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Returning Bucs trim draft needs

Wunsch, Barber fill potential holes by signing long-term deals.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


TAMPA -- They still will pick 21st overall, but the Bucs believe they have greatly improved their position in the draft.

By signing starting offensive tackle Jerry Wunsch and cornerback Ronde Barber on Tuesday, Tampa Bay erased two potential needs and won't have to plug holes when its selection time arrives.

"Right tackle and cornerback are hard positions to fill in the draft," coach Tony Dungy said.

"I think now we're in a position to take the best (player) available."

Wunsch, 27, started 29 games the past two seasons at right tackle before signing a five-year, $13-million contract Tuesday. Barber, 26, who signed a six-year, $18-million deal, is coming off his best season. He led NFC defensive backs with 5.5 sacks.

The Bucs have six unrestricted free agents remaining unsigned, including two starters they don't expect back, guard Frank Middleton and safety Damien Robinson.

Retaining Wunsch was critical considering the investment the Bucs made in free-agent quarterback Brad Johnson. And re-signing Barber did not seem probable after they added defensive end Simeon Rice and quarterback Ryan Leaf.

"We knew it was going to be tough because we had quite a few unrestricted free agents and our money was a little tighter this year than it's been in the past," Dungy said. "Ronde and Jerry we kind of targeted early on. They are vital cogs."

Both players agreed to deals for less than what they expected when the free agent signing period began. But Wunsch and Barber said Tuesday they were satisfied with their contracts and grateful for the opportunity to continue their careers in Tampa Bay.

"The process was not a fun one, to say the least," said Barber, who turned down a one-year deal from Seattle. "But I understand where the organization is coming from.

"Unfortunately, with so many players being cut, the market was soft and saturated. ... After two or three weeks, internally I was hitting the panic button."

Adding to the anxiety was the Bucs' rash of signings that slowly whittled away their room under the salary cap.

"During this thing, I was pretty nervous," said Wunsch, who visited Cincinnati. "But the end result was I got exactly what I needed. "When you see those things happen, you're getting excited for the Buccaneers. But you don't know if you're going to be a Buccaneer or not. That was nerve-racking because I really wanted to be a Buccaneer. You've got to take your hat off to Rich McKay. If he's not one of the best in the business, I don't know who is."

With the Bucs owning 10 draft choices and being close to the salary cap, it's likely they will release veteran defensive end Chidi Ahanotu after the April 21-22 draft.

The Bucs have a surplus of big contracts spent on their defensive line.

"It's a little like the quarterback situation," Dungy said. "We'll see how it all shakes out at training camp. Can we make it work financially? We'll have to see.

"Every year is different. Other teams have less money. We have less money, too. I think it's going to be this way from now on."

Wunsch did not waste any time getting started. Shortly after signing his contract Tuesday morning, he joined the team's off-season workout program.

"We can't take anything for granted," Wunsch said. "I felt the last two years, we took some things for granted. As teammates, it's a matter of looking each other in the eye and getting it done.

"Everybody is committed here. I know that's why I wanted to be here."

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