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Tampa Bay is quite deep at the cornerback position heading into the 2007 NFL Draft.
The Bucs managed to keep this group intact for the most part by re-signing cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon and Torrie Cox.
But like most of its defense, some of Tampa Bay’s cornerbacks aren’t getting any younger.
Three-time Pro Bowler Ronde Barber is 32. Juran Bolden will turn 33 this summer and Brian Kelly is 31.
That’s one of the reasons why the Bucs made re-signing Buchanon. 26. a priority. The former Houston Texan joined the team in October and recorded two interceptions and seven passes defensed.
The Bucs feel Buchanon, a former first-round draft pick, can eventually earn a starting job in Tampa Bay. In the meantime, he’s expected to beat out Bolden for the starting nickel cornerback job.
With Bolden struggling with injuries and turning 33 in June, there’s a chance the Bucs won’t even bring him to training camp. However, his base salary is less than $1 million in 2007, which could convince the Bucs to keep Bolden around for one more season.
Tampa Bay likely would keep Bolden around if it decides to trade Kelly, who is unhappy with his current contract, which has two years remaining on it.
Kelly, who has recorded 17 interceptions since 2002, is scheduled to have a 4.4 million salary cap value in 2007. The Bucs have already paid Kelly a $1 million roster bonus in March. If they decide to release or trade Kelly, the Bucs would create approximately $2.7 million in cap room.
Bucs general manager Bruce Allen isn’t likely to give Kelly a new contract until his current deal has one year remaining on it. Even if he wanted to do it now, Allen could have some reservations about offering Kelly a long-term, lucrative agreement since Kelly missed most of last season with a degenerative toe condition that required season-ending surgery.
The only reason the Bucs would trade Kelly is if they were convinced he was going to hold out for a new deal, just as wide receiver Keenan McCardell, who is represented by the same agent as Kelly, did in 2004 before being traded to San Diego.
Tampa Bay’s defense hasn’t fared well when Kelly isn’t in the lineup. If Tampa Bay does trade Kelly, Buchanon likely will replace him in the starting lineup.
The Kelly trade scenario, which has been one of several rumors involving the Bucs this offseason, would also pave the way for second-year CB Alan Zemaitis to possibly earn the nickel cornerback job.
Zemaitis, who entered the league last year as a fourth-round pick out of Penn State, was inactive for all 16 regular season games last year. He was placed on injured reserve in December with a shoulder injury.
While some fear Zemaitis might be a bust, the Bucs believe Zemaitis’ injury hindered his ability to progress as the season went along.
Having Raheem Morris, who replaced Greg Burns as defensive backs coach in January, should also help Zemaitis max out his potential in Tampa Bay’s defense.
One player the Bucs don’t have to worry about is Barber, who signed a four-year contract extension last August and has been healthy and productive. Last year, Barber notched three interceptions and a team-high 20 passes defensed.
Cox hasn’t been overly impressive as a defensive back, but he’s been a tremendous special teams contributor. He’s expected to compete with former first-round pick Sammy Davis and Carlos Hendricks for what could be the last available roster spot for a cornerback on Tampa Bay’s squad.
With the depth they have at this position, it’s quite possible the Buccaneers will not draft a cornerback unless that player has the ability to return punts and kicks and possibly play safety.
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