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IT'S EASIER TO FIGHT THE URGE TO BURN CASH ON FREE AGENTS

It's tempting in the NFL to view free agency as the cure-all.

Need a left tackle? Just flash some cash. Missing that shutdown cornerback? Go shopping. It's simple, really.

Or it used to be.

Free agency has changed, and the Bucs appear to have learned this as much as any team, given their conservative spending during the gold rush of the past couple of offseasons.

The deal: With the salary cap having expanded by more than $20-million during the past three years, teams have greater flexibility when it comes to retaining their free agents. The list of projected free agents today will be transformed by the time the buying season begins later this month as would-be free agents accept their current teams' handsome offers.

Those who can't come to terms on contract extensions often are hit with the franchise-player tag because teams can afford to use a measure that once was considered prohibitive because of the accompanying salary. Franchised players are almost never signed by other teams because of the hefty compensation required.

The rise in salaries is astonishing. The cap has increased from $52-million in 1998 to a projected $116-million this fall. (As an aside, anyone else out there work for a company that pays more than 100 percent better than a decade ago? Didn't think so.)

So, what's all this got to do with the Bucs?

They have fat pockets, expected to enjoy from $23-million to$30-million in salary-cap space. But by the time the contract extensions and franchise designations are done, the free-agent market ends up having a flea-market feel. That's why a half-decent cornerback such as the 49ers' Nate Clements fetches a mind-boggling $80-million in 2007, the kind of money you'd more expect to be spent on an All-Pro caliber player.

Is that how you want to spend your precious millions? The Bucs will try to resist the temptation, they say, difficult as that may be.

"The amount of money you receive doesn't make you a better player," general manager Bruce Allen said.

That's his way of saying some teams have overpaid. And he's right. That's the danger in this era of Free Agency Light.

Perhaps the most important message is this: Free agency is for finishing touches. Foundations are built through the draft.

"Free agency will not be the splash today that it's been in years past," Browns general manager Phil Savage said. "It's all about the draft. That's the lifeblood of building your team right there."

KELLY'S PLANS: It was initially surprising to learn cornerback Brian Kelly plans to buy his way out of his contract in March, as he told the Times last week. He's 32 and slated to earn $3.2-million next season on the heels of two injury-plagued campaigns.

But when you think about it, Kelly might not be making a poor decision. Yes, he is going to have to live down the toe and groin injuries that slowed him. But take a look at the cornerbacks available on the free-agent market and Kelly's intentions start to make sense.

Outside of the Patriots' Asante Samuel, there's not a household name in the bunch. It's more than plausible to think Kelly will find a taker willing to pay him more than Tampa Bay. Hard to blame the guy. Knowing this likely will be his last opportunity to land a sizable contract is probably a big motivating factor for the 10-year veteran.

DUNN NOT DONE: Did you catch the comments by Atlanta running back and former Buc Warrick Dunn last week? Speaking to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dunn said he is concerned he may be released by the new regime and would love to be reunited with Tony Dungy or return to Tampa if let go.

"If I wasn't a Falcon and I went back to Tampa or played for Coach Dungy (in Indianapolis), it would be something that's full circle," said Dunn, 33. "It's not what I'm hoping for and wishing for, but you never know."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

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