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1. NO FREE AGENCY FOR SUB-SIX-YEAR VETERANS Early last week, Pewter Report was the first media outlet to report that Buccaneers middle linebacker Barrett Ruud was missing organized team activities due to his desire to receive a contract extension. Many Bucs fans voiced in article commenting and message board posts that Ruud deserved a new contract.
In 2009, Ruud is scheduled to make $1.6 million in base salary, and if he produces at the same level of the 2007 and 2008 season then he will again be a huge bargain value for Tampa Bay. In the past two years, Ruud has made 251 tackles, four interceptions, nine passes defensed, three sacks, and has forced three fumbles. While Ruud and Bucs fans want to see him get a new contract, it may be awhile before that takes place.
Sources have told Pewter Report that the Bucs are in no hurry to get an extension done. The reason is because they hold Ruud's rights for three more years under the current climate with the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring. After his contract expires at the conclusion of the 2009 season, Ruud will be a restricted free agent until he compiles six years of NFL experience. As a restricted free agent, the Buccaneers would set a high bar of compensation to sign Ruud that would likely scare away other teams. Tampa Bay could also match whatever offer sheet Ruud would sign, and keep the linebacker from leaving the team.
That is part of the rules as the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and owners expires. If the two sides reach a new deal in the next eight months, Ruud will be entering a contract year with unrestricted free agency afterwards. That's the best case scenario for the Bucs' starting middle linebacker.
The team wants keep Ruud around for the long-term. It views him as a building block for the franchise, but it may not see him as a player that will command franchise player-type money. Considering many in the league believe there will not be a new deal with the owners and the players, the Buccaneers can afford to take their time with Ruud and a host of other players that are underpaid and approaching the end of their contracts.
Those players include starters like right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, safety Tanard Jackson, and kick returner Clifton Smith (an exclusive rights free agent in 2010 with unrestricted free agency after 2011 if a new deal is struck). All of those players have unrestricted free agency delayed years because there is no new CBA and they don't have six years of NFL experience.
With a reported $37 million in salary cap space, the Bucs definitely have the room to hand out lucrative extensions to those players. The team also signed new tight end Kellen Winslow to a six-year, $36.1 million dollar contract with $20.1 million guaranteed earlier this offseason. That contract has prompted some agents to call Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik and request new contracts for their players.
What scares the agents away is that the Bucs are willing to do deals like Winslow all day long, and that is not what agents are looking for. How is that the case you ask?
Well, Winslow received no signing bonus, and no roster bonuses in his new contract. All of the guaranteed money is in base salary. Thus, the agents make no commission on upfront money because there isn't any. The agents and players want more money upfront, and those players that have been underpaid for years are looking for immediate gratification in their new contracts. Tampa Bay says it is happy to do extensions with the structure that Winslow received. When agents hear that they don't like the response, and do not typically call the team back to pursue a deal.
Some of the Bucs' best players are trapped in that delayed window of free agency, but they aren't the only ones. Many good players around the league that are scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency next offseason will lose their shot and be restricted free agents like Ruud. In the NFC South division, the Atlanta Falcons have that situation with running back Jerious Norwood and wide receiver Roddy White. New Orleans Saints wide receiver Lance Moore and guard Jahri Evans will have to wait for unrestricted free agency, as will Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis and cornerback Richard Marshall.
This affects many standout players across the league. Here is a list of a few of the players that will miss out on unrestricted free agency like Ruud: Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware, Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson, Chargers running back Darren Sproles, and Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman.
The players in Tampa Bay and around the league are up to date on the situation and how it impacts them. Jackson is slated to make $460,000 and is one of the biggest bargains on the Bucs roster, and would have to be in the conversation for one of the biggest bargains in the NFL. Jackson is fully aware that no extension of the CBA will delay him hitting unrestricted free agency.
"Right now there is a time and a place to talk about that. My agent and I haven't sat down and discussed [a new contract]," Jackson said. "I'm sure that will come up. I like to always reiterate that as along as I take care of what I need to take of on the field, and play the way I'm capable of playing, that will take care of it.
"I'd like to see the union, the players and the owners come to an agreement that will keep everybody happy, but we all know it doesn't always work out like that. I think we have good people in place with the new president of the players union. I'm hoping that they get it together."
The bottom line is there are numerous Buccaneers like Ruud and Jackson that are worthy of contract extensions, but the labor unrest that is present and rising around the NFL makes teams like the Bucs in no hurry to sign their young veterans to contract extensions until the next CBA is in place or we reach 2010 and there is indeed no salary cap. 2. JACKSON READY TO TAKE PLAY TO NEXT LEVEL Lining up behind Ruud has been productive safety Tanard Jackson for the past two seasons. Bucs fans probably have no problem remembering the horrible safety play in the 4-12 2006 campaign. Jackson came on to start as a rookie the next season, and instantly improved the production at the back-end of the Bucs defense.
In his second NFL season, Jackson yielded another solid year for Tampa Bay, and has been the only player taken after the third round the last five drafts to become a consistent starter for Tampa Bay. In 2008, Jackson was fourth on the team in tackles (behind Ruud, Derrick Brooks, and Cato June) with 102 stops. As the free safety, many of Jackson's tackles are potential touchdown-savers as he is often the last player between the ballcarrier and the end zone. Jackson also had one sack, three tackles for a loss, one interception, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and seven passes defensed during the 2008 season. Jackson has been working hard this offseason, and is very focused on breaking out across the league in 2009.
"My main focus first and foremost is to understand the ground work of the defensive scheme," Jackson said. "I'm learning my responsibilities and what others are doing around me. That is my main focus right now. From a more selfish part, I want to elevate my game for the team, and be around the ball more at the right place at the right time so I can make those plays sort of like Ronde [Barber], and what he has been doing for years. That is pretty much my goal this offseason."
Jackson was a cornerback in college at Syracuse, and has adjusted well to playing safety in the NFL, and in the former Tampa 2 defensive scheme. After transitioning and excelling under Monte Kifffin, Jackson is getting familiar with Jim Bates' new defense and how it changes what he is doing on the field.
"It is for both safeties with [Sabby Piscitelli] playing strong and me playing free," said Jackson. "Our scheme that Coach Bates has introduced to us is a scheme for the safeties to make plays. We are free a lot to be help guys. We can roam. We can help all over the field. At the end of every play we are supposed to be matched up on someone. It allows us to roam and make plays on the field."
Before coming to Tampa Bay, Jackson had some experience in a defensive system that employed the concepts of Bates' system. That experience is different now.
"The past two years were my first years playing safety, and in that scheme we weren't free a lot when [Kiffin] was our defensive coordinator," Jackson said. "We were able to make plays on the ball, but not the plays we are able to make in this system because it allows us to roam free back there."
Jackson feels that he is ready to take his play to the next level and be one of the best safeties in the NFL. To do that he will need to produce some more splash plays. Jackson believes the freedom of the new scheme will allow him to produce those plays for Tampa Bay in the coming season.
"Yeah, we hold the ball in our court," said Jackson. "We will definitely have opportunities to make plays, and we are going to make plays on the ball. The numbers should increase in that area for both of us – Sabby and myself – and whoever gets the opportunity to play the position. There should definitely be more opportunities to make plays on the ball.
"(I'm ready) to take it to the next level, to force my will on the opponents that we play, and will myself to make those plays within the scheme in of the defense. The scheme of the defense is now allowing us to do that. It should definitely give us those opportunities to make those plays." 3. STROUGHTER'S FEET Rookie wide receiver Sammie Stroughter has created a lot of buzz about him around the organization with the way he has stepped in and produced in practice. The media has taken notice as well, but what makes Stroughter effective is his feet. Veteran Michael Clayton said that when asked about Stroughter, and that is what NFL great wide receiver Cris Carter said is the key to being an effective receiver. Stroughter's footwork going in and out of breaks allows him to gain separation from defensive backs. It also makes him dangerous after the catch. To go along with that he is fast and shifty. Stroughter's game is drawing a lot of comparisons to Bucs Pro Bowl returner Clifton Smith. 4. QUICK THOUGHTS a. Many national media writers like Peter King and Pat Kirwan have ranked the Bucs as one of the worst teams in the league. A year ago, media pundits were saying the same thing about the Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins, and Baltimore Ravens. Draw your own conclusions.
b. Check out WalterFootball.com's mock drafts. This website is a great tool to get an idea of some of the top college players entering the draft next season. Walter Cherpinsky has the Bucs taking a standout from last season's BCS National Championship Game.
c. Matt McGuire of WalterFootball.com has the Bucs taking a stud defensive tackle with their first-round pick. Pewter Report's Scott Reynolds will have more on that player in the near future.
d. There are still a few good veterans at need positions for Tampa Bay that are on track to be unrestricted free agents in 2010: Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, and Patriots defensive linemen Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green. All of those players are at or close to 30 years of age, so if the Bucs continue their youth movement next offseason they may not have any interest in those veterans.
e. I don't think Michael Vick should be able to serve his NFL suspension and prison term at the same time. If he plays in 2009 then he was never really suspended because he was in prison during the 2007 and 2008 seasons. A real suspension would have him not being able to play football when free to do so. He should have to miss at least the 2009 season in that case.