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Will he stay or will he go?

That’s a question Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Jamie Winborn has been asking himself quite often this offseason, and he’ll soon have an answer.

Winborn signed a two-year deal with the Buccaneers as a free agent during the 2006 offseason. However, his deal, which included a $200,000 signing bonus, has an option in it that would allow the former Vanderbilt star to buy himself out of the final year of the deal and become an unrestricted free agent on March 2. This contract caveat was first reported in an SR's Fab Five Pewter Insider article last month.

“Right now I’m just waiting to see if Tampa Bay wants to do a longer term deal as opposed to me buying out of the deal and exploring the market,” Winborn told PewterReport.com. “I really like Tampa and that’s pretty much where I’d like to be. I’m just trying to give it a little more time to see what happens.”

If he does decide to buy himself out of his contract, Winborn would have to repay the $200,000 signing bonus he received in 2006 and would not earn the $200,000 roster bonus he’s scheduled to receive in March.

Although free agency doesn’t officially start until March 2, the language written into Winborn’s contract states that he must buy himself out of his contract with the Bucs 10 days before the start of the first day of the new league year.

Winborn wants a new contract that would show more of a long-term commitment on Tampa Bay’s part.

“When I came here I was expecting something different than what I’ve gotten,” said Winborn. “But I don’t have a problem with that. I’m just looking for some type of long-term commitment. They know what I’m capable of doing and they know what they have. Hopefully they like what they’ve seen and want to make a move on it.”

But the Bucs don’t appear to be in much of a hurry to make a move.

Even if Tampa Bay decides not to give Winborn a new contract, which would prompt him to opt out of his current deal, Tampa Bay would still have four of its six linebackers from last season – Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles, Ryan Nece, Barrett Ruud and Antoine Cash – under contract in 2007 (LB Wesly Mallard is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March).

However, Brooks will turn 34 in April and Quarles will be 36 in September, which suggests they do have a need to get younger at the linebacker position.

Although he didn’t crack the starting lineup last year, Winborn is a player the Bucs like and are interested in retaining. He notched six tackles while seeing a limited amount of playing time on defense. But his biggest impact came on special teams, where he recorded 14 tackles and one forced fumble.

Perhaps the biggest feat Winborn was able to accomplish last season was staying healthy. The former second-round pick played in just 48 games in his first five seasons due to various injuries. He remained injury free last year.

Winborn has proven to be an impact player when healthy, evidenced by his 281 career tackles, nine sacks, three interceptions, 12 passes defensed, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

The Bucs would ideally like for Winborn to play under his current contract, which calls for him to earn base salary of $600,000 in 2007. Remaining in Tampa Bay would give him the opportunity to eventually become Brooks’ successor.

“I think [the Bucs would like to keep me], but you never can tell unless the writing is on the paper,” said Winborn. “That’s kind of how I’m looking at it, but I think they’re interested in keeping me in Tampa Bay. I’m prepared to come back and play there if that’s what they’d like. If not, I understand.”

The 5-foot-11, 242-pound Winborn brings size and speed to Tampa Bay’s defense, and at 27, he’s viewed as a player that has upside and the potential to replace Brooks on the weak side once the nine-time Pro Bowler decides to retire.

The Bucs were in a similar position in 2004 with LB Ian Gold. Tampa Bay had convinced Gold to sign with the Bucs under a long-term deal that was essentially structured like a one-year contract.

Gold played exceptionally well and unseated Nece as the starting strongside linebacker. Gold also proved he could stay healthy and that there were no lingering effects from a knee injury he had suffered the previous season.

Unfortunately for the Bucs, they couldn’t afford Gold’s salary for the next season, and Gold wanted to switch from the strong side to the weak side, which is his more natural position.

With salary cap challenges and Brooks still on top of his game at that time, the Bucs released Gold, who later re-signed with Denver.

Winborn is well aware of how Gold’s situation worked out in Tampa Bay, and he’s hoping his story has a different ending.

“I’m definitely familiar with Ian’s situation in Tampa,” said Winborn. “I look at what he was able to do in his one year here, and then he went back to Denver. I’m pretty sure there are some teams that would have an interest in having me on their team, but hopefully Tampa Bay won’t let me get away.”

He’s not necessarily looking to move over to the weak side, which is his more natural position, right away. Instead, Winborn said he is merely looking for a sign from the Bucs that shows he’s part of their long-term plans.

“Derrick Brooks is going to be there until Derrick Brooks doesn’t want to play football anymore,” said Winborn. “And rightfully so. He’s arguably the best Will linebacker to have ever played the game. That said, there’s only one spot that you can have competition at, and that’s the Sam linebacker spot. You have Barrett Ruud as a young guy and the future in the middle, and then Ryan Nece, who was I was trying to compete against last year when my position was moved. Of course I’d like to start, but I don’t mind doing things like special teams and things that are going to help this team win. I am just looking for a long-term commitment from the Bucs.”

Whether or not the Bucs opt to restructure Winborn’s current contract could depend on what happens around the rest of the NFL.

Chicago Pro Bowl LB Lance Briggs and Indianapolis LB Cato June are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on March 2. Both players are participating in Super Bowl XLI, and if they hit the free agent market, they will draw plenty of interest from around the NFL. The Bucs would be greatly interested in Briggs.

However, several sources from around the league believe the Bears will use the franchise tag on Briggs, which would keep the Bucs and the rest of the league from courting him this offseason.

While Winborn’s future in Tampa Bay is unclear now, it will be determined in the next few weeks. If he wants to opt out of his deal, Winborn must do it by Feb. 20.

“If they don’t want to do a long-term deal I have to opt out of my contract and explore the market to see where I might be able to play,” said Winborn. “But I really hope it doesn’t get to that. I really don’t want to go anywhere else. I love playing in Tampa Bay.”

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