With over $22 million at its disposal, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t necessarily have to release any players before free agency begins at 12:01 a.m. ET on Friday.

But that doesn’t mean the Bucs won’t part ways with some of their players this offseason.

Tampa Bay middle linebacker Shelton Quarles is under contract with the Buccaneers through the 2007 season, but he might not see it, or at least that’s what he indicated Thursday at a press conference held at One Buccaneer Place to promote his upcoming 10-day tour in Asia as part of the NFL-USO program.

Quarles, who is scheduled to turn 36 in September, suggested Thursday that his future with the Buccaneers was in the hands of the doctors that are in the process of evaluating his history of injuries.

“I’m not looking to retire, but we’ll see what happens with the decisions they make and the direction in which they want to go,” Quarles said.

Quarles, who ranked second on the team in tackles (136) despite starting just 12 of Tampa Bay’s 16 regular season games in 2006, wouldn’t comment on what the doctors were looking at specifically, but said he’s seeking multiple opinions in an effort allow the Buccaneers to decide to keep or release him.

“It will probably be based more on what the doctors think,” said Quarles. “They have their opinions about the injuries I’ve had over the years, and what they say will determine the decision we make. They’re a little more educated in what they do and with my injuries than I am. So, we’ll rely on not only the team doctors, but the doctors outside of the organization to give us an accurate assessment of the injuries I’ve had.”

If Quarles is released or opts to retire after 10 seasons in the NFL, the Bucs would free up approximately $3.3 million in cap room.

Even if there’s a mutual decision reached that allows Quarles to play out his contract with the Buccaneers, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker might have to restructure his contract for the second straight offseason.

Quarles is currently scheduled to have a cap value of $4.075 and earn a base salary of $1.3 million. He is also scheduled to receive a $100,000 roster bonus this offseason.

In the meantime, Tampa Bay might plan for life without Quarles. Free agency starts Friday, and the Bucs could be interested in signing linebackers Patrick Chukwurah (Denver) and/or Kawika Mitchell (Kansas City). 

Although football still runs through his blood, thoughts of life after football have crept into Quarles’ mind.

“I remember when Robert Smith retired at the top of his game, and Barry Sanders did it, too,” Quarles said. “Those guys were running backs, but I definitely want to be able to enjoy my kids and my family as they get older. I want to be able to go out there and play baseball and football with them. I definitely enjoy the game of golf. At this point, I don’t enjoy walking around sore, so hopefully that improves sometime soon.”

Quarles joined the Buccaneers in 1997 after a three-year stint in the CFL. He’s been part of a Tampa Bay defense that has finished nine of the past 10 seasons ranked in the top 10. That includes the 2002 and 2005 seasons, both of which were years where the Bucs had the No. 1-ranked defenses in the league. Quarles played an integral role in the success of those defenses, evidenced by Tampa Bay’s win over Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII and his trip to the Pro Bowl one week later.

The former Vanderbilt standout currently ranks fourth all-time in team history with 985 tackles. Quarles also ranks seventh in team history with 148 career games under his belt.

In 2005, Quarles recorded a team- and career-high 196 tackles. Despite missing four games last season due to injury, Quarles’ 136 tackles were just 14 shy of Derrick Brooks’ team-leading 150 takedowns.

Should Quarles not return in 2007, he feels Barrett Ruud, who joined Tampa Bay in 2005 as a second-round pick out of Nebraska, is ready to fill his shoes at the middle linebacker spot.

“Barrett is a good player,” said Quarles. “He played in a similar system at Nebraska. He’s an excellent, up-and-coming player. I’m not sure he’s ready to step in and do all of the things I have done because I am more experienced than Barrett and I understand the position better because I’ve played it so long. But as far as Barrett being able to play the position, I definitely think he’s ready to play.”

Quarles said Thursday that his future will be decided “within a month.” Although the verdict from the doctors and the Bucs isn’t in yet, Quarles is of the mindset that he can still play football.

“I’m a competitor, so I always think I can play regardless of what injuries I have,” Quarles said. “My whole career has been based on that. Nothing has been given to me. Everything I have I’ve had to work for, and that’s just the way I am. I’m going to work until I can’t work anymore.”

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