The Tampa Bay Bucs may have been dragged kicking and screaming into the bold new era of multimillion salaries, but they loosened up the wallets and tightened up their defense Thursday by signing Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Hardy Nickerson.
Not only is Nickerson the newest megaBuc free agent, but his three-year, $5.1-million contract actually had another NFL team accusing Tampa Bay of being a big spender.
The deal makes Nickerson the fourth-highest-paid inside linebacker in the NFL, behind Indianapolis' Quentin Coryatt, Buffalo's Cornelius Bennett and New Orleans' Pat Swilling. It also is a hardy raise for Nickerson, who earned $263,000 last year.
But the Bucs weren't through spreading the wealth. They also matched the three-year, $2.6-million contract New England offered to Tampa Bay center Tony Mayberry.
The signing of Nickerson gives the Bucs their first recruiting coup under the new system. After leading the Steelers in tackles each of the past two seasons, he was contacted by more than 20 teams.
"Around the league, I'd say at linebacker he was the plum," Bucs coach Sam Wyche said. "I don't think you'd get an argument from anybody. I don't think there was a middle linebacker out there more sought-after."
Nickerson's contract is the richest in Tampa Bay history _ although one that is likely to be topped by left tackle Paul Gruber.
The Steelers ranked last in the 28-team league in payroll last season, one spot lower than Tampa Bay. They gasped at the Bucs' bucks plunked down on Nickerson.
"We're disappointed," Pittsburgh director of football operations Tom Donahoe said. "We didn't get a chance at the end to make an offer for him. We were led to believe all along that that would be the case.
"My reaction is similar to my reaction on most of the numbers. It's insanity. We may have already triggered the cap in the league. We wish him the best, and now we have to move on."
The Bucs may not be through trying to steal Steelers. Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O'Donnell concluded his visit Thursday, and Wyche indicated that his club will submit an offer sheet for the restricted free agent.
"We probably won't disclose that until his agent does," Wyche said. "But we don't bring people in we're not giving anybody the run-around. One thing I hope we're doing with everybody is we're shooting them a straight line.
"Neil's a guy who's had a lot of early success. He's a big, good-looking quarterback. We're talking to Vinny (Testaverde). We're talking to Neil. As I said before, the quarterback position will resolve itself. I can't make our fans believe that just yet."
Testaverde flies to Green Bay today to discuss the Packers' backup job. He also is negotiating with Cleveland and Tampa Bay. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Steve Beuerlein is to visit the Bucs Monday.
O'Donnell, who led the Steelers to the top seeding in the AFC playoffs last season, is traveling to visit the Saints and the Raiders.
"They have a lot to offer here," O'Donnell said of Tampa Bay. "It's a quarterback's dream to come down here and play in the warm weather. There's a lot of excitement down here, and this team looks like it's ready to win. I'm still testing the market."
O'Donnell seeks a four-year contract worth $13-million, Pittsburgh television station WPXI reported, citing unidentified sources.
The Bucs' highest priority Thursday was deciding whether to match New England's offer to Mayberry. For the past week, Tampa Bay had been trying to complete a deal with Minnesota free-agent center Kirk Lowdermilk. But the Bucs were unwilling to match his reported $1.6-million price and made Mayberry the second highest-paid offensive lineman on the roster.
Mayberry earned $150,000 last year, his third pro season and second as a starter.
"I was hoping Tampa would match the offer, simply because I love the area and I want to be around here because I think a lot of good things will happen," Mayberry said. "I want to be part of that.
"For me personally, I feel along with a raise in salary comes an expected raise in my level of play, and I expect to do that for Tampa Bay.
Nickerson will fill a need for Tampa Bay at middle linebacker. A year ago, injuries to Calvin Tiggle forced the Bucs to start E.J. Junior at that position, despite the fact he had been idle for eight weeks.
The signing of Nickerson had an impact on another Tampa Bay prospect who was in town: Phoenix free-agent safety Tim McDonald.
"My impressions have changed a lot about Tampa Bay," McDonald said Thursday. "I know some things are going on. These guys are serious. They're trying to hit this free-agency deal and make this thing work. You talk about some of the guys they're going after. Hardy Nickerson signs today. Sam's calling Reggie White. I was here today, like Neil O'Donnell. They're trying to get some talent in here, and that's impressive."