tampabay.com

Unfinished business awaits Bucs

By STEPHEN F. HOLDER
Published March 12, 2006


The Bucs began checking needs off their shopping list Saturday on the first day of free agency by making several key moves.

Re-signing kicker Matt Bryant? Check.

Making Mike Alstott's and Chris Hovan's signings official? Check.

But theirs is a long list, and the job is far from done. Case in point: the future of quarterback Brian Griese, who was released Friday in a cost-cutting maneuver, remains undetermined though negotiations are ongoing.

Also yet to be addressed: the offensive line, one of the areas the Bucs have targeted for an upgrade in free agency. After Tennessee free agent offensive tackle Brad Hopkins visited last week, Patriots free agent tackle Tom Ashworth arrived in Tampa Saturday evening to meet with members of the Bucs' front office.

Bryant's signing was Saturday's big news, though, as the Bucs retained a player who has proven reliable at a position that has caused the team past heartache. After Martin Gramatica's demise in 2004 - when he converted just 58 percent of his kicks - the Bucs made place kicker a priority and brought the 30-year-old Bryant on board. He took advantage of the opportunity, making 84 percent of his kicks in 2005, including a pair of game-winners in two contests against Atlanta and 11-of-13 attempts beyond 40 yards.

The Bucs undoubtedly were pleased with Bryant's performance last season but still tried to make a play for a marquee kicker after free agency began at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. Tampa Bay targeted Packers free agent Ryan Longwell until he opted to sign a lucrative $10-million deal with Minnesota that included a $3-million signing bonus.

Terms of Bryant's contract weren't available, but the Bucs were not prepared to spend nearly that much on a kicker.

After agreeing to terms on a deal late Friday night, Alstott's one-year contract for a reported $1.5-million was made official. The news capped weeks of talks between Alstott's representatives and general manager Bruce Allen. But all parties seemed pleased with the outcome of the deal, with Alstott's representatives indicating he was satisfied.

The Bucs benefited by adding a fullback and one of the franchise's most popular players on the day free agent fullback Jameel Cook agreed to terms on a contract with the Houston Texans. It's expected that Alstott, 32, will have a role similar to last season, when he became a short-yardage and goal-line specialist who scored seven touchdowns - second on the team behind receiver Joey Galloway.

Saturday's other signing, that of Hovan, was expected after the defensive tackle agreed to terms last week on a five-year, $17.5-million contract.

Now, it's on to the rest of that shopping list. Griese is believed to have an offer on the table, but his availability could generate interest among other teams.

Ashworth, 28, met with the New York Jets earlier in the day and was scheduled to meet with the Dolphins today. His visit raises an intriguing possibility for the Bucs, who could net a versatile player in his prime.

A three-year starter with the Patriots, Ashworth can play left and right tackle and even lines up at tight end. The 6-foot-6, 305-pound player caught a touchdown against the Bucs in New England's 28-0 victory last season.

The idea is for Ashworth to come to a decision in short order. He is seeking a long-term deal and likely would command a hefty salary.

Hopkins' representative said Saturday that talks continue with the Bucs and other teams.

Bucs free agent safety Dexter Jackson is expected in Cincinnati today and Minnesota on Monday, where ex-Bucs secondary coach Mike Tomlin is the defensive coordinator.