By RICK STROUD
Times Staff Writer
The rebuilding project has begun in Tampa Bay.
The Bucs sent shockwaves through One Buc Place Wednesday by releasing 11-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks as part of a sweeping youth movement.
The team also released running back Warrick Dunn, receiver Joey Galloway, linebacker Cato June and receiver Ike Hilliard.
"We want to give our younger guys a chance to play,'' general manager Mark Dominik said Wednesday.
Three of the four released players are in their 30s. June is 29.
"No knocking these men,'' head coach Raheem Morris said during a 20-minute news conference this afternoon at One Buc Place. "We're looking for men like them to carry us into a new decade.''
Since coming to the Bucs as a first-round pick in 1995, Brooks has been the Bucs' biggest team leader, a future Hall of Fame player and community icon. Both Brooks and Dunn have won the Walter Payton Man of the Year award for their off-field charitable endeavors.
Brooks, a surefire Hall-of-Fame selection, was named to the Pro Bowl for the 11th time following the 2008 season. But he had taken a reduced role the past two seasons, coming off the field on passing downs. He also restructured his contract two years ago, trimming his inflated salary-cap to around $3-million per year. For that reason, his release is more about a move toward younger players than finances.
For some of the other players, finances were at least a consideration. Galloway's cap number was $3.5-million for 2009. Dunn's and June's cap numbers also were more than $3-million. Collectively, the moves will clear millions more in salary-cap space as the Bucs enter the start of the free-agent signing period, beginning at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
"This was not a money issue, this was not an age issue, a youth movement, it was a direction change,'' Morris said. "It's where we're going.''
Releasing this group of players and the results that ensue will define Morris' and Dominik's tenures in Tampa Bay. Whether it works or fails, they will go down as the duo that dramatically changed the team's course.
"We thank Joey, Ike and Cato for their contributions to this franchise over the last several years,'' Dominik said. "They were crucial to our success and we appreciate all of their hard work."
Said Morris, "All of these guys are very special in our hearts and within our organization. I would like to thank them for their dedication and commitment to our franchise over the years."
All five players were called in to One Buc today. At least one (Brooks) met face-to-face with owner Brian Glazer. In the team's view, they are cutting their Nos. 3 and 4 receivers, an aging running back, one linebacker (June) who they didn't see a role for in the new defense, and another (Brooks) whose time had come.
"They all handled it with the class and professionalism that you'd expect from these guys,'' Dominik said.
Dominik said the Brooks conversation was especially tough.
"It was very emotional for me,'' he said. "We have both been here 14 years. I think we walked into the building on the same day. I've seen every one of Derrick Brooks' games with the Buccaneers. We all knew that this day would come. We just felt that this was the time for us."
Said Morris, "There is no way to adequately thank Derrick Brooks for his years of dedication and service to this team and community, or for his impact on me personally. He is a once in a lifetime kind of player and man, and I am very fortunate to have had the chance to work with him and learn from him. Those who played with him and coached him are better because of it."
Dominik said the Bucs won't necessarily look for a new linebacker in free agency. He said he expects to see younger players such as Geno Hayes, Quincy Black and Adam Heyward get on the field.
Dominik said the Bucs are not characterizing this as rebuilding, because they still think they have some key pieces in place, particularly along the offensive line.
Linebacker Barrett Ruud apparently is one of the players to whom the Bucs will look to help fill the leadership void.
"It's a changing of the guard, so to speak,'' Morris said. "The Barrett Ruuds of the world, some of those guys, have to step into bigger roles.''
Asked what he would say to fans doubtful of the team's direction, Morris said, ''Fans should doubt. That's why they call them fans. We have to make them believe. That's our job.''
''I am thankful for my Tampa Bay Buccaneer experience -- in its entirety,'' Dunn said. "It all started here, and now in my second term I know I have been blessed to be a Tampa Bay Buccaneer in the NFL. I am thankful for the ownership, coaching, every teammate and especially the fans who have been with me through the highs and lows. It all adds up to an experience I often call 'Living the dream.' From here, I don't know what the future holds, but wherever it goes I go with a full and grateful heart.''