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McGahee is an intriguing option

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003
[AP photo]
At the NFL combine, Miami running back Willis McGahee has told everyone that he'll play this season, but it isn't likely.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Miami Hurricanes running back Willis McGahee is an intriguing player in the draft and one the Bucs may have an interest in.

After tearing his anterior cruciate and two other knee ligaments in the national championship game against Ohio State on Jan. 3, McGahee is on the road to recovery and even predicted he could play in 2003.

But it's extremely unlikely McGahee will be ready until 2004. If he makes a full recovery, he could become a franchise running back. So some team might take a chance on him in the second, third or fourth rounds.

McGahee, 21, still has some options. He may choose to sign with the team that selects him, but contractually might be limited by the rookie salary scale. Or he could opt not to sign and re-enter the draft when he is recovered next year.

The upside of beginning his career in 2003 is that he will move one year closer to free agency. The downside, of course, is McGahee's injury could cost him millions.

Tampa Bay is among the teams to interview him at the scouting combine last week. The Bucs do not have an immediate need at running back and would have the luxury of waiting for him to develop. But don't expect them to use their first pick -- 64th overall -- on a projection.

THE WEEK AHEAD: Nothing is free in free agency.

In an allocation system, you have to pay to play on the free-agent market and the Bucs aren't in the best position to do so. Tampa Bay is more than $6-million over the salary cap, including accelerator clauses and offers tendered to restricted free agents.

By Thursday's deadline to get under the $74.8-million salary cap, the Bucs could restructure three to four contracts, re-sign one or two of their unrestricted free agents and release center Jeff Christy.

Last offseason, 26 new players were added to the roster. Many were signed to minimum salaries, which rarely count against the salary cap.

The best bargains, like receiver Keenan McCardell and Roman Oben, came a month before training camp.

"There's a thing about free agency that's still misunderstood in my mind from a public standpoint and that is it really is a six-month process," general manager Rich McKay said. "Don't get overly caught up in it in March or April or May. It's really a six-month process.

"I don't like that. I wish your team was absolutely in cement by April 1, but it's just not going to happen."

The Bucs face many tough decisions and are bound to lose a few players. But McKay has done a good job of ensuring that the core players from the world championship team will return in 2003.

"I believe you can as an organization continue to make the hard decisions when the hard decisions are necessary, and continue to manage the cap, you can maintain a very high level," McKay said.

SUDDEN DEATH: The Bucs were involved in one overtime game, losing the season opener to the Saints. Both teams had several possessions before the game was decided on an interception in the end zone after a botched punt attempt by Tom Tupa.

The league's competition committee will present several proposals to change the overtime system at the owners meeting in Phoenix next month. But Bucs coach Jon Gruden prefers to keep the sudden-death overtime system.

"I'm not a big fan of changing things," Gruden said. "We've had a system in place. But again, I'm wide open to people that are on that (competition) committee. If they feel it benefits the game, then we'll listen to those presentations and we'll be open-minded.

"But I'm not a big fan of radical change. But at the same time, if it improves the game, if it's researched and in a democratic fashion if we push that thing through, then I'm for that."

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