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Possible new Buc biding his time

Keenan McCardell must wait until June 1, when he will become a free agent and perhaps sign with Tampa Bay.

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002

Keenan McCardell is trying desperately not to listen. Everyone wants to talk about which team will sign the veteran Jaguars receiver when he becomes a free agent after June 1.

His agent wants to give him updates. Reporters call with their latest gossip. And his family wants to know where it will live this season.

McCardell, 32, said he doesn't want to play the speculation game because it will only get his hopes up. But the suspense is killing him.

"I've never really been in this situation before," he said. "You forget how good it is (to have a secure future with one team) until you don't have it anymore."

The latest talk has McCardell, 6 feet 1, 191 pounds, joining the Bucs as a starter opposite Keyshawn Johnson, a possibility McCardell said he finds appealing. The two are friends, and McCardell admires coach Jon Gruden.

While other receivers (including Green Bay's Antonio Freeman, Kansas City's Derrick Alexander and New Orleans' Willie Jackson) will be considered, McCardell appears to be the Bucs' first choice.

"I think it'd be an intriguing place to play if I came to Tampa," McCardell said. With 499 catches during the past six seasons, McCardell has been one of the league's most productive receivers. He trails only teammate Jimmy Smith (562), Oakland's Tim Brown (532), free agent Cris Carter (522) and Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison (522) during that span.

He has played 10 seasons but shows few signs of slowing. He is coming off his second straight 1,000-yard season, putting him among the league's top 10 in receiving yards since 1996. Last season, he had 93 receptions for 1,110 yards, which was ninth in the AFC and 16th overall.

For most of his six seasons in Jacksonville, McCardell has shared the spotlight with Smith, a perennial Pro Bowl player who leads the league in receptions and yards the past six seasons.

McCardell, not as fast as Smith, has made his biggest imprint as a clutch receiver who excels at running crossing routes and turning short passes into big gains.

In 2000, he led the league in third-down catches with 32.

"I think he's terrific," ESPN play-by-play man Mike Patrick said. "A lot of guys talk about him as a complementary receiver.

"But I think he has the chance to be a tremendous star. A couple of times when Smith was hurt, he showed all of the things that you'd want to see in a receiver."

McCardell's numbers are impressive for a player who came from lightly regarded UNLV and was the 326th pick, in the 12th round, of the 1991 draft, the 45th of 46 receivers taken.

Back then, few people could foresee his talent. The Redskins, who drafted him, gave up on him after one injury-marred season. Cleveland took a chance on him but used him sparingly, giving him just 11 starts in four seasons.

He didn't open up until the Jags signed him as an unrestricted free agent in 1996, hooking up with Smith to form one of the league's most prolific tandems and producing four dual 1,000-yard seasons.

Only the Vikings' Carter and Jake Reed have equalled that.

McCardell said he sees the chance to have the same kind of punch playing opposite Keyshawn Johnson.

"I'm a guy who likes to compete, who likes to win at everything he does. I do the dirty work, the stuff other receivers don't like to do like running over the middle," he said.

"Basically, if I come there, the Bucs will be getting another warrior just like Keyshawn."

In the meantime, McCardell has tried to stay in shape. He spent a month at Athlete's Performance Institute, a high-tech training operation in Arizona populated by pro athletes. And he went back there last week, this time for a two-week stay.

All the while, he counts the days until June1, when he will be released and can sign with another team. And when he signs, the suspense will, for him, mercifully end.

"When I make this decision, I want to make it fast," he said, "because you want to get in a system right now."

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