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Bucs racing the free-agency clock

By ROGER MILLS
Published March 2, 2004

TAMPA - Tick, tick, tick.

With the clock advancing, Bucs officials are faced with the challenge of shaving at least $500,000 off their salary cap, likely by releasing a player or two, to reach the league-mandated $80.582-million limit by tonight's midnight deadline.

And they just might use every single second.

"Things do happen at the last minute," general manager Bruce Allen said.

The free-agent market opens Wednesday at 12:01 a.m., meaning teams can begin "formal" negotiations, if not signings. Though not expected to be major players in the market, the Bucs do need to address some needs.

But to do so, the team must make room. That could mean the release of one or two high-priced players sometime today and maybe more as the market unfolds.

"We're not looking to release anybody who can help us win this year, I know that," Allen said. "Usually, you wait to see what you need at the time. I'm not interested in creating cap room just to put it in the closet. We hope to utilize it."

Among those reported to be in jeopardy are veteran linebacker Dwayne Rudd and veteran receiver/returner Karl Williams. Left guard Kerry Jenkins, who also emerged as a possible cap casualty, was due a $1-million roster bonus Monday.

Paying Jenkins the bonus would indicate the team's plan to keep him, although he likely will have to restructure the remainder of his contract. The team would not confirm if Jenkins was paid the bonus.

The team also could free up space by restructuring existing deals of players such as Derrick Brooks and receiver Keenan McCardell, a process that is ongoing.

In his first free-agency stint since joining the Bucs on Jan. 9, Allen warned that such player moves could come down to the final minutes.

The release of Rudd might be a necessary evil even if it leaves the team with only two regular linebackers who play (Brooks and Shelton Quarles) under contract. Rudd, who signed a two-year deal last season but did not beat out Ryan Nece for the starting position, might be expendable because of his $970,000 salary. He is due a roster bonus Wednesday.

If the Bucs release Rudd, his roster bonus and salary for next year come off the cap. Agent Mitch Frankel said the team has not talked to him about restructuring a new deal.

"(Being released) is always a possibility," Frankel said. "We don't know, they haven't told us anything. We'll wait and see what happens over the next 24 hours."

Whether the team releases Rudd or Williams or others, Frankel said the players are prepared: "They understand how it works. Everyone knows it's a business and business decisions are made. Everyone is a big boy and everyone has to deal with the consequences and ramifications."

Once cap room is created, the team can focus on bolstering certain spots. Raiders left guard/tackle Matt Stinchcomb is reportedly close to signing with the Bucs and being reunited with his former coach, Jon Gruden.

The team also is believed to be interested in a veteran quarterback to back up starter Brad Johnson.

COACHING MOVES: The team promoted defensive assistant Raheem Morris to assistant defensive backs coach and elevated Jeremy Bates, former offensive quality control coach, to a new position of assistant quarterbacks coach. It also announced the hiring of Joe Woods as defensive quality control coach.

KEY UPDATE: Receiver Keyshawn Johnson returned to Los Angeles on Saturday night while negotiations continued between his agent, Jerome Stanley, and the Cowboys. Both were hopeful of reaching a trade agreement before the free-agent signing period begins.

[Last modified March 2, 2004, 01:44:59]

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