Updated: 8:15 p.m.
In the end, Frostee Rucker knows more than he doesn't know.
"There's a lot of uncertainty out there, so it's nice to have some certainty," said Jimmy Gould, Rucker's Cincinnati-based agent. "He's certain that he loves it here. He loves the team and the coaches. It's a fit. He was looking for a little security and the Bengals realize the key for good teams is stability."
Rucker knows the community has embraced him instead of dissed him and that has made his California cool sizzle in comfort. He knows his defense is one of the hottest units on either side of the ball in the NFL. He knows that his coaches like his versatility. He's knows he's spearheading another Salvation Army clothing drive later this spring and that he's going to take disadvantaged kids to some Reds games.
What he doesn't know is if he's going to be an unrestricted free agent next year. Or if he's going to be restricted again. When it comes to the NFL in 2011, no one knows anything. So Rucker stacked the knowns and unknowns like so much cordwood and gladly signed a two-year deal Wednesday that could reach a little more than $3 million if he hits some play-time incentives.
For a guy that has played in just 29 games with five starts in four seasons, that's pretty good. For a team that can use him as a defensive end in the base and a tackle in the pass rush and who always seems to make a play or two, that's pretty good, too. Figure, what? About a quarter of a million guaranteed and there are smiles all around.
"I think it works out for everybody and I'm just so happy that the Bengals believed enough in me to give me the extra year," Rucker said. "Really, what it came down to is I didn't want to leave. I want to finish my career in Cincinnati and I didn't want to have to think about picking up and leaving. And I love this defense."
At the tender age of 26, Rucker is hoping this isn't his last contract. But he feels like it's a nice fit for a foothold. Like his mentor says, it's a step.
"It's not a life-changing deal, but it's smart by him and his agent," said former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton, who took Rucker under his wing early and often after the 2006 draft. "He's really come a long way on and off the field. He's really matured and I think as a player he's learned that it's not that easy and you have to work at it. I think the coaches are starting to trust him now that he seems to be over his injuries and he's getting back on the field."
Rucker played just five games in his first two seasons before he emerged late in '08 when other guys got hurt. In 11 games he had a busy line of 35 tackles, a sack, and two forced fumbles before playing in 12 games last year. He had just 22 tackles, but his 26-yard interception was a huge play in the win over Pittsburgh (it set up the tying 9-9 field goal) and his four quarterback pressures against Chicago's Jay Cutler was the line's high for the season. He always seems to do something. And the fact he can play both spots makes him a valuable backup in defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's arsenal of disguises.
"I know what really impressed them is that he was 293 pounds in May and June and they told him to come back (to training camp) 280," Thornton said. "He got with the right trainer right away and got in at 275 and you'd have to say that helped him. I think he's realizing that there is a role for him playing about 20 snaps a game and playing all over the place. Everyone wants to be the man, but a lot of times the man is already there."
Thornton is a guy that has helped Rucker on his journey to be a more mature man. It seems like such a long time ago, but when Rucker arrived four years ago he was supposed to be a bad guy. Two months after the draft he was charged with two misdemeanor counts of spousal battery and vandalism stemming from an incident in college. After a guilty plea, Thornton says Rucker "has been a model citizen."
Rucker had to do some community service, but Thornton could still tell how much it meant to him.
"Frostee cares about people. Kids especially. One of the things I told him was to make yourself an asset in the community. Go out and do it," Thornton said. "And he did it. He did more than anybody on the team, but you didn't hear about it. He didn't care. At the end of the event, he'd hate to give that piece of paper to get signed (for community service). Now it's accepted that he's one of the most visible guys."
In addition to the clothing drive last year, Rucker went on Facebook and offered to go Thanksgiving shopping for four needy Cincinnati families. During Christmas he participated in a toy drive. This year he's going to take a bigger role in Thornton's bowling tournament that raises money for Autism research and families. Gould says his client has reached such a comfort level with the city and the people that the fit made him approach the Brown family, his neighbors in Indian Hill.
"And I'm looking into getting some football camps going locally," Rucker said.
Rucker, who has spent most of his offseasons here and is in the process of moving to Newport, Ky., has felt like it's been a two-way street over the bridge.
"Even though the winters are cold, this is just a warm place," he said. "Everyone I've met has been nice. No one bad mouthed me when I came to town. They made me feel welcome."
And Rucker feels particularly welcome in Zimmer's defense, where, it seems, there is another two-way street. At end and tackle.
"He's the kind of guy you want to play hard for. You like it when he gets in your face," Rucker said. "And you hope it just keeps building because we know what we can do."