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Which player will the Tampa Bay Buccaneers select with their first-round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft?

Despite the fact that free agency hasn’t even begun yet, this is a question that Bucs fans want answered.

Based on what Pewter Report learned at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., Tampa Bay is most interested in drafting Wisconsin left tackle Joe Thomas and Georgia tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, and perhaps in that order.

A coin flip later this month will determine whether the Bucs or Browns pick third or fourth overall in the draft.

But even if Tampa Bay wins the coin flip and secures the third overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, there’s a chance that neither Thomas nor Johnson will be there when the Bucs pick.

That’s because the Oakland Raiders are rumored to be interested in taking Johnson with the No. 1 overall pick – or LSU QB JaMarcus Russell. And the Detroit Lions, who have the No. 2 overall selection, are said to be extremely interested in taking Thomas.

Should that scenario unfold, Tampa Bay would still be in position to take one of the two top quarterbacks in draft – Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn or Russell.

But there’s one problem. Several sources have suggested to Pewter Report that the Buccaneers, even if given the opportunity, will not select a quarterback in this draft, especially in the first round. They are more interested in finding a veteran QB in free agency.

Tampa Bay would still be in a position to draft defensive ends Jamaal Anderson (Arkansas) and Gaines Adams (Clemson), defensive tackle Alan Branch (Michigan) or safety Reggie Nelson (Florida), but some question whether any of those players would be worth taking with a top 5 draft pick.

The Buccaneers came away from the Senior Bowl impressed with several players, including Nebraska DE Adam Carriker, DT Amobi Okoye (Louisville) and T Levi Brown (Penn State), but all three of these players are projected to go in the middle of the first round, which means Tampa Bay likely would attempt to trade down in an effort to select one of them.

Trading down is easy to say but sometimes difficult to do. It takes two to tango, and the Buccaneers will have to have a trading partner in order to trade out of the third or fourth spot. Some Bucs officials fear teams will not be too interested in trading up with the Bucs to select any of the players that fall to them in the first round.

That could mean the Bucs would essentially be stuck at the No. 3 or No. 4 spot.

If that’s the case, and Tampa Bay feels it would be taking some of the players mentioned above too high in the draft, there’s one player the Bucs could consider taking that hasn’t be linked to the Bucs in any mock drafts.

Depending on how he fares at the NFL Combine later this month, Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson is a player the Bucs would take a look at should Thomas and Johnson be gone when it’s their turn to select their player in the first round.

Peterson, who is an early-entry junior, played in just seven games in 2006 due to a broken collarbone. He still managed to use his balance, power and quickness to rush for 1,012 yards (5.2 avg.) and 13 touchdowns.

Although he struggled with injuries and didn’t catch a lot of passes at Oklahoma, Peterson was a dominant runner. In three seasons, the 6-foot-2, 219-pound back rushed 747 times for 4,045 yards (5.4 avg.) and 41 touchdowns. His running style reminds some scouts of a cross between Eric Dickerson and Corey Dillon.

Initially, the idea of the Bucs using their first-round pick to draft Peterson sounds crazy, right? After all, the Bucs already invested their 2005 first-round draft pick (No. 5 overall) on running back Cadillac Williams.

Williams has also given the Bucs a decent return on their investment, rushing for 1,976 yards (3.8 avg.) and seven touchdowns in his first two seasons in the NFL.

But after winning the NFL Rookie of the Year award in ’05, Williams struggled in his sophomore season, rushing for just 798 yards (3.5 avg.) and one touchdown in ’06.

Even before starting quarterback Chris Simms was lost for the season due to injury, Williams, who has missed a total of four games due to ailments in two seasons, struggled with back spasms, which in turn had a negative impact on his production. As a result, Tampa Bay’s offense ranked 29th overall, and its ground game finished the season ranked 28th in the league.

Williams also struggled to secure the football last season, and his pass-catching skills aren’t up to par. He’s caught just 50 passes for 277 yards in his first two seasons, and his inability to catch the ball and block defenders has prompted the Bucs to take him off of the field in some third down situations.

Tampa Bay backup RB Michael Pittman has averaged over 4.0 yards per carry since 2003, and rushed for 245 yards on 50 attempts (4.9 avg.) while catching 47 passes for 405 yards in 2006.

While that seems like decent production, Pittman turns 32 in April, and his best playing days are believed to be behind him. There’s also no guarantee that Pittman will return in 2007.

Pittman has been extremely loyal to the Buccaneers. In fact, he restructured his contract during the 2006 offseason, which essentially meant taking a pay cut. However, privately, Pittman hasn’t been happy with his role in head coach Jon Gruden’s offense. There were even some whispers toward the end of last season that suggested Pittman could go as far as asking to be traded this offseason.

Pittman’s salary cap value in 2007 is just $962,000, which is easily affordable for the Bucs or any other team that might express an interest in trading for him.

Tampa Bay still has a lot of confidence in Williams, but it is determined to improve its ground attack this offseason.

While it has been serviceable, some wonder if the combination of Williams and Pittman, also known as the “Rocket” backfield, is good enough to significantly improve Tampa Bay’s ground game. And even if fullback Mike Alstott, 33, doesn’t retire, Gruden views the “A-Train” as a blocking fullback and not a regular ball carrier.

That said, the Bucs likely will be in the market for a running back this offseason, and they might be willing to go as far as investing another high draft pick on a running back in April in an effort to give Gruden’s offense a potentially potent two-back attack.

If you’re wondering what might have inspired this idea, look no further than the playoff and Super Bowl participants from last season.

Nearly every one of the 12 playoff teams from last season had a successful ground attack in 2006, and most of the post-season participants used more than one player to run the ball down defenses throats.

Take a look at each of the playoffs teams and their respective running backs and production:

Indianapolis: Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes
Addai: 226 carries for 1,081 yards (4.8 avg.) and 7 TDs
Rhodes: 187 carries for 641 yards (3.4 avg.) and 5 TDs
*Both players combined for 76 catches for 576 yards and 1 TD.

Chicago: Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson
Jones: 296 carries for 1,210 yards (4.1 avg.) and 6 TDs
Benson: 157 carries for 647 yards (4.1 avg.) and 6 TDs
*Both players combined for 44 catches for 108 yards.

New Orleans: Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush
McAllister: 244 carries for 1,057 yards (4.3 avg.) and 10 TDs
Bush: 155 carries for 565 yards (3.6 avg.) and 6 TDs
*Both players combined for 118 catches for 940 yards and 2 TDs

New England: Corey Dillon and Lawrence Maroney
Dillon: 199 carries for 812 yards (4.1 avg.) and 13 TDs
Maroney: 175 carries for 745 yards (4.3 avg.) and 6 TDs
*Dillon, Maroney and Kevin Faulk combined for 80 catches for 697 yards and 3 TDs.

San Diego: LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner
Tomlinson: 348 carries for 1,815 yards (5.2 avg.) and 28 TDs
Turner: 80 carries for 502 yards (6.3 avg.) and 2 TDs
*Both players combined for 59 catches for 555 yards and 3 TDs

Philadelphia: Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter
Westbrook: 240 carries for 1,217 yards (5.1 avg.) and 7 TDs
Buckhalter: 83 carries for 345 yards (4.2 avg.) and 2 TDs
*Both players combined for 101 catches for 955 yards and 5 TDs

Seattle: Shaun Alexander and Maurice Strong
Alexander: 252 carries for 896 yards (3.6 avg.) and 7 TDs
Morris: 161 carries for 604 yards (3.8 avg.) and 0 TDs
*Both players combined for 23 catches for 94 yards.

Dallas: Julius Jones and Marion Barber
Jones: 267 carries for 1,084 yards (4.1 avg.) 4 TDs
Barber: 135 carries for 654 yards (4.8 avg.) and 14 TDs
*Both players combined for 32 catches for 338 yards and 2 TDs

Kansas City: Larry Johnson and Michael Bennett
Johnson: 416 caries for 1,789 yards (4.3 avg.) and 17 TDs
Bennett: 36 carries for 200 yards (5.6 avg.) and 0 TDs.
*Both players combined for 50 catches for 487 yards and 2 TDs

Not that he doesn’t want a blocking fullback, but Gruden would like to feature more two-back sets in his offense, or at least have the ability to have an explosive back in the bullpen so that he’s available when the Bucs need him.

Watching nearly every playoff team use two capable and dangerous running backs to move the ball on offense gives Gruden flashbacks to his days in Oakland.

When Oakland’s offense was one of the league’s best several seasons ago, Gruden was running it. In fact, the Raiders offense finished ranked in the top 10 in Gruden’s final three seasons in Oakland. He often times used a running-back-by-committee approach with players such as Napolean Kaufman, Tyrone Wheatley and eventually Charlie Garner.

It’s no coincidence that the NFL’s top 5 offenses in 2006 – New Orleans, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, San Diego and Dallas – each appeared in the playoffs this year, with the Colts eventually winning the Super Bowl.

Gruden would like to add another playmaking running back to his roster so that when Williams leaves the field, the offense gets faster, or at the very least, doesn’t slow down as it does when Alstott touches the ball.

Some wonder whether the Bucs, who have several pressing needs on both sides of the ball, can afford to invest another first-round draft pick in another running back. But other teams have made similar investments, and they’ve paid off.

For instance, New Orleans used its 2001 first-round pick to select McAllister. Five drafts later, the Saints used the No. 2 overall pick in the draft to select Bush.

Chicago had Jones, a former first-round pick under contract, yet it still used its 2005 first-round pick to select Benson.

Atlanta, which had the No. 1-ranked ground game in 2006, signed Warrick Dunn to a long-term, lucrative contract in 2002 before deciding to use its first-round pick to select T.J. Duckett the same year.

Another one of Tampa Bay’s NFC South rivals – the Carolina Panthers – used the second pick in the second-round of the 2002 NFL Draft to select RB DeShaun Foster. Last year, the Panthers used their first-round pick to select RB DeAngelo Williams, giving Carolina a dangerous duo.

Kansas City had one of the league’s best ground games with Priest Holmes as the featured ball carrier, but that didn’t stop the Chiefs from using their 2003 first-round pick to select Johnson.

New England is another team that used a first-round pick to select a running back (Maroney) despite having a Pro Bowl-caliber one (Dillon) already on its roster.

Now, no one is necessarily saying the Buccaneers will take a Peterson with their first-round draft pick this year. A lot can happen between now and April, and if either Thomas or Johnson is available when the Bucs pick, this could be a moot point.

Despite Gruden’s desire to have an improved running-back-by-committee attack, and several NFL teams’ track record for success with two-back sets, the idea of having the Bucs select Peterson is probably a long shot. But if Thomas and Johnson are off the board when the Bucs pick at No. 3 or 4, you can’t necessarily rule it out, either.

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