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The offseason ahead

A look at the Bucs' priorities for the coming months:

By Times staff writers

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 28, 2003

1. Lock up at least one defensive tackle.

Of the Bucs' 13 highest salaries next season, only Warren Sapp, whose $6.6-million base salary tops the list, has a contract that expires before 2005.

Sapp is an unrestricted free agent after next season, and he likely will command an eight-figure signing bonus, somewhere in the vicinity of $15-million to $20-million. The Bucs have typically addressed their defensive stars with a new contract entering the final season, but they have another concern. Anthony McFarland, who missed much of 2002 with injuries, also will be an unrestricted free agent after next season. A healthy return could bring him a significant raise on his 2002 salary of $530,000.

As one of the team's most high-profile players, Sapp would be hard to let go, but if keeping him means losing McFarland, the Bucs have a difficult choice to make.

2. Address and restock the quarterbacks.

Brad Johnson set a team record with 23 passing touchdowns and emerged as a team MVP, so he is entrenched as the starter. He'll count $4.5-million against next season's cap, and of the Bucs' big salaries, he seems most likely to sign a new deal to lower his cap value for 2003. Considering the rejuvenation of his career under Jon Gruden's tutelage, that contract could be for another three or four years.

The larger question is who will back him up next season. Shaun King and Rob Johnson are unrestricted free agents. King, despite completing 31 passes and throwing no touchdowns in the past two seasons, should be one of the most coveted quarterbacks in this year's class. And Rob Johnson's lackluster play makes his return questionable.

That leaves restricted free agent Joe Hamilton, who spent the season on injured reserve. Look for the Bucs to sign a veteran backup.

3. Tweak and upgrade the offensive line.

The line that finished the season was significantly better than the one that opened it, but expect changes. Center Jeff Christy is scheduled to count $2.405-million against the cap next season, so he might be replaced or sign a new contract. All left tackle Roman Oben did was start every game and steadily improve his leverage as an unrestricted free agent. The Bucs might be willing to sign Oben to a short-term deal while pursuing another, younger, left tackle. Left guard Kerry Jenkins, right guard Cosey Coleman and right tackle Kenyatta Walker appear set.

4. Figure out what to do with Keyshawn.

On the surface, it appeared Gruden would hit it off with big, skilled and durable receiver Keyshawn Johnson, but the two have had their moments. Johnson, scheduled to make $3-million next season, never will stop asking to be involved more in the offense, and that's something Gruden must deal with or react to. Although Gruden strongly denied it Monday, speculation continues to brew the Bucs could trade Johnson to create cap room and recoup some of the picks they traded for Gruden. Dallas and new coach Bill Parcells, who coached Johnson with the Jets, has been a popular rumored destination, but the Cowboys pick fifth and might try to address other needs.

5. Remain a player in free agency.

One set of salary-cap calculations has the Bucs $4.5-million above next season's cap with only four other teams with more money committed for 2003. Tampa Bay likely won't be a central figure in this year's free-agent crop, led by Bills receiver Peerless Price and Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas.

The priority is re-signing its free agents. There are 10 unrestricted and six restricted free agents. The biggest names are Oben, linebacker Shelton Quarles and safety Dexter Jackson. The backup quarterbacks, tight end Rickey Dudley, linebacker Al Singleton and punter Tom Tupa also hit the free-agent market. Quarles, who shined in his first season at middle linebacker, might be the most important to keep.

The restricted free agents shouldn't warrant much interest. The biggest names are running back Aaron Stecker, linebacker Nate Webster and tight end Todd Yoder. If Singleton or Quarles leave, Webster might have a chance to prove himself.

6. Add some punch to the running game.

It clicked some toward the end of the season. But free-agent addition Michael Pittman wasn't the versatile threat Gruden hoped for, and Mike Alstott's role varied from game to game. It's possible the Bucs will be on the market for a running back who better suits Gruden's plan. Some believe Stecker has been underused and another team could make him an offer.

7. Maintain continuity among defensive personnel.

Except for Sapp and McFarland, the defensive core is locked up for another three seasons. Simeon Rice and John Lynch are signed through 2005, and Derrick Brooks, Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber are locked up longer. Quarles, Singleton and Jackson are the only starters who could leave.

Key dates

FEB. 28: Veteran free agency signing period begins.

MARCH 1: Teams must be in compliance with the 2003 salary cap.

APRIL 26-27: Draft.

JUNE 1: The salaries of players cut on or after this date can be partially counted against the 2004 salary cap.

Salary cap

The payroll limit for 2003 is not set, but it is expected to rise to about $75-million. Like most teams, the Bucs will need to restructure some contracts and release some players to get under the cap.

-- Compiled by Greg Auman, Roger Mills and Mike Stephenson.

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