TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -It's only June, but the competition for Tampa Bay's starting quarterback job is turning into a one-man race.
Veteran Jeff Garcia, signed as a free agent in March, has quickly established himself as the frontrunner in coach Jon Gruden's plans, leaving younger hopefuls Chris Simms and Bruce Gradkowski to try for No. 2.
``I'm accused of not liking young players. I just like good quarterbacks like everybody else in the league,'' Gruden said Tuesday after the opening practice of the Buccaneers' three-day mandatory mini-camp.
``I like guys that can make plays in a number of ways, whether it be through experience - seeing a look and not running a ball into a corner blitz, making a change at the line of scrimmage; a guy that can create with his legs; a guy that works the pocket and can throw the ball into congested areas and be accurate; a leader; a consistent performer.''
Although Garcia, who led Philadelphia to the playoffs last season while filling in for the injured Donovan McNabb, turned 37 in February, he and the Bucs are confident that he can continue to perform at a high level.
The three-time Pro Bowl selection won five of six games after replacing McNabb, helping the Eagles win the NFC East. He's thrown for more than 20,000 yards over the past eight seasons and led teams to the playoffs three times.
``Garcia's a guy we've coveted. We've made no secret about that over the last few years,'' said Gruden, who also tried to sign Garcia as a free agent in 2004, when the quarterback signed with the Cleveland Browns.
``He's in great shape, he's doing a good job and I don't want to jinx him. He still has a long way to go. We do like his progress, and we think he's got a nice future here.''
Garcia, who was surprised when the Eagles didn't try to retain him, is excited about the opportunity.
The Bucs were 4-12 last season with Gradkowski starting 11 games as a rookie after Simms, who thought he was Tampa Bay's quarterback of the future, went 0-3 and was lost for the year after having his spleen removed in Week 3.
Under pressure to turn the team around after posting losing records three of the past four seasons, it didn't take Gruden long to decide his nearly acquired veteran may offer the best chance to win soon.
Garcia's success in previous stints with the 49ers, Browns, Lions and Eagles provided instant credibility with his new teammates.
``I don't necessarily have to step out here and prove that I can play. They know that I can play already,'' Garcia said. ``It's just a matter of now of backing that up. And I expect to back it up every single day that I'm out here.''
Simms, preparing for his fifth NFL season, signed a two-year contract extension in December and has been participating in offseason workouts. He insisted Tuesday that he's not discouraged by falling behind Garcia on the depth chart.
``Competition's always on. ... It's not any different than years past when I've been here. It's football,'' the 26-year-old Simms said.
``The way the NFL is now, you need good quarterbacks. You need at least two good ones because guys are getting hurt every year. That's the way it is. All I can do is worry about myself.''
The only no-show for the start of mini-camp was quarterback Jake Plummer, acquired in a trade from Denver on the same day the Bucs signed Garcia. He has said he's retired, so his absence was expected.
Gruden said there was no update. Plummer has three years left on his contract and is due $5.3 million in 2007.
``He's a heck of a quarterback,'' the coach said. ``We just hope that at some point he reconsiders and considers saddling up with the Bucs.''

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