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As draft nears, no big moves

It's not unusual for a Bucs free agent to jump ship, as linebacker Lonnie Marts did last week to join the Houston Oilers.

But around the league this season, the millionaire migration has been pretty slow.

By the end of last week, only 20 free agents switched teams. The Bucs were part of that paltry number when they replaced Marts with New Orleans free agent Rufus Porter.

Cash-laden teams like the Carolina Panthers get lots of attention when they sign free agents like Ernie Mills and Ray Seals. But of the 18 free agents on their roster, only a half-dozen have re-signed.

Keeping your own players has become the trend this off-season.

It'll be interesting to see how valuable a solid, if not spectacular, player like Marts was to the Bucs. But if Porter, at 32, can produce the same results, the money will be well-spent by the Bucs on bigger needs.

There will be some big happenings at One Buc Place over the next 30 days or so. Here's a short list:

SIGN WR OR DB: The money saved by signing Porter instead of Marts puts another potential free-agent starter back in the budget.

The decision is whether to spend $1.5- to $2-million on a receiver like Andre Hastings, who would start opposite Horace Copeland. But that means the Bucs take receivers like Colorado's Rae Carruth and Miami's Yatil Green out of their first-round draft picture.

Or do they sign a defensive back to replace Martin Mayhew in case they are not in position next month to draft a player like Ohio State's Shawn Springs?

Hastings is scheduled to visit the Bucs this week, but it may be some time before the Bucs figure out which direction to go.

SIGN BACKUP QB: The leader in the clubhouse might be Steve Walsh, who was released by St. Louis.

Walsh, 30, enjoyed his best season in '94 with Chicago, when he split time with Erik Kramer and helped the Bears to a 9-7 record.

That means he is familiar with former Chicago tight ends coach Mike Shula, who has installed a similar scheme in Tampa Bay as offensive coordinator.

"He fits all the criteria," general manager Rich McKay said. "He's a veteran who has started before and Mike would feel comfortable with him."

Casey Weldon, who hasn't started a game in five pro seasons, is an unrestricted free agent but welcomes an invitation to return to his old job.

There are many things going in Weldon's favor. He has a year under his belt in Shula's system and has a good, albeit competitive, relationship with starter Trent Dilfer.

McKay said the team would like to make a decision on a backup in time for minicamp, which will follow the draft.

"I think it matters, and yeah, we'd like to have a quarterback signed by then," McKay said. "Is it the end of the world if we don't? No. But that's what we're aiming for.

"The quarterback market has settled itself much quicker than in years past. But there's still some guys on existing teams that are going to be cut loose."

Among them, Kansas City quarterback Steve Bono.

UNVEIL NEW UNIFORMS: Sometime early next month, fans will get a look at the replacement for Bucco Bruce. A design has been selected and focus groups have given it an overwhelming approval rating. There has been lots of speculation. The skull and crossbones, for example (not allowed by the NFL because it's used as a gang symbol). But a variation of the same might fly. Stay tuned.

THE DRAFT, APRIL 19-20: The two most important days in the team's future.

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