben, who had stints with the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns prior to his campaign with Tampa Bay last season, is probably not interested in relocating again to play for another team. By signing a long-term contract, Oben can shake his reputation as a well-traveled journeyman. Oben, who likes playing for Jon Gruden, is also intrigued by Tampa Bay's chances of making another serious run at the Super Bowl next season.
Oben will likely demand a contract that could pay him anywhere between $1-2-million per season, but that's awfully cheap for a starting left tackle that delivered such consistent play last season.
3. FS Dexter Jackson: Tampa Bay is interested in re-signing free safety and Super Bowl XXXVII MVP Dexter Jackson, but they're not interested in overpaying him. Jackson had the best season of his four-year career in '02. His play improved, especially in run defense. Jackson finished the last season ranked fourth on the team in tackles with 71.
Although he only notched three interceptions during the regular season, his two picks in Super Bowl XXXVII, which earned him MVP status, will likely prompt at least one team to overpay him.
Jackson's agent suggested his client could "name his price" after he was named MVP of the Super Bowl, but the Bucs seem like they're prepared for life without Jackson.
If Tampa Bay does in fact lose Jackson in free agency, safeties John Howell and Jermaine Phillips will compete for the starting free safety job this summer. These are two players the Bucs are high on. Tampa Bay could also turn to free agency to bring in some veteran experience to the free safety position. The veteran free safety list will include Chis Hayes (NY Jets), Tebucky Jones (New England) and former Buc Eric Vance (Indianapolis.
While Howell and Phillips do not have Jackson's experience, they're much cheaper. The change would also be considered low-risk since Tampa Bay's defensive scheme has never really relied heavily on its free safety.
The Bucs will likely drop out of the bidding war for Jackson early. How much will be too much to the Bucs? We don't know, but what we do know is Tampa Bay elected to allow the New York Jets to sign former Bucs FS Damian Robinson for about $1-million annually.
4. LB Al Singleton: Tampa Bay starting strongside linebacker Al Singleton can be re-signed cheap, but even if the Bucs were to get Singleton for the veteran league minimum, that would cost the Pewter Pirates $750,000 annually. That price tag might be too high for the Bucs. Like the free safety position, Tampa Bay doesn't need a big-time playmaker at the strongside linebacker position. The Bucs also like Ryan Nece, who was a key contributor on special teams during his rookie season until he was placed on the injured reserve with a knee injury. While the Bucs would like to have Singleton back, they'll likely let him test the free agent market.
5. QB Shaun King: Tampa Bay starting quarterback Brad Johnson isn't going anywhere, but the Bucs might be in search of one or maybe even two backups this offseason. Bucs backup QB Shaun King will test the free agent market and teams like Carolina, Chicago, Cincinnati and Washington will likely bid against each other for his services. That bidding war could quickly eliminate Tampa Bay from contention. Plus, King has made it no secret that he wants to start, and that's not going to happen next season if he returns to Tampa Bay.
Bucs punter Tom Tupa will also be an unrestricted free agent. Despite the fact that he had an inconsistent outing last season, the Bucs might consider trying to re-sign him.
If the Bucs do not re-sign Tupa, there's a possibility they'll make an offer to former Bucs P Mark Royals, who's one-year contract with the Miami Dolphins expired.
Tampa Bay's remaining four unrestricted free agents – QB Rob Johnson, tackle Lomas Brown, tight end Rickey Dudley and wide receiver Reggie Barlow – might not receive much interest out on the free agent market.
Rob Johnson will likely be a No. 3 quarterback for some team. It could be Tampa Bay, but the Bucs will definitely get a feel for other quarterbacks that become available after Feb. 28.
There's a strong possibility that Brown will retire. After 18 long seasons, Brown won his first Super Bowl ring. He served as such a great mentor to young right tackle Kenyatta Walker. It should be interesting to see if Gruden tries to bring Brown back as an assistant coach of some sort.
Out of all of the remaining Bucs free agents, Dudley could receive the most interest. In fact, he could be back with the Bucs next season if the Pewter Pirates find there's no one better available. Cutting TE Marco Battaglia at the beginning of last season showed everyone that Gruden will always look to assemble the best team possible. The Bucs might draft a tight end and leave Dudley out on the free agent market for a while before they make a decision on him.
Tampa Bay will also have several restricted free agents this offseason. Most of the time, restricted free agents agree to a one-year contract with their respective teams before becoming an unrestricted free agent the following season.
Tight end Todd Yoder, running back Aaron Stecker and MLB Nate Webster will all become restricted free agents on Feb. 28.
The Bucs will have exclusive rights to long snapper Ryan Benjamin and WR Charles Lee, which means there's a strong possibility both players will go to training camp with the Bucs this summer.