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Bucs focus on signing draft picks

With the opening of training camp two Sundays away, the Bucs coaches and players are enjoying their final days of rest before the start of the two-a-day grind.

Not so for general manager Rich McKay.

With nine rookie draft picks unsigned, McKay expects to have a busy upcoming week trying to lock in as many of the picks as possible.

"I'd be surprised if by the end of next week, the majority of those aren't signed," McKay said.

Gene Burrough, who represents third-round pick Dwight Smith, a cornerback from Akron, said he plans to fly to Tampa on Tuesday and get the deal done that day.

"There's not much to get bogged down by," Burrough said.

The priority seems to be agreeing to terms with first-round pick Kenyatta Walker. The junior from the University of Florida is expected to start at left tackle on opening day. However, McKay said getting him signed may be a week or two away.

"We would love to sign him first, but it's not realistically done," McKay said. "You look at the marketplace and you try to approach all of them at or about the same time. But you realize that the No.1, as much as you always want him to be first, he'll almost always be last."

Beginning Monday, negotiations will start in earnest with the agents for Walker, Smith, safety John Howell (fourth round), guard Russ Hochstein (fifth), running back Jameel Cook (sixth), defensive end Ellis Wyms (sixth), tight end Dauntae' Finger (seventh), safety Than Merrill (seventh) and defensive tackle Joe Tafoya (seventh).

In the past, the Bucs have opened talks with draft picks long before July. McKay said the early start was an attempt to stem the tide of holdouts and bring credibility to the organization. But the positive change in the team's fortunes and the structured nature of the NFL's rookie salary cap pool now limit the potential for costly holdouts.

The league sets a rookie salary cap (part of the team's entire salary cap) based on a formula that assigns a specific figure to every player taken in the draft. The more draft picks, the higher the total number. The Bucs rookie pool this year is $3.3-million.

"Now, I think the rookie pool situation has settled in and is very easy to operate in," McKay said. "Once you leave the middle of the second round, quite frankly, these deals aren't very hard to do."

Burrough, who said he would have preferred to sign Smith as early as May, said the rookie pool has made negotiations for later-round picks simple.

"It's a lot easier to sign guys from the third round down because all of the base salaries are going to be minimum," Burrough said. "The only negotiation is on the signing bonus and how it's going to be structured. There are some clever things that can go on to help with the salary cap but it's pretty straight forward."

Except, of course, when it comes to a first-round pick.

Projected as a top 10 pick, Walker was the Bucs big catch after the team traded up to the 14th spot. The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder was immediately anointed as the answer to questions at left tackle and was placed in the starting lineup during the first scrimmage of mini-camp.

Walker's obvious immediate importance to the Bucs and the "franchise" position he plays give him extra leverage. Also, traditionally first-round picks tend to resist signing too early in order to gauge their contracts against those of other first-rounders.

Walker is represented by veteran agent Tom Condon of International Management Group. Condon couldn't be reached.

"The market doesn't set itself until the very end," McKay said. "Never has and never will. Agents get very skittish about being market setters because if they set a market price, traditionally guys will go above them. So, they would rather be market followers in the first round."

Of the 31 players taken in the first round, only Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, the No. 1 overall pick, has signed.