There is a battle being waged for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting right tackle job over at One Buc Place, but the top two competitors, James Lee and Jeremy Trueblood, can't get in the action.
No, they're not injured. They have, however, been sidelined by, of all things, a stipulation in the new labor agreement struck two weeks ago by NFL players and team owners.
The stipulation allows free-agent signees such as Lee and Trueblood to watch practice, but prohibits them from participating until the new league year begins at 4:01 p.m. Thursday.
"It's really annoying,'' said Trueblood, who is eager to win back the starter's job he lost to Lee while nursing a knee injury in November. "I get the drift of why they're doing this and why we're in this situation. But I honestly don't think it's fair to either side. I really don't understand it.''
Bucs general manager Mark Dominik understands. The Aug. 4 date, he explained, was set to give the league and players incentive to resolve the outstanding issues in the labor agreement.
Dominik also pointed out free agents won't get paid until that date, but added there is a chance the date could be moved up should the league complete the CBA work prior to Thursday.
That would allow free-agent signees to return to the field a little sooner, but at this point it may not make that much difference. As Trueblood explained, the damage has been done.
"We're going to be going out there now after everyone else has been practicing for a week, and even for a few days in pads,'' he said. "It's really unfortunate, but it's something we just have to deal with.''
Meanwhile, Lee, Trueblood and the Bucs' other free-agent signees — such as right guard Davin Joseph and linebacker Quincy Black — are doing everything the rules allow. That includes regularly sitting in on meetings and film sessions with their assistant coaches and position groups, plus taking mental reps while the rest of the team works out on the field.
"I stand behind the linebackers or behind the entire defense sometimes, way out of the way, and just mentally go through my run fits and my pass responsibilities and all that stuff,'' Black said.
"Davin and I will stand there on the sidelines, saying to each other, 'What would you do here? Where do you go there?' " Trueblood said. "And that's good, but you want to be doing that on the field.''
They'd like to be with their teammates in the weight room, too, but that's not allowed, either. The Bucs' free agents say they are staying in the best possible physical shape, though.
"We've been able to work out at another facility that's close by, so we are able to get some work in, but it's still not the same,'' Joseph said. "It's really not OK the way it is right now; not at all.''
Of concern to Bucs coach Raheem Morris is that once they do get the OK to return to the field, many players will be so eager to catch up to their teammates, they might over-extend themselves.
"I want to say (that these guys can all jump right back in and work), but we have to make sure they're safe, too,'' he said. "It's my job to protect them as well, so we'll do that.''
That could mean limiting workouts, which could serve only to push them further behind in their attempts to get back into shape and ready for the start of the season. But the Bucs have plans to make up for that lost time.
There's a good chance players such as Lee and Trueblood will get more work in preseason games this year, coaches said. For now, though, all they can do is wait.
"It's a crazy deal, but that's what the league has put in place for us,'' Lee said. "The good thing is, it's the same for everybody. But I'm definitely anxious and ready to get going.''