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Bucs restock their stable

After dropping out of the Warrick Dunn sweepstakes, the Bucs began to retool their backfield by signing free agent Michael Pittman.

The former Cardinals running back signed a five-year, $8.75-million contract Monday that included a $1.75-million signing bonus.

The Bucs also signed free agent Byron Hanspard, who has not played in the NFL since the 1999 season.

Tampa Bay's next step appears to be deciding what to do with Pro Bowl fullback Mike Alstott, who led the team in yards, carries and touchdowns in 2001.

"With the signing of Michael, we anticipate that some discussions (to restructure his deal) will begin fairly soon," said Alstott's agent, Ben Dogra. "As of now there hasn't been any movement."

Pittman, 26, a bruising running back who has been described as a shorter version of Eddie George, was the man the Bucs targeted from the start and was considered one of the top free-agent backs available.

"Michael Pittman is a young, productive player who definitely upgrades us at the running back position," general manager Rich McKay said in a news release. "Michael is a hard-nosed runner with excellent receiver skills. We're pleased to add him to our football team."

Starting in 14 of 15 games, Pittman gained 846 yards on 241 carries (3.5 average) with four touchdowns last season for Arizona. He also had 42 receptions for 264 yards. Through his four years in the league, Pittman has 1,945 rushing yards with an average of 3.8 a carry.

He may be asked to replace the diminutive Dunn, but he won't ever be mistaken for him. Pittman packs a solid 218 pounds on his 6-foot frame and is said to have one of the more muscular physiques in the NFL, including 19{-inch biceps

But power doesn't appear to be the only facet to his game. Originally a fourth-round pick of the Cardinals in 1998, Pittman has shown breakaway speed. In his first start in the NFL (Nov. 14, 1999 against Detroit), Pittman rushed for 133 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown run.

Coach Jon Gruden is familiar with Pittman, who gained 78 yards on 18 carries in a Cardinals win in Oakland last season.

"He's a versatile back who has good size and speed," Gruden said. "He's elusive, sure-handed and can play in any set. We got better today."

Pittman's signing may signal a change in approach to how the Bucs feel about off-field problems. Last season, Pittman was suspended for a game because of two arrests for domestic violence. Former coach Tony Dungy had an aversion to players with legal troubles.

Alstott, 28, led the Bucs in carries (165), yards (680) and rushing touchdowns (10) last season. He has a salary cap hit of about $4-million this year, considered high for a fullback, and is scheduled to earn $6.2-million in salary in the 2003 season. The Bucs have been trying to trade Alstott or to find a way to restructure his deal. He is due a $2-million roster bonus on April 15.

Aaron Stecker, 26, who appeared to be a benefactor of Dunn's departure, said the arrival of Pittman and Hanspard are not necessarily bad signs.

"I look at it as a positive thing," said Stecker, whose wife, Kara, is expecting the couple's first child in May. "When Warrick left, I knew they weren't going to hand me the job. This is what I've been through my whole career. I've been in this situation several times before and all I want is an equal opportunity.

"Everyone has to compete and the best person who comes out on top will get the job. I'm looking forward to it. The times when I did go out there I think I did a pretty good job."

The Bucs also signed free agent defensive tackle Mike Mackenzie on Monday. Mackenzie, who played collegiately at Colorado State was in camp with the Bucs last season but was released before the start of the season.

Bucs projected starting lineup

OFFENSE

QB Brad Johnson

RB Michael Pittman

FB Mike Alstott

LT Kenyatta Walker

LG Kerry Jenkins or

Todd Washington

C Jeff Christy or

Todd Washington

RG Cosey Coleman

RT Jerry Wunsch

TE Marco Battaglia

WR Keyshawn Johnson

WR Frank Murphy or Milton

Wynn or Keith Poole

DEFFENSE

DE Simeon Rice

DT Warren Sapp

DT Anthony McFarland

DE Marcus Jones

LB Derrick Brooks

LB Shelton Quarles

LB Al Singleton

CB Ronde Barber

CB Brian Kelly

FS Dexter Jackson

SS John Lynch

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