Jason Buck has the peace of mind of a new contract. But in his mind, he doubts that he's one of the pieces that fits into the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive puzzle.
"I feel like a misfit," said the defensive end. "They just don't think I'm big enough to play in the three-man line. I'd love to stay in Cincinnati. But one of the veteran defensive linemen is going to have to go, and we're all good. I could see myself being traded in August."Evidence of Buck's fast-forward decline from the Bengals' plans abounds. In the NFL draft, the club took defensive ends in the second and third rounds, its highest picks at defensive line since Buck was drafted No. 1 four years ago.
There was also Buck's quiet contract renegotiation with Cincinnati that ended recently with an undisclosed agreement.
Buck, eschewing the aid of agent Leigh Steinberg, took three weeks to work out a deal with assistant general manager Mike Brown. That's a startling reversal from training camp 1987, when Buck, fresh from Brigham Young University, held out for most of the summer before gaining a four-year deal averaging $373,000.
"Leigh didn't return my phone call," said Buck of the man who represents three first-round picks from this year's draft. "I like him, but he's got his finger in too many pots. I just didn't want the hassle of an agent. Mike was very fair and up front. It can get personal between an agent and owner, but this was done professionally. I'm very satisfied with the money and length."
Buck signed a non-disclosure clause, but it's no secret Brown didn't offer him the money befitting a starter, which Buck was in 1989 when he led the team in sacks with six. The average salary for an NFL starter in 1990 was $466,000.
Although Buck says he received a raise, Brown told Buck he was working off last season, when Buck played just five downs in the base 3-4 defense. He managed half a sack out of the four-man line used only in passing situations or against run-and-shoot teams.
"There were the typical arguments," Buck said. "He looked at this year and I pointed out that when I started, I led the team in sacks and had more tackles than anyone on the defensive line except Timmy (Krumrie)."
The 255-pound Buck was stunned when he walked into training camp last summer and saw he was second team. The Bengals opted for more beef up front after finishing 26th in the NFL against the run and are headed that way again with the drafting of 300-pound Lamar Rogers and 290-pound Bob Dahl after finishing 22nd in 1990.
"In our anxiety to get big, we don't want to lose the ability to move," said defensive line coach Chuck Studley. "We feel these two guys we just drafted are quick. We haven't felt that Jason's performed against the run. I'm not making any promises. This is no different than any other training camp. The veterans should be nervous."
Among the anxious ones will be Buck, defensive ends Skip McClendon, Natu Tuatagaloa and Andrew Stewart (a free agent), and defensive end-tackle David Grant.
But Buck, who hopes to be 265 pounds by the opening of training camp, has an appetite for the competition. A dogged weight-lifter, he's eating four and five small meals a day as well as pumping himself up with optimism.
"I know I can still play," Buck said. "I know I can play somewhere on a four-man line. I know I'll be somewhere this season. I hope it's Cincinnati, but I'll go where I can play."