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Bucs come to terms with top draft picks

Their intent was clear. They wanted to take the money and they wanted to run.

Which is why Tampa Bay's top three draft choices agreed to contract terms Sunday morning, enabling them to run onto the field today for the first practice of training camp.

Three months after being drafted, first-round picks Regan Upshaw and Marcus Jones and second-round selection Mike Alstott signed contracts hours before they were to report to camp.

The Bucs also signed exclusive rights free agent Jim Pyne on Sunday, bringing all 82 players under contract.

"I just didn't want to miss any of the camp," said Jones, a defensive tackle from North Carolina. "It's like college. If you miss a week, you might as well miss a year because you're going to be so far behind. I wanted to come in and have the same opportunities as the rest of the guys."

While none of the rookies was in serious danger of becoming a holdout, negotiations were prolonged because the Bucs have cash-flow problems and were reluctant to pay large signing bonuses.

That meant general manager Rich McKay had to use some creative strategies when it came to signing Upshaw, the defensive end from California who was the No. 12 pick in the first round.

The Bucs and Upshaw agreed on a four-year deal worth $6.325-million with no signing bonus. Upshaw agreed to have much of his salary deferred in return for a four-year pact. Most top draft picks sign five-year deals.

"It's a win-win situation," said Steve Baker, Upshaw's agent. "He absolutely didn't want to hold out of camp and he wanted a four-year deal. By not having a signing bonus, the Bucs got some help with their cash-flow issue. Their cash flow will improve after they get the stadium situation resolved."

Upshaw's contract calls for a $950,000 reporting bonus and an additional $900,000 in March. If he is on the field for 35 percent of Tampa Bay's plays on defense, he will get early payments of $1.6-million slated for the final two years of his contract.

Upshaw, 20, also will be eligible to be an unrestricted free agent by the time he's 24.

"If I'm doing what I'm sup-posed to be doing, if I'm up for free agency, the sky could be the limit," he said.

Jones' deal is reportedly $5-million over five years with a $1.7-million signing bonus. Pyne, who started at left guard for the last 13 games of 1996, signed a one-year deal for $200,000, plus a $10,000 signing bonus. Contract figures were unavailable for Alstott.

Alstott was the last of the three rookies to sign, but he may be the most important during the first few days of camp. With running back Errict Rhett staging a holdout, the Bucs need to come up with a new strategy in the backfield.

Alstott was a featured runner as a fullback at Purdue.

"I'll run if need be," said Alstott. "I'd like to be a fullback who runs a lot. If they ask me to do it, I'll be happy to."