TAMPA — Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, the centerpiece of a young Bucs defense in the midst of an overhaul, is key to the unit's success in 2009.
But Ruud did not participate in either of the voluntary workouts this week — the first of 14 such practices this offseason — even as he spoke Wednesday during a radio interview about taking ownership of coordinator Jim Bates' new scheme.
Given his contract status — he is entering the final year of his rookie deal — and because talks aimed at an extension are in their infancy, the reason for his nonparticipation is the subject of much speculation.
Ruud was present Tuesday but absent Wednesday. Reached Wednesday, Ruud said "everything's fine" and gave no specific reason for his absence. The team indicated he simply took some personal time.
But for a player who has no history of missing the voluntary but critical practices and has been asked by coaches to take a greater leadership role, it was a departure from the norm.
Ruud is set to make $1.6 million in base salary. The sides have not exchanged numbers.
Coach Raheem Morris didn't comment specifically on the players absent Wednesday, saying only each had been in contact with the club. That includes tight end Kellen Winslow, who the team said is dealing with a personal matter and will join the club soon.
"It's voluntary," Morris said. "It wouldn't be right on my part to call anybody out for missing a voluntary workout."
Ruud's agent, Ethan Lock, said only, "It's a nonissue. I don't want to talk about this."
It's common for players who are in contract talks or seeking new deals to sit out offseason workouts.
Running back Earnest Graham was absent for most of the 2008 offseason. Then in June, he signed a four-year, $11 million deal.
And last month, as general manager Mark Dominik was putting the finishing touches on Winslow's $36 million extension, Winslow was encouraged by Dominik to sit out the final two days of a three-day minicamp, likely to avoid injury.
In Ruud's situation, there was no hint of acrimony from either side.
But it's clear the team would prefer to have its defensive star on the field. Ruud, a second-round pick in 2005 who turns 26 on May 20, racked up a team-high 178 tackles in 2008 and might be in position to increase that total in his new role this fall.
The Bucs' next session is scheduled for Tuesday, the first of three workouts next week.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3377. Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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