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Bucs secure Lynch

5-year, $24-million extension is among richest for a safety.

In 1996, Bucs safety John Lynch was at a crossroads, unsure of where his career was headed as he entered his third season.

Lynch was playing for a new coach in Tony Dungy and a new position head in Herm Edwards. He also was playing behind veteran Todd Scott, and his competitive spirit was making it hard to accept a backup role.

"I think he was a little bit angry at that point," Edwards said. "I can remember in practice one day, we were doing some kind of drill, and John used to be a former quarterback. So he throws one back at me at 100 miles an hour. I knew then something was wrong.

"I called him over and I just told him one thing, "John, the cream always rises to the top. You keep plugging, and good things are going to happen for you.' "

Four years later, the words have become a prophecy. Lynch, 29, has blossomed into an All-Pro safety, and his diligence was rewarded Monday with a five-year, $24-million contract extension from the Bucs. Recently voted the team's defensive captain, Lynch has been a standout, earning two trips to the Pro Bowl since 1997 while averaging 129 tackles.

Lynch thanked many at a Monday morning news conference, including Dungy, Lynch's wife, Linda, the teammates, the fans and even the media for being patient while reports circulated he was close to a new deal. Special thanks were reserved for Edwards, who has developed a special bond with Lynch since that infamous day at practice.

"Herm gave me direction, gave me focus," Lynch said. "He's been a friend, a great mentor and there's no way that I would be where I'm at in my career and off the field as well. You just become a better person because he made me challenge myself every day to be the best that I can be."

The amount of money Lynch could have commanded on the open market will remain a mystery because the strong safety put a higher premium on playing for the Bucs and being a part of the Tampa Bay community.

Though the contract, which included a $5.6-million signing bonus, is estimated to be among the best for NFL strong safeties, the comfort of playing in a system that accentuates his strengths, and the peace of mind from not worrying about the business side of football, were worth just as much to Lynch.

"More important was keeping my family here in Tampa, a community we've grown to love, and allowing myself to focus completely on football in a year we have a tremendous opportunity," said Lynch, who has a son, Jake, and another child on the way with wife Linda. "All those things took precedence over maybe being able to go on the free-agent market. Everyone knows in this league that's where you get paid the most, but to us, there were things that were more important."

Lynch agreed in principle to the new deal a week ago. He had set the start of the season as the deadline, and it was expected the team would oblige. Bucs general manager Rich McKay said negotiations did not heat up until two weeks before the regular season, and terms were not immediately agreed upon.

"As they all are, there are times where you think it's not going to happen," Lynch's agent, David Dunn, said. "But I have to say because of the natural fit here and because of their desire to keep him on the team and I suppose the fear that he might test the market if this went on much longer, this all came to a resolution fairly quickly."

Dunn, an executive vice president for the firm of superagent Leigh Steinberg, said Lynch's deal features a cash flow that surpasses Lawyer Milloy's deal at every level. Milloy, the New England Pro Bowl safety, signed a seven-year, $35-million deal in February, but Dunn said $15-million of Milloy's pact will be paid in the final two years.

The salaries in Lynch's deal will remain high throughout the length of the contract, Dunn said.

"It's a real deal," Dunn said. "That made it an easy decision."

The difficult decision for the Bucs is deciding which players should receive contract extensions. McKay said the team tries to set windows of opportunity for certain players, while letting others know what the plan is and when their window will open.

McKay, who labeled Lynch's deal as cap-friendly, would not rule out the possibility of another player getting an extension at the end of the season. But he conceded the team would not be able to keep every player it covets.

"In this system, you're not going to get to everybody, not if you're a good team," McKay said. "You're going to have another window open as you get to the end of this year, and we'll have to sit down again and go through what our plan is at that point and time."

The plan for Lynch is to devote his full energies to football and serving the community with his foundation. Though some may say this contract ensures Lynch will finish his career with the Bucs, Lynch said don't count him out when the deal expires after the 2006 season.

"I feel like I'm in the prime of my career and I want to extend that as long as possible," Lynch said.

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