Speedy linebacker had two years with Detroit after spending his first six seasons in Tampa Bay.
By ROGER MILLS
Published March 11, 2004
TAMPA - After spending the first week of free agency addressing the offense, the Bucs turned their attention to the other side of the ball Wednesday.
Tampa Bay signed veteran linebacker Jeff Gooch, returning the former starter and special-teams standout to the team that gave him his start in the NFL. Terms of the deal were not released.
Gooch, entering his ninth season, made the Bucs as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Austin Peay in 1996. He played the first six seasons with the Bucs, starting all 16 games at strongside linebacker in 1998 before losing his job to Shelton Quarles.
He spent the last two years as a backup linebacker for the Lions.
But where Gooch, 29, made his biggest impact, both here and in Detroit, was on special teams. Through his six seasons with the Bucs, he totaled 85 special-teams tackles. In his first season with the Lions, he had a career-high 41 special-teams tackles and followed that with 23 last season.
"Jeff adds a lot of versatility to our linebacking corps," coach Jon Gruden said in a statement. "He also brings dynamic leadership and playmaking skills to our special-teams unit."
Quarles, a close personal friend, said Gooch's style is a perfect fit in Tampa Bay.
"He definitely brings speed to playing linebacker and special teams and is probably one of the fastest guys at linebacker in the NFL," Quarles said. "I'm excited. He understands the game, has a great feel for it and a great passion for it. ... He was here when we wore the orange and he left before he could get a ring. Maybe we can help him get his own."
With the addition of Gooch, the Bucs have signed nine players in seven days but still appear to have room under the league-mandated $80.6-million salary cap, thanks in part to cornerback Brian Kelly.
Kelly opted to switch some of the $2.8-million base pay he was due this season to a guaranteed bonus, thereby giving the Bucs more cap relief. The deal did not add years or come with a signing bonus, but helped create about $1.3-million of extra cap space.
"I just wanted to help out," Kelly said. "We're in a dire situation right now and it didn't seem like anyone else was stepping up. So I did my thing."
Meanwhile, defensive tackle Warren Sapp is getting ready to begin taking trips, agent Drew Rosenhaus said. The seven-time Pro Bowl tackle had expressed his wish to remain in Tampa but the Bucs have yet to make an offer.
Tuesday, general manager Bruce Allen said the Bucs aren't going to be pushed into making an offer and added he expected Sapp to go out and test the market.
Rosenhaus would not elaborate on which teams have shown interest in Sapp, but he has been linked to Baltimore, Oakland and Chicago.
The Bucs confirmed that former Bengals safety Rogers Beckett visited Wednesday.