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Signing of third-rounder fuels Ruud speculation in Tampa

TAMPA, Fla. -- Draft picks Mason Foster and Daniel Hardy agreed to four-year contracts with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Tuesday, kicking off what figures to be a frenzied week of player transactions that could make one of the NFL's least-experienced rosters even more youthful.

Foster's agreement on the first day following the end of the NFL lockout increased speculation that veteran middle linebacker Barrett Ruud has played his last game for the Bucs.

Ruud is an unrestricted free agent, and general manager Mark Dominik said little to dispel the notion that the seventh-year pro no longer fits in the team's plans.

"I would say an important element for us long-term is that we got Mason Foster signed to a four-year contract," Dominik said, shrugging off a question about Ruud's future with the Bucs.

"Obviously I think it's important ... a young guy we drafted is here on this football team and trying to learn the system as fast as possible, and any kind of discussions with Barrett or his agent I would leave out of the picture right now."

Foster is a third-round draft pick out of Washington. The Bucs also reached terms with Hardy, a seventh-round tight end from Idaho -- leaving the team with six drafted players, including first-round defensive end Adrian Clayborn, that Dominik hopes to sign before the Bucs report for training camp Thursday.

"Our priority is our football players," said Dominik, who also faces decisions on Tampa Bay's 11 unrestricted free agents and six restricted free agents. "We're going to do everything we can retain as many of the guys as we want here for the long term, so it's been busy."

The Bucs went last season, narrowly missing the playoffs with one of the youngest rosters in the league. Even though the team is well under the salary cap -- perhaps as much as $59 million -- the Bucs don't appear to be likely candidates to go on a big spending spree in free agency.

The team launched a rebuilding project after firing former coach Jon Gruden following the 2008 season, and Dominik said he's committed to drafting, developing and retaining young, productive players in hopes of evolving in a perennial playoff contender.

"There's a blueprint ... we plan to follow that blueprint," the general manager said, citing the Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers as examples of teams that flourish while rarely signing big-name free agents.

Dominik's top priority is re-signing guard Davin Joseph to retain continuity on an improving offensive line. Linebacker Quincy Black, offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood and running back Cadillac Williams are among the team's other unrestricted free agents.

Ruud, meanwhile, has been a starter and the team's leading tackler for most of his six seasons in Tampa Bay.

Although Dominik did not say the Bucs will move on without the 2005 second-round draft pick, he stressed how it was important to have a deal in place with Foster before the start of camp.

"I have high expectations for Mason Foster and what he'll be for this football team," Dominik said of the rookie, a three-year starter who played both outside and middle while in college.

The contract agreements were late in a day when -- according to Bucs player union representative Jeff Faine -- about 30 players showed up at the team's practice facility to get reacquainted with the locker room and work out.

Faine expects this week's frenzied free-agent signing period to be "crazy" and create more than usual amount of pressure on general managers trying to improve their teams.

"I think there's going to be a lot more onus on results because all of a sudden you're going to be spending a lot more money than teams have spent in the past. ... The changes that are going to be made, the offers that are going to be on the table, I think a lot of pressure switches to the GM's position," Faine said. "Obviously, there's always been pressure there, but it's even more so now that money's really going out the door at a fast rate."

The first training-camp practice is Friday, two weeks before the team's preseason opener.

Faine said one thing that could work in Tampa Bay's favor as it prepares for the season is there hasn't been much turnover on the coaching staff.

"I think the group that's at the biggest disadvantage is the newcomers and the rookies. Especially the rookies that haven't been in a NFL system," the ninth-year pro said.

"I saw Clayborn walking around trying to figure his way around the facility. That's something serious, though. Guys have to do that as rookies, have to find their way just around the building. And, then we're going to throw an entire playbook on them in the next couple of days. That's the group that's going to be challenged."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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