After finishing the 2007 season with the second-ranked defense and first-ranked pass defense in the NFL some observers might have thought cornerback was not one of the Buccaneers' biggest needs going into the 2008 NFL Draft. However, the status of several Buccaneers contracts, the departure of longtime corner Brian Kelly, and the age of cornerback Ronde Barber made the position one of the team's biggest long-term needs for Tampa Bay.
Kelly bought out the final year of his contract, and then signed with Detroit in free agency. Cornerbacks Sammy Davis, Phillip Buchanon, and Eugene Wilson are in the final year of their contracts with Tampa Bay. The veteran Barber is 33 years old and is approaching the final years of his career.
Tampa Bay tried to find a cornerback for the future when it drafted Alan Zemaitis in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, but Zemaitis could not make the transition to the NFL and was cut prior to last season.
When it came time for Tampa Bay to select in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft, one of the top available cornerbacks was Kansas' Aqib Talib. Many thought that Talib would've been drafted ahead of Tampa Bay, but when he wasn't, the Buccaneers jumped at the chance to take him and made him their first-round pick. Talib became the first cornerback drafted in the first round by Tampa Bay since SMU's Rod "Toast" Jones in 1986.
"I don't even know where to start I'm so excited to be a Buccaneer. I thank Coach Gruden for taking me, Mr. [Bruce] Allen for taking me," said Talib said as he was introduced to the media at a press conference held at One Buc Place on Monday. "Its just wonderful it's a dream come true for me. It's an honor to be able to start my NFL career with this team with this defense, and have a chance to be around Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, and guys like that. It's an honor for me I'm excited to be a Buccaneer."
The 6-foot, 202-pound Talib, grabbed 13 interceptions, with 43 passes defensed and 162 tackles in 34 games (32 starts) for Kansas. In his junior season, which was his last at Kansas, Talib made 66 tackles and five interceptions, and two of the picks were returned for touchdowns.
Talib was a consensus All-American and unanimous All-Big Twelve selection as junior last season. He was named the MVP of the 2008 Orange Bowl when his Kansas Jayhawks defeated Virginia Tech 24-21. In the contest Talib returned an interception 60 yards for a touchdown, which gave Kansas its first lead of the game. After much success in his first three years of college football Talib decided to forgo his senior season to pursue playing football in the NFL.
"I don't think winning the MVP played that big a part. I made my decision [to enter the NFL] a few days after that. I wasn't really worried about the trophy. I was happy that my teammates and I got to put on the T-shirts and hats," Talib said about if his Orange Bowl MVP award and his decision to forgo his senior year. "I didn't even know I got a trophy for it. I thought they just honored me and they told me the next morning you got a trophy for it, and I was excited."
Talib is considered an excellent athlete. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Talib ran 4.4 40-yard dash time and recorded a 38-inch vertical jump. While compiling his 13 career interceptions Talib earned the reputation for being a ballhawk. He displayed good ball skills and a knack for catching the ball.
Due to his speed, hands, and playmaking ability Talib also saw some plays on offense and special teams for Kansas. He caught nine passes for 224 yards (24.9 average) and five touchdowns. He returned just two punts for 21 yards (10.5 avg), but is considered to be a player that could contribute as a punt returner for Tampa Bay.
In a game vs. Toledo Talib showed off his exceptional athleticism when he made a five-yard leap over a defender into the end zone for a touchdown.
"I hope that's the kind of thing you're going to see from me in Tampa Bay," said Talib. "The defender was coming, and I was coming, and I thought we were going to dive at the same time. I was just hoping to beat him to the end zone, so I leaped. I guess it was an instinctive play. I didn't realize it was a 5-yard dive until my coach came and told me the next day."
When asked about playing offense Talib said, "Oh no, I talked to coach Gruden about leading the league in effort. Until I lead the league in effort, you won't see me [on offense].
"I love playing football period. Whether it's special teams, defense, offense wherever the coaches want me that's were I'm going to be."
Gruden suggested that Talib would have to show that he's got a good grasp of Tampa Bay's defense before he considers using him as a situational type of player on offense.
"He's a corner. He'll be strictly a corner, and we'll use offense as a motivation for him," Gruden said shortly after the Bucs drafted Talib. "You know, cover that guy I'll let you play offense. Cover him some more and we'll give you a reverse or we'll do something with you. He's here to play corner, he'll settle in and compete there with the corners that we do have, and we think we got a lot better today."
Talib comes into an ideal situation for a young corner with a talented defensive backs coach in Raheem Morris, and an astute veteran in Barber. At Kansas, Talib was exposed to the Tampa 2 when the Jayhawks played a variation of the Cover 2. In his conversations, Talib elaborated on Barber and the Tampa 2.
"That's what I do I watch football, and pay attention to all the talented corners in the league, and Ronde Barber is one of them who I always pay attention to," said Talib. "His name comes up when me and my friends start talking about the best corners in the league and who we want to be like. Ronde Barber's name always came up. We played kind of a Tampa 2 at Kansas. It was some form of the Tampa 2 in Kansas. I got experience to play in the Cover 2, and I know that's the base coverage around here, so I think it'll be all right. I think it's a great situation for me."
Morris seemed to be an influential coach at One Buc Place this draft. There were many cornerbacks available to the Bucs, in a draft that was considered to have lots of talent at cornerback. Before Talib, Buffalo selected cornerback Leodis McKelvin from Troy, and Arizona selected Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie from Tennessee State. Two corners went after Talib in the first round. Dallas selected South Florida's Mike Jenkins, and San Diego selected Arizona's Antoine Cason.
Many pundits thought the Buccaneers would take Jenkins, a local product, if he was available to the team at their pick. Instead, Tampa Bay chose Talib over Jenkins in part because of Talib's ball skills and his game-changing play potential.
Talib's 13 interceptions came in three seasons whereas Jenkins intercepted six passes in four years. Gruden highlighted that Talib was one of the nation's leaders in passes defensed, and played the game with a lot of confidence, or borderline arrogance. Talib's personality and the swagger he displays on the field seems to fit in well with Morris and Gruden.
"I don't know if its arrogance I'd say confidence, because if something bad happens you can't be out there mopping around, you got have a certain level of confidence to be a successful corner," said Talib.
Gruden was nodding his head in agreement with that response. Coach Morris will be responsible for getting Talib prepared to contribute quickly for the Buccaneers. Talib knows the transition will be a challenge.
"Just like going from high school to college, it is going to be catching up to the speed of the game," said Talib. "Its going to be a lot quicker, and things are going to happen a lot faster. I think that training camp and the preseason will get me ready for those situations, so when the time comes around, I think I'll be ready.
"I think the veterans want me to come in and compete now. I'm on their team. They want me to come in an help them win a championship. I think I'll fit in well. I'm a people person. I never had a problem fitting in with a crowd. When I'm learning, I'm learning, so I'm not talking a lot. I'll be taking notes and just learning, so until I have a good grasp of what we're doing I'm going to be quiet in that meeting room."
The drafting of Talib was not without controversy. Prior to the draft reports came out that detailed Talib failing drug tests and admitting to marijuana use in his pre-draft interviews. Gruden said that the Buccaneers were comfortable trusting Talib and believed Talib when he said that it was behind him.
"My actions speak louder than words," said Talib. "I'm pretty sure that once I go through this season and nothing happens everything will die down. I'm not really worried about it at all. I care about my reputation, and I earned a bad one for doing that at Kansas, but I'm not dumb enough to do it again. I learn from my mistakes."
A year ago Tampa Bay chose defensive end Gaines Adams, who had admitted to smoking marijuana while in college. Through his first year in the NFL Adams has not had any positive drug tests. The Buccaneers believe that will be the case with Talib as well.
Other teams discussed Talib's past when he made visits to organizations throughout the league. Talib had pre-draft visits with Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New Orleans, the New York Jets, New England, Atlanta and Tampa Bay.
"After my visit to Tampa Bay I told my brother, ‘Man, I need to play for Coach (Monte) Kiffin and Coach Gruden.' You can ask my brother – that's what I said," said Talib. "Out of all of my visits this was the best one."
The 22-year-old Talib expressed a passion for the game similar to coaches Gruden, Kiffin, and Morris. Tampa Bay makes it a priority to acquire good teammates that love football, and Allen alluded to Talib fitting that mold after the draft.
In Gruden's book, Do You Love Football?!, he writes that the four most important positions in football in order are: quarterback, a pass-rushing defensive end, then left tackle and a shut-down cornerback tied for third. With their last two first-round picks the Buccaneers have addressed two of those positions, both of which are on the defensive side of the ball, surprising some people that the offensive-minded Gruden would agree to draft defense in the first round two years in a row.
"I take pride in being a head coach once in awhile. You know what I mean?" said Gruden. "I do like to win games. I'm excited about this guy Talib. We drafted a guy on defense in every round last year and I'm really pleased with the progress we made with those guys. Had it not been for Gaines and Tanard Jackson, certainly some of the other guys, we may have not been able to capture the NFC South division title."
Talib sounded like a kindred spirit to Gruden when he voiced his feelings for the game, and the priority that football has had throughout his life.
"Oh I love football. That's the whole reason I moved from New Jersey to Texas because they talk about football so much," said Talib. "My brother made it happen. He told my dad he wanted to move to Texas. My mom moved there and that's when we really got started playing football. I really do, I love football, and I'm lucky enough to be able to have it for my job. I'm very lucky.
"I was starting the eighth grade, the year I started playing organized football. My brother he loved football just as much as me. When he heard my mom moved to Texas, he said we got to go to Texas, we got to play Texas football. He talked my dad into it and we made the move."
Along with the journeys of his family, Talib discussed his heritage. He spent time living in Cleveland, Ohio and Trenton, New Jersey. The meaning and origins of his name were also part of his background that he mentioned.
"It's a Muslim name. The first name means ‘The last to come,'" said Talib. "I'm the youngest of four kids. My last name, I don't know what it means."
Gruden shared his interpretation of Talib's name just as Monday's press conference came to an end.
"His name means ‘Good corner,' I hope," Gruden said smiling.
The personable Talib grew up following several NFL teams. He wouldn't reveal which teams was his favorite due to the fact that it always changes, but Talib made it clear that he's happy to be a Buccaneer.
"I just wanted to play in the NFL, period," said Talib. "I'm here now, I'm a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, so that's who I want to play for."
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