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Bucs trade Gooch to Rams

Linebacker dispatched for draft pick in deal to clear room under salary cap.

Sackmeister Simeon Rice already looks like a perfect fit for the Bucs defensive line.

Now there is room for him under the team's salary cap.

The Bucs took a step Monday toward obtaining Rice, clearing $800,000 off the payroll by trading sixth-year linebacker Jeff Gooch to the Rams in exchange for a fifth-round selection in this year's NFL draft.

Bucs coaches and officials indicated the move was made largely to strike an agreement with Rice, the Cardinals' pass-rushing free-agent defensive end Tampa Bay has pursued for several weeks.

The Bucs also created more cap relief by restructuring the final three years of their contract with quarterback Ryan Leaf.

Leaf was to count $2.8-million against the salary cap this year, including a $1.5-million salary and $1.3-million of a pro-rated bonus.

Leaf will be paid about $10-million in the next three years by the Bucs. Under the terms of his original contract, he would have earned $12.5 million.

Rice is willing to accept a 1-year deal worth more than $3-million and be eligible for free agency next spring. He would become the fourth No. 1 pick on the Bucs defensive line, joining tackles Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland and end Marcus Jones.

"We'd have a tough time blocking any of those guys in practice in shorts," offensive line coach Chris Foerster said.

Gooch, 26, will start at outside linebacker for the Rams and be reunited with former Bucs linebackers coach Lovie Smith, the Rams' new defensive coordinator. Former Bucs linebacker Don Davis signed with the Rams as an unrestricted free agent March 7.

"They called us because of Jeff's familiarity with the system (being installed by Smith)," general manager Rich McKay said. "It made sense to us from the perspective of acquiring a pick and from a salary-cap perspective."

Rice, who played his first five pro seasons with the Cardinals, was the third player selected in the 1996 draft. He has 51{ career sacks, including 16{ in '99 when he finished a half sack behind NFL leader Kevin Carter of the Rams.

The Bucs made Rice a priority since the start of free agency, arranging for his visit to the Tampa Bay area March 5 when he dined with Bucs coach Tony Dungy, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli.

The Bucs have tried to sell Rice on an opportunity to maximize his pass rushing talents playing on a Super Bowl contender alongside players like Sapp.

Monday's trade is the second of the off-season for the Bucs, who dealt backup quarterback Eric Zeier to the Falcons for a seventh-round pick after signing Redskins free agent quarterback Brad Johnson.

Tampa Bay has 11 selections in next month's NFL draft, including two picks in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds and a compensatory pick for Hardy Nickerson, who signed as a free agent with Jacksonville last season.

The fifth-round pick is actually Denver's selection that the Rams received in a trade for Billy Jenkins.

"Our interest in Jeff is based on two factors," St. Louis coach Mike Martz said. "One, we've played against him and I know what a tremendous athlete he is. And two, Lovie Smith has an intimate knowledge of Jeff as a player and feels that Jeff fits into what we do on defense perfectly."

Gooch will add speed to a Rams defense that ranked 23rd overall last season. He will be teamed with Davis and middle linebacker London Fletcher.

"Jeff and I got there at the same time and I've seen him grow from a free agent from Austin Peay to a good player in this league," Smith said. "He's a student of the game, he has great speed, he's strong and he's a player not much different from Shelton Quarles."

Gooch played in 76 games with 21 starts during his five seasons with the Bucs. Gooch registered 123 career tackles (64 solo), six forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one sack. He added 69 career special teams tackles.

Gooch, who joined the Bucs as an undrafted free agent in 1996 out of Austin Peay, had his best season as a pro in 1998. He had career-highs in games started (16) and tackles (72) and led the team in fumble recoveries with four.

Last season, Gooch appeared in all 16 games and paced the Buccaneers with 23 special teams stops.

"Jeff's been a good player for us, but we feel comfortable with the depth we have at the linebacker position," McKay said. "We have been focused on trying to acquire picks in this draft to draft some young guys and help us from a salary cap perspective.

"Although they'll be hard to replace, we're confident we can do it in the draft with some young guys that will not be expected to play but will be expected to contribute on special teams."

WUNSCH NEXT?: The agent for free agent tackle Jerry Wunsch said he is seeking a one-year deal with Tampa Bay.

"Our approach is to now seek a one-year deal with Tampa Bay or do something creative," agent Ralph Cindrich said.

Wunsch, a second-round pick from Wisconsin in 1997, started all 16 games for the Bucs last season. Among the Bucs unrestricted free agents, he has been considered their biggest priority.

But the Bucs have seemed content to wait and let Wunsch establish his market value in a league where most teams are strangled by the salary cap.