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Which position will the Tampa Bay Buccaneers address with their first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft?
That's a question dozens of Bucs fans have asked Pewter Report this offseason, but the truth is that question can't be answered simply due to the fact that which direction the Bucs decide to go with the 20th overall pick in the draft likely will be dictated by what Tampa Bay does in free agency, which begins on Friday.
The Buccaneers will attempt to address several needs in free agency. Some positions need depth while others are in need of upgrades at the starting spots.
But there's one particular position the Buccaneers might be better off addressing in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft as opposed to free agency. That position is cornerback.
Tampa Bay's defense ranked No. 2 overall and No. 1 against the pass last season, and the Bucs' cornerback position still features four-time Pro Bowler Ronde Barber and Phillip Buchanon, a former first-round draft pick.
However, you can still make a compelling argument for why the Bucs should deem the cornerback position an immediate need.
Seasoned veteran Brian Kelly, 32, has bought himself out of the final year of his contract and is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on Feb. 29.
In addition, Barber will turn 33 in April, Buchanon is entering the final year of his contract with the Buccaneers, Sammy Davis is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on Friday and 2007 seventh-round draft pick Marcus Hamilton still is unproven.
Tampa Bay might attempt to address this need in free agency, where New England Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel is scheduled to hit the open market. The former University of Central Florida standout intercepted 22 passes with the Patriots and likely will command a huge contract in free agency. Samuel is reportedly asking for $10 million per year.
The Bucs, who are approximately $44 million under the salary cap, appear to have the money to spend, but whether they're willing to sign Samuel, 27, to the type of contract he'll command in free agency remains to be seen.
If Tampa Bay elects to pass on Samuel, the talent pool at the cornerback position shrinks dramatically, where Kelly and San Diego's Drayton Florence appear to be the next best cornerbacks on the market.
That said, Tampa Bay might be better off turning to the draft for a cornerback that likely would play in nickel situations as a rookie since Barber and Buchanon appear to be penciled in as starters in 2008 unless Samuel is signed.
Tampa Bay has an impressive track record for selecting cornerbacks, particularly on the first day of the draft.
In a five-year span from 1996-2001, the Bucs, under former head coach Tony Dungy and general manger Rich McKay, invested a total of four first-day draft picks in Donnie Abraham (1996 – third round), Ronde Barber (1997 – third round), Brian Kelly (1998 – second round) and Dwight Smith (2001 – third round).
However, Tampa Bay's streak of landing talented cornerbacks in the early-to-mid rounds was snapped in 2006 when Bucs general manager Bruce Allen and head coach Jon Gruden selected Alan Zemaitis, who was a standout cornerback at Penn State but wound up being a bust in Tampa Bay.
Even though the 2008 NFL Draft is deep at the cornerback position, the Bucs might want to give serious consideration to taking one with their first-round pick, which is the 20th overall selection.
Not only did the Bucs miss on Zemaitis, it's not unusual to see a run on cornerbacks taken in the second round, which means several talented corners could be off the board when Tampa Bay selects in the second round with the 21st pick.
Troy CB Leodis McKelvin appears to be the highest-rated cornerback on most teams' boards at this point, which means Tampa Bay likely won't have a shot at him unless it trades up to get him, which is unlikely.
The next cornerback on the board could be USF's Mike Jenkins, who played collegiatley in Tampa and has a nice combination of size, speed and versatility (considered a capable return specialist). Even though he performed well at the NFL Combine, there's a chance Jenkins could still be on the board when the Bucs select at No. 20 overall.
Tennessee State's Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie might have worked his way into the first round of the draft with his 4.33 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine, which was one of the fastest times run by any player this year.
Kansas CB Aqib Talib and Virginia Tech CB Brandon Flowers, at this point, are considered late first-round picks or early second-round selections.
It might be difficult for some to fathom the possibility of Gruden, an offensive-minded head coach, using a first-round pick to address a defensive need for the second straight year after the team used the fourth overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft to select defensive end Gaines Adams.
In fact, last year marked the first time Tampa Bay had selected a defensive player in the first round since the 1999 NFL Draft (defensive tackle Booger McFarland).
But it's important to note that Tampa Bay did not have a first-round pick in 2000, 2002 or 2003 due to the trades for wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and Gruden. Still, to date, Gruden has selected an offensive player with three of the four first-round picks he's had in Tampa Bay since '02.
Believe it or not, Gruden has a lot more interest and value in the defensive side of the ball than some might think. He deemed the cornerback position one of the four most important positions in the NFL in his autobiography, and the track record of both he and Allen in Oakland suggests they are very much open to the possibility of selecting a cornerback in the first round of this year's draft.
Did you know that the Oakland Raiders, under Gruden and Allen, invested a first-round draft pick in a defensive back in 1998, 2001 and 2002 (only Allen), selecting CB Charles Woodson, S Derrick Gibson and CB Phillip Buchanon, respectively?
Even after Gruden was traded to Tampa Bay by Oakland, the Raiders, who still had Allen at the time, used their 2003 first-round draft pick to select another cornerback, Nnamdi Asomugha.
That's a total of four defensive backs the Raiders selected in the first-round of the draft over a six-year span under Allen.
Bucs fans might find it interesting to know that the last time Tampa Bay used a first-round draft pick to select a cornerback was over 20 years ago when the Buccaneers took SMU CB Rod "Toast" Jones in the 1986 NFL Draft
Given Tampa Bay's current need at the position and Gruden and Allen's track record for drafting cornerbacks, no one should be surprised if the Buccaneers use their first-round pick on a cornerback in the 2008 NFL Draft, and it certainly would be difficult to argue such a selection given the current state of Tampa Bay's roster.
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