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Many believe Tampa Bay could target a linebacker in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft, but after taking a closer look at the Bucs’ current roster, one could see where there’s a chance the Bucs won’t take a linebacker at all this weekend.

Tampa Bay convinced nine-time Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks to take a pay cut that freed up approximately $5 million in cap room this offseason. By reworking his deal, Brooks, 33, practically assured himself the opportunity to retire a Buc.

The 6-foot, 235-pound Brooks, who recorded 174 tackles, three sacks and 15 passes defensed last season, probably has two good seasons left in him, but is his successor on the team’s current roster?

Well, the Bucs invested a third-round pick on Marquis Cooper (6-3, 213) in 2004, but he has yet to sniff starting lineup and is viewed as a better fit for the strong side. Cooper, who notched 16 special teams tackles last year, needs to seriously push for a starting job this season. Otherwise, you could see some start to question whether Cooper will pan out with the Bucs.

Tampa Bay feels Brooks’ successor could be one of its most recent signings – Jamie Winborn. The 5-foot-11, 242-pound Winborn, who turns 27 in May, has a lot of talent but has struggled to stay healthy over the past several seasons.

With Winborn, who signed a two-year deal, on their roster, the Bucs might not feel a sense of urgency to draft a linebacker since Winborn, a former second-round pick, still has some upside. Winborn likely will have the opportunity to compete for playing time at both the strongside and weakside linebacker spots this year.

Although their defense ranked number one overall in the NFL last season, the Bucs feel they could improve on the strong side, where Ryan Nece (6-3, 224) started every game for the Bucs last season. Nece recorded 104 tackles and two sacks last season. Both Cooper and Winborn will have the chance to unseat Nece as the starter, but Nece won’t surrender his job without a fight.

Wesly Mallard (6-1, 230) joined Tampa Bay’s active roster in the early part of the 2005 regular season, and he quietly stayed there for the entire year. Mallard is best suited for the weak side and both he and Antoine Cash (6-1, 223) will compete for the backup job behind Brooks.

One of the other reasons why Tampa Bay might not feel the need to select a linebacker in this draft is because of one of its NFL Europe players – LB Jermaine Taylor, who is having a fantastic outing this spring.

Taylor (6-0, 220) spent training camp and preseason with the Bucs last year. Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry loves him, and although he’ll have some tired legs coming off of the NFL Europe season, Taylor could work his way onto Tampa Bay’s active roster with a strong showing in training camp and preseason.

The problem for Taylor is he’s viewed more as a middle linebacker, and that’s a position the Bucs appear to be set at.

Shelton Quarles (6-1, 225) restructured his contract earlier in the offseason in order to avoid becoming a cap casualty. He turns 35 in September, but Quarles didn’t show any signs of slowing down last year when he recorded a team-high 196 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles and four passes defensed.

He might not win a starting job this year, but second-year LB Barrett Ruud (6-0, 241) is expected to compete with Quarles for playing time. With Quarles getting older, the Bucs likely will attempt to work Ruud into the rotation more in 2006.

Even though they don’t necessarily need one this year, the Bucs will be tempted to take a linebacker in the first round should Florida State’s Ernie Sims, Iowa’s Chad Greenway or Alabama’s Demeco Ryans fall to them at No. 23.

Utep’s Thomas Howard, Miami’s Rocky McIntosh and Maryland’s D’Qwell Jackson could be options in the second round.

Iowa’s Abdul Hodge and Virginia Tech’s James Anderson could be players the Bucs consider taking in the third round, and Stanford’s Jon Alston could receive consideration in the fourth round.

Second-day options include Clint Ingram (Oklahoma), Spencer Havner (UCLA), Terna Nande (Miami of Ohio) and Stephen Tulloch (North Carolina State).

Current Position Grade: A

Bucs Update Publishing Schedule
April 27 – Cornerbacks
April 27 – Safeties
April 28 – Kickers/Punters

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