Rumors suggesting Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber might hold out over a contract dispute with the team turned out to be just that on Tuesday when the two-time Pro Bowler showed up at One Buccaneer Place for the Bucs’ first two mandatory mini-camp practices.

However, it seems as though there was and still is some validity to Barber’s gripe with his current contract, which has two more years on it.

“Contracts are always an issue,” Barber said. “Everybody thinks they’re underpaid. Some people are justified in it and some people aren’t. Whether or not it’s ever addressed is not something I have any say in. I’m a football player and I play football.”

Barber is scheduled to earn a base salary of $3.75 million and has a cap value of $5.1 million this season. The final year of Barber’s contract is scheduled to pay him a base salary of $3.5 million, and he’s scheduled to have a $4.8 million cap value.

According to a St. Petersburg Times report from a few months ago, Barber is the 27th highest-paid cornerback in the NFL, which is one of the reasons why the 5-foot-10, 194-pound cornerback is unhappy with the contract he signed as an unrestricted free agent during the 2001 offseason.

“Look at my peers and you tell me,” said Barber. “Look at (my play and Brian’s Kelly’s) play over the past couple of years and you tell me. That’s all I can do about it. I continue to do what I do. It starts to get to you when you get a little bit older.

“I’d love to be a free agent, like two years ago, but that didn’t happen. I was All-Pro with 10 interceptions (in 2001), so that would have been nice.”

Both Barber and Kelly tested the free agent waters during the 2001 and 2002 offseasons, respectively, but they both opted to stay in Tampa Bay by signing long-term deals with the Bucs.

“It’s a premier position, and Brian Kelly and myself were unfortunate because we weren’t on that wave,” Barber said of the recent long-term, lucrative contracts signed by other free agent cornerbacks around the league. “The demand (for free agent cornerbacks) started the year after I think B.K. was a free agent and has been pretty rampant since then. I think we have to try to be men about it the best we can and accept the contracts that we signed unless somebody or some party is willing to deal with it.”

This time last year, wide receiver Keenan McCardell, who had two years remaining on his contract and was coming off of a Pro Bowl season, held out for a new contract, but he never received it from the Bucs and was traded to the San Diego Chargers during the regular season.

Needless to say, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden was pleased to have Barber participating at the mandatory mini-camp.

“He’s a special guy, and we have several of those,” Gruden said. “I think we’re paying them pretty good, too. Hopefully he’ll finish his career here and he’s a great player coming off an outstanding season. The way he’s worked this spring, I’m sure he’ll have another helluva year.”

“You never know how a contract matter is going to go, but it’s good to see everybody.”

Although he is not among the league’s top-paid cornerbacks, Barber, 30, is currently Tampa Bay’s fourth highest-paid player behind linebacker Derrick Brooks, defensive end Simeon Rice and defensive tackle Anthony McFarland.

And just last season, Barber triggered a $500,000 escalator in his contract by playing 75 percent of the plays and making the Pro Bowl. His contract is structured in a way that will allow him to earn that same bonus this season and the next should he play 75 percent of the plays and make the Pro Bowl and/or intercept five passes.

Although his feats as well as his being a member of a Tampa Bay defense that has finished each of the past three seasons ranked in the top five in pass defense, including first overall last season, would suggest that he’s got a legitimate gripe, Barber’s love for the game of football played a strong role in his decision not to hold out for the deal he feels he deserves.

“I love Tampa and I love what this defense has allowed me to become as a player,” said Barber. “Having to re-establish that would probably be a little difficult. That’s not something I’m really willing to do unless I have to. If you hold out or don’t show up for the camp, in the long run you’re not playing football.”

Bucs general manager Bruce Allen has approached several players, including linebacker Derrick Brooks, McFarland, and Rice about the possibility of restructuring their contracts in an effort to free up some much-needed cap space for the team’s 12 draft picks, but it is unclear whether Allen has discussed a new or reworked deal with Barber’s agent, Ethan Locke.

“They’ve got their own issues,” Barber said of the Bucs when asked if the team had showed a willingness to work a new deal for him. “My issues involve me being out on the football field and being the best player I can be. Those things generally take care of themselves.”

When asked if he expected Barber to report to training camp, Allen said, “yes,” and although the possibility still remains that Barber could elect to hold out of training camp, his comments suggest he’ll report to work with the rest of his teammates in Lake Buena Vista on July 28.

“I don’t know any other way to go about it,” Barber said of his displeasure with his current contract. “You either deal with it this way or you take away something that you really love, and that’s playing the game.

“I’m out here right now, so that’s all they have to worry about.”

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