Kelly plans to become free agent

The longtime Bucs cornerback says he will opt out of the final season of his deal and test the market.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
Published January 27, 2008

TAMPA - The dynamic duo might break up.

Brian Kelly, the Bucs' bookend cornerback who played opposite Ronde Barber for the past decade, said he plans to become a free agent.

Kelly, 32, is scheduled to earn $3.2-million in 2008. But he said he plans to "buy back" the final year of his contract by exercising a $480,000 option in the second week of March.

"Consider it done," Kelly said in a text message Saturday, the five-year anniversary of the Bucs' 48-21 victory over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.

At 5 feet 11, 193 pounds, Kelly was the Bucs' most physical cornerback and typically was assigned to shut down the opponent's top receiver.

A second-round pick from USC in 1998, Kelly's 22 interceptions rank seventh in Bucs history, one behind safety John Lynch.

The past two seasons, Kelly was plagued by injuries. He played in just two games in 2006 and missed four others before being placed on season-ending injured reserve with a degenerative turf-toe injury.

After surgery, Kelly had to abort his comeback in 2007 after the regular-season opener at Seattle, when he strained a groin. He returned two weeks later against the Rams but aggravated the injury. Two weeks after that, he gave it a go at Indianapolis, making three tackles, but he was worse for it. He missed the next three games before re-entering the lineup in a win over Arizona.

By that time, the Bucs had given the starting job to Phillip Buchanon, and Kelly worked his way back as the nickel cornerback on passing downs. Kelly finished the season with 21 tackles, seven passes defensed and two interceptions, one in the end zone in the finals seconds to preserve a win against Washington.

Kelly started every game in 2004 and 2005 but missed 11 in 2003 because of a strained pectoral muscle.

If the Bucs don't re-sign Kelly, they likely will have to address the position in April's draft or free agency, which begins Feb. 29. Besides Buchanon, 27, and Barber, 33 in April, there isn't much experience. Torrie Cox, coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and Sammy Davis, who will be a free agent, completed their fifth seasons.

"What Kelly brings, we don't have in our room," defensive backs coach Raheem Morris said this past season. "One of the better-off corners who you can put in space and ... make plays on the football."

Kelly, who has never been named to the Pro Bowl, was a big reason for the Bucs' Super Bowl run during the 2002 season. He tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions and set career highs for passes defensed (23) and tackles (78).

In all, he has seen action in nine postseason games (five starts) with two interceptions.

Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud@tampabay.com.