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Expansion may claim a name Bucs veteran

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 22, 2002

TAMPA -- Shortly before noon today, the Bucs are expected to submit to the NFL the five players they'll leave unprotected for the Feb. 18 expansion draft.

That's the easy part.

Picking which players the team will risk losing to the Houston Texans, who begin play next season; that's another story.

"This is something we've talked about for the last eight months and prepared for," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said recently. "So, it's not unexpected."

Teams do everything possible to conceal the identities of those on the list, but some are likely to be seriously considered for a host of reasons.

Take veteran linebacker Jeff Gooch, who the Bucs tried to trade last offseason, or third-string quarterback Joe Hamilton, who hasn't played a snap in two seasons. How about rookie guard Shane Grice, who did not play this season, and second-year left tackle DeMarcus Curry, who saw only mopup duty? What about long snapper Sean McDermott and second-year safety David Gibson, who fell behind rookie John Howell on the depth chart?

The expansion draft also is a time for teams to try to dump big-money players who may not be in their plans.

An interesting case is cornerback Donnie Abraham, scheduled to make about $4-million next year. Abraham, a third-round draft pick out of East Tennessee State, has been one of the most productive defensive backs in the league the past four seasons and had seven interceptions each in 1999 and 2000.

But the sixth-year veteran lost his starting position to Brian Kelly early in the season and has played a backup role since. He still finished with six interceptions and set the franchise career record with 31. Kelly did not have an interception in 2001.

"I don't know what's going to happen, and it's no sense worrying about something that's out of my control," Abraham said Monday. "But I think my numbers speak for themselves. ... You look at the guys in the league, look at the money they are getting. I should be there with them."

Abraham isn't alone. Veteran left guard Randall McDaniel, who has played 14 seasons, is due to make about $2-million next season. And center Jeff Christy, who signed a five-year deal in 2000, will earn base salaries of $2-million, $2.4-million and $3.29-million over the next three years.

And what about defensive end Marcus Jones? In 1999, when the Cleveland Browns were ushered back into the NFL via expansion, the Bucs left Jones, a first-round pick in 1996, unprotected. Jones, who struggled through his first two seasons, was not taken by Cleveland and turned his career around. He had a career season in 2000 with 13 sacks and signed a seven-year, $40.25-million contract extension in November. That came with a $5-million signing bonus.

Next season, Jones is scheduled to make $1.5-million, and his base salary rises steadily over the next four years, earning him $6-million in 2006. After moving from right to left end, Jones had two sacks.

"We are not concerned because Marcus' lower numbers this year were not a product of a lack of effort, but more due to injury and the fact that he changed positions," Jones' agent, Greg Williams, said. "Sacks are harder to come by on the left side because most quarterbacks are right-handed."

But there is one good reason why players such as Abraham, McDaniel, Christy and Jones may stay off the unprotected list: other free agents.

Should the Bucs lose Abraham to expansion and Kelly to free agency, Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber could find himself playing alongside Dwight Smith, who played little in his first season.

McDaniel and Christy are spelled by free agent Todd Washington, and Jones splits time with free agent Steve White. Here's how the expansion draft is expected to work. Each team is required to leave five players unprotected with the following restrictions: Kickers and punters are exempt; the team can expose only one player who was placed on the injured list after the start of the season; only one player with 10 or more years' experience and no more than two players with "spiked contracts" next season can be exposed. Spiked contracts count for at least $1.2-million toward the salary cap and represent an increase of 75 percent over last season's salary cap value.

The Texans will select one player from each team's list, after which that team can pull a player back. The Texans then can select one player from the remaining three. After a second player is taken, the remaining two are protected.

-- Information from other news organizations and the NFL Players Association was used in this report.

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