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A record deal for Rice

Bucs make Simeon Rice highest-paid defensive player with $41M package, freeing cap room to sign Shelton Quarles.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2003

TAMPA -- It may have taken manipulation and major mathematics, but the Bucs finally got their man in the middle.

Thanks to a blockbuster contract extension for defensive end Simeon Rice, the Bucs on Friday found salary-cap room to sign free-agent middle linebacker Shelton Quarles to a five-year, $19.5-million contract.

Rice's deal, which ESPN reported will pay him $41-million over five years and comes with $20-million in bonuses to make him the league's highest-paid defensive player, also gave the Super Bowl champs room to sign ex-Giants guard Jason Whittle. Whittle signed a five-year, $8.2-million contract, with a $1.8-million signing bonus.

Due to make $4.6-million, $5.9-million in 2004 and $6-million in 2005, Rice would have cost the Bucs $7.1-million in salary cap money this season. The Bucs were $600,000 under the cap and needed a lot more room to sign Quarles, Whittle and any other free agents.

Rice will receive a $600,000 base salary, a $12-million signing bonus and an $8-million roster bonus in spring 2004. Rice led the NFC with 15.5 sacks last season and has 23.5 sacks in the past 22 regular-season games. The contract extension saves the Bucs about $2.8-million under the salary cap this season and $4.5-million in 2004.

Rice joins linebacker Derrick Brooks, cornerback Ronde Barber, receiver Joe Jurevicius, tight end Ken Dilger, fullback Mike Alstott and kicker Martin Gramatica as players with contracts restructured this offseason.

The Bucs immediately utilized the wiggle room to bring back their Pro Bowl linebacker.

"It's a perfect situation for me," Quarles said. "This is the place where I always wanted to be. To have my family here and hopefully to be able to finish out my career here, is something I always wanted to do. This is the place that feels like home to me."

An undrafted free agent who spent his first two years in the Canadian Football League, Quarles, 31, made it no secret he wanted to remain with the only NFL team he has played for.

"Shelton was clearly a priority for us entering free agency," GM Rich McKay said. "It is always nice to be able to retain a player who grew up in your system and who is a true fit in your scheme."

In his first season as a starting middle linebacker, Quarles helped the Bucs defense finish first in the NFL. He finished the regular season with a career-high 159 tackles and was named to his first Pro Bowl. In the postseason, Quarles had a team-high 21 tackles.

"It's definitely important that (the Bucs) have placed an emphasis on having everybody back," Quarles said. "I look forward to having the opportunity to get back to the Super Bowl and play the dominant defense that we were able to play last year."

The excitement over the signing, however, was tempered with the player's concern for the health of his wife, Damaris, who has been hospitalized since Monday while doctors search for the source of lower back pain.

The arrival of Whittle, a 6-foot, 305-pounder, temporarily satisfies a need at center. Moving the offensive line in a new direction and creating cap room at the same time, the Bucs released veteran center Jeff Christy and backup center Todd Washington Feb.27, leaving the team without a center.

Though Whittle is a natural guard, he could be asked to play center if the Bucs don't add another through free agency.

"It's just a good fit for both parties," said Whittle, who started 13 games at right guard last season for the Giants. "Tampa Bay seems like my kind of place. It's a championship team and a great organization and everything you here about Tampa is just positive."

The offensive line is a priority and more movement could be ahead. The Bucs reportedly are working out a deal to sign former Jaguars center John Wade, who visited Wednesday. If Wade signs, an interesting battle for the right guard spot will emerge between Whittle and returning starter Cosey Coleman, who did not have his best season.

The Bucs could consider moving left guard Kerry Jenkins to center and have considered former Broncos tackle Blake Brockermeyer, who visited this week.

In the meantime, free-agent left tackle Roman Oben returned to Tampa late Friday after visiting Pittsburgh. Oben, 30, said at the opening of the free agency he wanted to stay in Tampa Bay but now may be considering moving.

"It would be easier for me to stay in Tampa," Oben said. "I know the offense, I know the system, my family has a house down there. This business is what it is, sometimes you have to move on before you find that place."

After signing a one-year deal for the league minimum last season, Oben's play allowed the Bucs to move Kenyatta Walker to right tackle, his natural position. The seven-year veteran started all 19 games this season.

"I think it's a little better when you're coming off a Super Bowl victory than when you're cut from a team and have to re-establish your reputation in the league," said Oben, who hopes to get a four- or five-year deal. "You don't have to convince them you just need an opportunity to succeed, which was the case last year."

Also, free-agent linebacker Al Singleton, who started this season, is expected to be in Dallas on Monday. Singleton is considered a long shot to return and agent Mason Ashe has said the Bucs had yet to make a "tangible offer."

MCFARLAND UPDATE: Technically, the Bucs have all year to think about it, but the team has had preliminary talks with agent Karl Bernard about extending the contract of Anthony McFarland. The starting nose tackle becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2003 season, and the team wants to avoid trying to re-sign McFarland and Warren Sapp, alsoa free agent at the end of 2003, in the same year.

Bernard said he and McKay have discussed the team's desire to extend McFarland's contract. Bernard cautioned that though McFarland would like a "long-term deal," the parties are nowhere near formal negotiations.

"All we've had is a general conversation in which we've determined that Anthony would love to remain in Tampa Bay and that (the Bucs) would love to have him back," he said. "There is no time frame or goal in mind because Anthony is still under contract."

-- Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report.

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