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Tampa Bay has signed just one of its 2006 draft picks with less than one week before training camp starts, yet much of the talk these days regarding Bucs players and contracts seems to be revolving more around cornerback Ronde Barber than the team’s nine remaining unsigned rookies.

That’s because Barber, a three-time Pro Bowler, is in the final year of his contract with the Buccaneers, and he’s mentioned on more than one occasion how unhappy he is with his current deal.

Barber has become a staple of Tampa Bay’s defense, which has been one of the league’s top defenses over the past decade. He’s notched 770 career tackles, 28 interceptions, seven forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries and 146 passes defensed during his nine-year career.

Last season, Barber earned a second consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl by recording 120 tackles, two sacks, a team-high five interceptions and 22 passes defensed en route to helping Tampa Bay’s defense finish the season ranked No. 1 overall.

Perhaps Barber’s biggest career feat last season came on Dec. 12 against Carolina when he became the first cornerback in NFL history and just the seventh player all time to notch 20 career interceptions and 20 career sacks.

Barber has put himself in position to make more history this year. He’s just four interceptions away from breaking Tampa Bay’s franchise record for interceptions, which currently is held by Donnie Abraham (31 INTs from 1996-2001).

It’s not hard to see why Barber thinks he’s underpaid. Many fans want to see the Bucs sign Barber to a contract extension, one that he’s undoubtedly earned.

However, it’s important to point out the fact that Barber isn’t making chump change. In fact, with the escalator that was triggered with him making the Pro Bowl last year, Barber’s base salary for 2006 is $4 million, which is the third highest on the team behind only defensive end Simeon Rice and defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. Barber’s salary cap value for 2006 is $5.364 million.

Barber hasn’t exactly been thrilled with his contract since he signed it in 2001. He tested free agency that offseason and re-signed with the Bucs after receiving little interest on the market. Some teams viewed Barber as a “system” cornerback, but next year could prove to be much different since more and more teams have implemented a Tampa 2-style of defense that’s similar to the one Barber has thrived in over the past several seasons.

Tampa Bay is interested in re-signing Barber, and it appears to have the money to do it. The Bucs currently have $8 million in cap room, and $4.5 million is set aside for their draft picks.

But the Bucs are in no hurry to sign Barber to a contract extension. He won’t officially be a free agent until March, and he’ll turn 32 next April.

And what happens if the Bucs sign Barber to a long-term, lucrative contract now, and the star cornerback suffers a serious, season-ending injury? Now all of the sudden the Bucs have signed a former Pro Bowl cornerback that is in the twighlight of his career and probably isn’t going to give the team the full return on their investment. That’s a situation the Bucs can avoid by simply not signing Barber to another deal just yet.

Some believe signing Barber to a new deal before his current one expires could also rock the boat with his partner in crime, CB Brian Kelly, who is scheduled to earn a $2.4 million base salary and has a $3.636 million cap value in 2006. He is under contract through the 2008 season.

Kelly, 30, is represented by agent Gary Uberstine, who also represents former Bucs wide receiver Keenan McCardell, who held out for a new contract in 2004 before eventually being traded to the San Diego Chargers.

Even with Tampa Bay having about $3.5 million in available cap room after the rookies are signed, there’s no guarantee the Bucs will be able to ink Barber to an extension. No one is quite sure how much money he’s looking for, and some rumors have suggested that Ronde could be interested in using free agency to join his twin brother Tiki in New York.

Tampa Bay has attempted to prepare itself for life without Barber. Earlier this offseason, the Bucs re-signed CB Juran Bolden, but instead of inking him to another one-year deal, the Bucs signed Bolden to a multi-year contract to ensure he’d be around in 2007. One month later, the Bucs used a fourth-round draft pick to select CB Alan Zemaitis, who shares a lot of Barber-like attributes and qualities. And if the Bucs sign safety Dwight Smith, who also can play cornerback, they will have added yet another insurance policy should Barber leave next year.

The Bucs are focused on signing their draft picks. But once that’s done, don’t expect the team to make re-signing Barber a top priority during the football season. To Barber’s credit, he refuses to follow in the footsteps of McCardell and hold out for a new deal. He will continue to honor his contract, and the Bucs would eventually like to honor him with a well-deserved contract extension, but it might not come as soon as some would like.

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