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Wilkerson's ordeal highlights perils of free agents in uncapped year

A few weeks remained in Jimmy Wilkerson's breakthrough season, the first in which he blossomed into a starter. The prospect of free agency awaited him come March. The journeyman defensive end was on the cusp of what may have been a major payday. He was the rare player under the age of 30 just reaching his prime in what was shaping up to be one of the weakest free agent classes in NFL history.

As the season headed toward Christmas, Wilkerson and his wife briefly allowed themselves to ponder the possibilities of what was to come. The opportunity existed to secure a contract that might support the family deep into the future. They quickly tabled the conversation, however, knowing the tenuous nature of earning a living playing professional football. That very weekend, Wilkerson's Buccaneers pulled off the greatest accomplishment of their lost season, upsetting the Saints in New Orleans.

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Yet for Wilkerson, that game marked the nadir of his 2009 season. He suffered a complete tear of his ACL and a partial tear of his MCL on the first defensive snap of that penultimate game. Suddenly, his future was cloudier than he could have imagined, now approaching potential free agency while recovering from a season-ending injury.

"At first it was very heartbreaking for me," said Wilkerson, a sixth-round pick by Kansas City in 2003, "because it was my contract year, and I was doing really well and there were just two games to go. As a matter of fact, I had just talked to my wife the night before and I said, 'If I can stay healthy these last two weeks, I think everything is going to work out for us.'

"And the next day, on the first snap on defense, I tore my ACL. It was a devastating blow, and it took a few hours of soaking in it and being depressed, but after that I was like, 'Let's recover from this and get back to 100 percent'."

Wilkerson is but one unique prism into an unchartered offseason, with the NFL's labor situation thrusting players and teams alike into unfamiliar terrain.

Wilkerson, who turned 29 last month, was primed to be one of the younger entrants into what could be the smallest and least-enticing free-agent class since the salary-cap era began. The specter of an uncapped season and the rules that come with it -- unrestricted free agency after six years rather than four or five; the ability to use an extra franchise or transition tag -- presents a unique version of free agency when the league year begins March 5.

The vast majority of this class is over 30, with most players facing the stigma of age, slowed productivity or injury concerns. Only nine of the 235 players currently set to hit the market (barring the scant possibility of a new labor agreement before the March 5 deadline) are under 28, and only one of them is of any distinction (Houston's Dunta Robinson, who could get franchised for the second straight year). There are just 34 players aged 28 or younger who could possibly hit the market, though some of those, like New England's Vince Wilfork, are likely to be re-signed or franchised as well, further limiting the youth of this group.

So a player like Wilkerson (who made $1.75 million in 2009), coming off his best season despite the injury and one who has not played as many snaps as many players his age, should still garner some suitors. Wilkerson started 15 games after never playing regularly in the past and registered six sacks (doubling his career total) with two forced fumbles and two passes defensed.

However, being able to generate the kind of contract he was previously in line for -- perhaps a deal that averaged $4 million to $5 million per season -- may be more remote now. He tries not to dwell on what could have been, or what he may have lost, though he admits that the unusual nature of this year's free agency has made him more aware of how this market may shape up.

"I've been keeping up with the other guys I guess I'm competing with in free agency," Wilkerson said." My agents (Harold Lewis and Marc Lillibridge) do a really good job of keeping me informed about who is going to stay with their team and who is going to go into free agency. But to be quite honest with you, I don't really think about it too much. I know my skills and abilities, and it's up to the coaches and owners to decide if I'm better than the other guys out there."

Tampa Bay holds exclusive negotiation rights with Wilkerson until March 5, and the sides have talked about a new contract at various points in the past year. Those contract negotiations are ongoing and could result in a new deal before the start of free agency, though gauging what might happen in this market is more complicated for agents and general managers alike. Staying with Tampa Bay would be ideal, Wilkerson said.

"I would like to stay with the Bucs, but at the same time there are 31 other teams out there," Wilkerson said. "And if we don't get something done by the start of free agency then I'll go out and test the market a little bit and see what happens. I've still got a lot of years left in me, and I think the Bucs know that."

In the meantime, Wilkerson focuses on his recovery, which is markedly ahead of schedule. He underwent surgery five weeks ago, but believes he will be able to begin running in just two weeks time; normally it would be three months post-surgery before that could commence. "I'm so far ahead of schedule it's making the trainers a little nervous," he said.

By the time Wilkerson is fully healed and ready to resume football, he figures the murky free agency situation will have been long resolved, and he will spend virtually each day of this unprecedented offseason strengthening his knee regardless of where his next team is located.

"I think I should be ready by late June or early July, in time for training camp," Wilkerson said. "That's going to be my goal, and that's a really good goal to reach."

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