With Tampa Bay’s 2004 season about to come to an end, several free-agents-to-be spent Wednesday discussing their future with the Buccaneers beyond the 2004 season.

One of Tampa Bay’s biggest free agents will be safety Dwight Smith, who has started all 15 games at strong safety and notched 96 tackles, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and 11 passes defensed.

Smith, who will market himself as a cornerback on the free agent market, might not be back with the Bucs because of the team’s salary cap status ($10-12 million over), but the 2001 third-round draft pick out of Akron would like to stay with the Bucs.

“I can’t really think about that,” said Smith. “When you start thinking about contract situations and things like that, then that’s when injuries and things like that start to happen. I just have to let the chips fall where they may, and if I come back next year, great, and if I don’t then I have to move on. I know I’ve talked to a lot of guys that have had to move on and they say it’s not the worst thing in the world, but we all know I would love to be a Buccaneer.”

Should the Bucs lose Smith in free agency, they could turn their attention toward signing another one of their free agent safeties – Super Bowl XXXVII MVP Dexter Jackson, who re-signed with the team during the season after recovering from a back injury.

Jackson, who has played in five games but missed some action due to a hamstring injury, said teams will see that he’s back and worthy of receiving a long-term contract during the spring.

“I’m getting more and more playing time,” said Jackson. “Teams see that. They know that coaches just can’t throw me in there because I haven’t had the training camp. Now that I’ve shown teams that I’m well and I’m just trying to work my way back in.”

After spending the first four years of his career in Tampa Bay, Jackson said he certainly wouldn’t mind being re-signed by the Buccaneers during the offseason.

“It’s big,” Jackson said. “This is home. This is the team that gave me an opportunity and I came out and performed well. If they want me to come back, it’s open arms. I have no bad taste in my mouth for this team. It was a situation that I (couldn’t pass up). I had to make that move. Things are lovely here. It’s all good blood.

“I’m going to give (the Bucs) the first right (of first refusal). If they want to sign me, that’s fine. If they want to go in a different direction, that’s still fine. I still love them and I don’t have any regrets.”

Another one of Tampa Bay’s priorities will be attempting to re-sign defensive end Greg Spires, who has turned in a banner season in 2004.

Spires has started 15 games and recorded 81 tackles, eight sacks and three forced fumbles this season. According to Spires, notching 10 sacks on the season will go a long way in terms of landing a long-term contract with the Bucs or another team.

“I talked before the season, during the season and now we’ve got to wait until after the season,” said Spires. “I don’t know anything about our cap situation. All I know is if I get 10 sacks it will help me out.”

If he is going to notch two more sacks, they will probably have to come from the under tackle position, where Spires was moved two weeks ago in an effort to see how versatile he was. That move may backfire on the Bucs, who Spires says increased his value by letting him showcase his talents as a defensive tackle.

“By them moving me in there it was like opening a new can of worms,” said Spires. “The more you can do in this league the more valuable you are.”

Although he’s searching for a good contract, Spires says he will remain loyal to the Bucs and give them every opportunity to re-sign him since they gave him his first chance to be a full-time starter in the NFL when they signed him in 2002.

“Absolutely,” Spires said when asked if he wanted to re-sign with Tampa Bay. “Everybody knows me here. You want to be around people that like you and want to see you succeed. At the same time, I never started before I got here and this team gave me the opportunity, so I feel like I owe them something.”

Although he’s a backup linebacker, Keith Burns will also likely be a top priority for the Bucs this offseason. Why? Because Burns leads all Bucs in special teams tackles with 22 and has forced a fumble.

Like the other free-agents-to-be, Burns said he would like to play for the Bucs again next season.

“When you sign a contract you have to stand by that contract, and that’s what I’ve been doing,” said Burns. “I signed up for 16 games and that’s what they’re going to get out of me. My body is pretty much built for that, and that’s a one-year deal. That’s the approach I take. I’m not like a lot of other guys — I’m an independent contractor. You either like my work and invite me back or we part ways and it’s a job well done. Whatever happens happens.

“But you always want to come back. I’m not getting caught up in all that, though. If I got paid $2 million a year you’d still get the same effort and performance out of me. It’s not really about the money.”

The biggest name the Bucs will have enter free agency on the offensive side of the ball is Ken Dilger, who is one of three tight ends (Rickey Dudley and Dave Moore) that is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

However, Dilger, who will turn 34 in February, is considering retiring from the NFL.

“Who knows,” Dilger said when asked if he was going to retire after this season. “We’ll see how the offseason shapes up and how I feel in March and April. After going five or six wins this year, it’s kind of depressing, so I just want to get away from it for a little bit and get the emotional side out of it and see what happens.”

With the possibility of Dilger, Dudley and Moore all possibly retiring or signing with other teams after the 2004 season, Dilger, who isn’t sure if the Bucs would even re-sign him because of their salary cap problems, said he’s pretty sure the Bucs will draft a tight end in April.

“It’s hard to say because I think everybody knows our salary cap situation here,” said Dilger. “Odds are they will probably draft a young guy and build for the future.”

If Sunday is indeed his last game in the NFL, Dilger, who has caught 38 passes for 342 yard and three touchdowns this season, said he has no regrets.

“Playing 10 years and pretty much being a starter for all 10 and going to the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl, and being around some great players, I can honestly say I’d have no regrets if Sunday is my last game,” Dilger said.

Although he’s not scheduled to become a free agent, Bucs fullback Mike Alstott may not return in 2005 due to the team’s need to create cap room. However, the “A-Train” said he expects to be back next season.

“I have a contract, so yeah, I expect to be back,” said Alstott. “I’m not going to get into whether I got enough carries or anything like that. I’ve always been a role player when my number has been called and I just try to do the best I can when my number is called.”

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