TAMPA — Clinging to an NFL-record $61 million under the salary cap at the start of free agency, the Bucs finally handed off some of that loot Monday to Giants running back Derrick Ward.
Part of the Earth, Wind and Fire running back rotation with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, Ward rushed for 1,025 yards and two touchdowns last season. His 5.6-yard rushing average was the best in the NFL, and he caught 41 passes for 384 yards.
Ward, who turns 29 before opening day, agreed to terms on a four-year contract worth $17 million. The deal includes $6 million guaranteed in the first year, $9.25 million over two years and $13 million over three.
Ward received strong interest from the Bengals and Broncos in free agency, but his offers might have been tempered because he is at an age when many running backs begin to slip.
In Tampa Bay, Ward will split carries with running back Earnest Graham, who is 29 and coming off a leg injury that sidelined him the final six games of 2008.
Ward's agreement late Monday capped an accelerated effort in free agency by the Bucs.
The first free agent the club signed from outside was linebacker Niko Koutouvides from the Broncos. He was released Feb. 16 after one season and is primarily a special teams ace with 69 tackles in five seasons.
The Bucs also contacted defensive end Jason Taylor, released Monday by the Redskins. Taylor played under new Bucs defensive coordinator Jim Bates while with the Miami Dolphins. But it's unclear whether talks will produce a contract.
Ward's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, also represents Bucs free agent cornerback Phillip Buchanon, who visited the Lions on Monday.
The Bucs also hosted a visit from Bills free agent cornerback Jabari Greer, 27, who has played nickel back and started in five seasons in Buffalo.
The Bucs released Warrick Dunn on Wednesday, clearing a spot for Ward, who is no stranger to running back tandems. He combined with Jacobs to become only the fourth running back combo to each rush for 1,000 yards in a season (Dunn and quarterback Michael Vick accomplished it in 2006).
Despite his age, Ward has only eight starts in five seasons with the Giants. He entered the NFL in 2004 at 24 after spending five years at Fresno State and a year at Ottawa (Kansas) University, an NAIA school. His collegiate career was marred by injury and academic ineligibility.
After releasing Dunn, the Bucs had a lot of uncertainty at running back. Aside from Graham's injury, Cadillac Williams suffered another torn patellar tendon injury and is not expected to be ready until midseason.
Until Monday, the Bucs had concentrated mostly on their own free agents, re-signing receiver Michael Clayton and safety Will Allen.
Derrick Ward at a glance
Born: Aug. 30, 1980, Los Angeles
Height/weight: 5-11, 228
Colleges: Fresno State, Ottawa (Kan.)