The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have spent the past four seasons using Dwight Smith’s versatility to help them win football games. But unless he’s signed to an extension between January and the start of free agency on March 1, Smith will try and use his versatility to land a long-term, lucrative contract outside of Tampa Bay.

The Buccaneers are projected to be $10-12 million over the salary cap when the 2005 offseason begins. Perhaps that’s one of the main reasons why Smith doesn’t believe he’ll receive the contract he’s looking for in Tampa Bay.

“Yeah, I’ve thought about it,” Smith said of his contract situation. “Most likely I won’t be here. I don’t see no effort being put forth, so why should I think any differently?”

Smith, 26, entered the NFL with the Bucs in 2001 as a third-round draft pick out of Akron. After notching 22 tackles on special teams during his rookie campaign, Smith worked his way into the nickel cornerback role in 2002, where he recorded four interceptions and 10 passes defensed while recording 20 special teams tackles. He capped that impressive season off by setting a Super Bowl record with two interceptions returned for touchdowns against the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.

In 2003, Smith was moved to safety in an effort to fill the vacancy left by Super Bowl XXXVII MVP Dexter Jackson, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals that offseason. However, a plethora of injuries rendered several defensive backs unavailable for the Bucs, which forced the team to move Smith around quite a bit.

In fact, Smith started all 16 games, and nine of those starts came at free safety, six came at cornerback and one came at strong safety. Smith finished the season with 85 tackles, a team-high five interceptions and 11 passes defensed while notching 11 special teams tackles.

While moving around has made it difficult for Smith to settle in at one position, he said he’s just happy to see action on the football field.

“I’m a ball player,” said Smith. “They asked me to be a special teams guy around here and I did that. They asked me to be a third corner and I did that. They asked me to go to safety and I did that.”

Smith has been able to stay put at the strong safety position this season. As part of the league’s top-rated pass defense, Smith has notched 72 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and 10 passes defensed.

According to Bucs defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin, Smith is improving with each game he gets under his belt.

“He’s progressing and he’s getting better and better every week,” said Tomlin. “Not only is Dwight a good player, but remember that he’s a young player. He’ll continue to get better with snaps, no question.”

The 5-foot-10, 201-pound Smith is regarded as one of the team’s best athletes and most versatile players. That’s why Bucs general manager Bruce Allen attempted to extend Smith’s contract last spring.

“We’re always interested in keeping good players,” Allen told Pewter Report during the offseason. “Dwight is one of them.”

A few contract proposals were exchanged, but negotiations between Allen and Smith’s former agent, Gene Burrough, hit a wall during the summer. In an effort to avoid contract talks becoming a distraction, Smith requested that negotiations be cut off when training camp started. His wish was granted, and shortly after Smith reported to training camp he fired Burrough and hired Drew Rosenhaus.

According to Smith, the two sides weren’t even close.

“If this is Tampa then they were in Miami,” said Smith. “That’s how far apart we were.”

In the past, Smith has expressed gratification for the Bucs’ decision to give him his shot in the NFL by drafting him. And if given the right circumstances, Smith said he would jump at the chance to stay in Tampa Bay, even if it means skipping out on the opportunity to test free agency in March.

“This is where I play and this is where I live,” said Smith. “I have a house built and everything, so why would I want to leave all of that?

“If the Bucs were to offer me a contract that was in the range of what I want to be paid there would be no need for me to go out in free agency. We won’t know until that time comes because I’m not sure if they’re willing to make that commitment to me or not.”

While Rosenhaus and Allen did talk prior to the start of the season, negotiations went nowhere, according to Smith. With the two sides at a stalemate, Allen turned his attention to extending the contract of Tampa Bay’s starting free safety, Jermaine Phillips, who received a four-year contract extension worth approximately $9.5 million last month to keep him off the restricted free agent market next March.

Smith said Phillips’ new contract, which included a $1 million signing bonus and a $1.35 million roster bonus that’s due to him next spring, is not the type of deal he’s even willing to consider signing.

“The money I’m looking for isn’t even in the same ballpark,” Smith said.

Smith went on record as saying that his main focus right now is helping his teammates finish the season strong and earn a playoff berth. While it hasn’t necessarily been a distraction, Smith said he can’t help but think about his contract situation as the regular season draws closer to an end.

“Absolutely not,” Smith said when asked if his contract situation was a distraction. “I love playing. When I’m out there playing I’m not thinking about my contract. But when you start looking around and seeing what guys are making, and you compare their pay to your pay, that’s when you start getting upset.

“I don’t play the game for the money. I play this game because I love it. But we all want to be paid what we’re worth.”

Smith might have reason to be upset. Phillips’ extension left Smith, who will earn a base salary of $455,000 this season, as the third-lowest paid starter on Tampa Bay’s roster and depth chart. The only starters paid less than Smith right now are new kicker Jay Taylor and center Sean Mahan, who started the season as a backup to John Wade, who was placed on injured reserve several weeks ago.

Although he wouldn’t disclose the exact contract terms he’s looking for, Smith made it clear that he feels grossly underpaid.

“If the Bucs decide that I deserve to be the third lowest paid starter on the team, then I probably don’t need to be here,” said Smith.

But money may not be the only factor that determines Smith’s future in Tampa Bay. In a surprising revelation, Smith said he wants to play cornerback, not safety. But with both Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly under contract with the Bucs next season, that’s probably not going to happen in Tampa Bay.

“I think everybody knows that I want to play corner,” said Smith. “I don’t see too much to make me think that’s going to happen around here.

“I’m happy to be playing, but everybody knows that I’m not a safety. I’m a cornerback. I think I’ve shown my versatility by going in there and making some plays. It’s not like I’ve flopped or anything. I just don’t think I’m having the same impact I would have if I was at cornerback.”

There could be a spot on Tampa Bay’s roster for a nickel cornerback since the Bucs will be hard pressed to keep cornerback Mario Edwards, who signed a six-year, $18 million deal with the team during the offseason, around next season without having to commit to the larger portion of his contract. But not only does Smith want to go back to playing cornerback, he wants to start, too.

“I’m not a third corner, either,” said Smith.

One of the reasons Smith might be so eager to return to cornerback is because of the offers he’ll likely receive at that position as opposed to being a free agent safety. Safeties have not commanded the biggest contracts over the past few years.

For example, three months after winning Super Bowl XXXVII MVP honors, Jackson signed a five-year, $14 million contract with Arizona. That deal included a signing bonus of $2.75 million. Former Bucs safety John Lynch received a three-year deal worth $9 million from Denver last spring.

“Dwight is a versatile player and he can do a lot of things, but the market is probably better out there for a cornerback so he probably feels like he’s a better corner,” said Tomlin.

During the 2004 offseason, several cornerbacks received big pay days. San Francisco re-signed Ahmed Plummer, who was entering his fifth season in the pros and had notched 12 career interceptions, to a five-year, $25 million contract that included a $11 million signing bonus. Minnesota signed Buffalo free agent corner Antoine Winfield, who was coming off of his fifth season in the pros and had recorded six career picks, to a six-year, $34.8 million deal that included a $10.8 million signing bonus.

Smith has 14 career interceptions (including three in the post-season) in just four years in the NFL, and those stats along with his versatility and knack for playing on special teams could drive his asking price even higher than the contracts Plummer and Winfield received during the 2004 offseason.

“Every free agent period is different,” said Tomlin. “Last year, some cornerbacks went out on the market and made a lot of money, but a lot of teams thought they overpaid for some of the guys. If Dwight makes it to the market, the market will speak. But we love Dwight. He’s a good player for this football team.”

Although Tampa Bay’s defense has ranked in the top five against the pass for five of the past six seasons, Bucs defensive backs haven’t fared particularly well out on the free agent market. The thinking was that Barber and Kelly were “system cornerbacks” and wouldn’t be as productive outside of the Bucs’ Cover 2 scheme. That’s a flawed assumption, according to Smith.

“I never played Cover 2 before I got here,” said Smith. “Just because we play Cover 2 here doesn’t mean we’re all Cover 2 guys. A lot of people say Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly are just scheme guys, but I like their chances one-on-one against any receiver in the league.”

In 2001, Barber tested the free agent market but ended up re-signing with the Bucs. He commanded a six-year contract worth $18 million. Kelly found himself in a similar situation the following offseason. Like Barber, Kelly returned to the Bucs, signing a six-year, $15 million contract.

Both Barber and Kelly have since restructured their contracts. In 2005, Barber and Kelly’s base salaries are scheduled to be $3.25 million and $2.4 million, respectively.

Despite seeing the contracts that Barber, Kelly, Jackson and Lynch recently received as free agents, Smith believes their situations won’t necessarily dictate his, and what might help Smith in that regard is the fact that more teams are adopting Tampa Bay’s infamous Cover 2 defense.

“I feel like I’m going to command more than Ronde and Brian did when they were on the market,” said Smith. “Back then there weren’t a lot of teams playing our style of defense. Now, when you look around the league, there are more defenses like ours that are looking for guys that play in our defense, like Dallas, Indianapolis, Chicago, St. Louis and on and on.”

None of the teams Smith mentioned currently have a defense ranked higher than 16th in the NFL. In fact, Indianapolis and St. Louis rank near the bottom of the league in that category, which means Smith could very well command a big contract out on the free agent market.

“We know there will be a market out there for us,” said Smith. “We just want to finish healthy and finish strong.”

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