Copyright 2009

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Last year the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were fortunate to draft a top player from a deep group at a position of need. Aqib Talib was the third cornerback selected in the first round and was a surprise to be available at the 20th overall selection. The Bucs were fortunate to find a player as talented as Talib in the second half of the first round.

The reason why Talib was available was because last season's group of cornerbacks was exceptional. Buffalo's Leodis McKelvin, Arizona's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Talib all went in the first 20 picks. Shortly after they were drafted went Mike Jenkins to Dallas, Antoine Cason to San Diego, Brandon Flowers to Kansas City, and Tracey Porter went to New Orleans. That totaled eight cornerbacks in the top 40 picks of the draft. Three more corners would go in the second round. Considering the strong rookie seasons by many of those players, selecting from a strong position in the draft was an astute move by former general manager Bruce Allen.

This year the cornerback class is not nearly as good as last seasons. The top cornerback is Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins. After a rough combine performance, there are more and more people projecting that Jenkins will have to move to safety at the next level. After Jenkins are Illinois' Vontae Davis, Utah's Sean Smith, Connecticut's Darius Butler, Wake Forest's Alphonso Smith, and Vanderbilt's D.J. Moore. All five of those corners are considered to be late first-round or second-round picks. It looks like an extreme long shot for five cornerbacks to go in the first round like last year.

If Talib were included in this year's draft coming off his junior season at Kansas, he would be the top cornerback available and would be a top 10 pick. A year ago Talib was a much better prospect than Jenkins, and there are a number of cornerback needy-teams in the top 10 of the draft this year. The Buccaneers were very fortunate, and very smart, to land him where they did last season.

Hopefully for Tampa Bay's sake they will learn from last season and select players based on the top talent in the draft rather than selecting players that purely play positions of need. On most NFL rosters there are a few positions of need. In the first round, a team can target the best football player at one of those positions without reaching for a player too early. Last year, the Buccaneers' top two needs were cornerback and wide receiver, and the Bucs benefited by drafting the best player where need and draft talent met.

When a team reaches for a position of need it dilutes the overall talent of the roster compared to other teams in the league who are selecting more talented players. The Buccaneers went with the strength of the draft and got Talib. With the next pick they reached for a player because of a need on the roster. They selected wide receiver Dexter Jackson, whose rookie season was an embarrassment to the organization and the player.

Wide receiver remains a need on the Bucs roster as well due to what is looking like a blown pick. Right now the team has little depth behind the starters, and imagine what dire straits the offense would be in if Antonio Bryant were to go down with a serious injury. Who would stretch the field? Who would be the big play threat? Who would pick up critical yards after the catch? Those are attributes that Jackson was supposed to possess, but were nowhere to be found during training camp and then in the regular season.

This year the top considerations for the Bucs first-round pick are quarterback and defensive line. Last year when the Buccaneers traded down in the second-round to select Jackson they passed on some intriguing players at both positions. Along the defensive line the team passed on Jaguars defensive end Quentin Groves and Titans end/tackle Jason Jones. At quarterback the team passed on Green Bay's Brian Brohm and Miami's Chad Henne. Another quality player that went after the Bucs traded down was Ravens running back Ray Rice. All of these players had more accomplished collegiate careers than Jackson, and some have already started producing.

Groves and Rice made contributions coming off the bench for their teams, and Jones had a phenomenal rookie season with five sacks and three forced fumbles as a rookie. The Titans felt good enough about him to let Albert Haynesworth leave in free agency and go with a rotation of Jones and former Buc Jovan Haye. The other shame of it is that the Bucs really liked Jones as a prospect and graded him highly.

If the Buccaneers had selected one of Jones, Groves, Brohm, or Henne last year then they would not have to use their first-round pick on a quarterback (like Kansas State's Josh Freeman) or a defensive end (like Northern Illinois' Larry English) this year.

Had they drafted one of those players last season in the second round, this year they could take advantage of the banner crop of wide receivers that carry first-round grades. That list includes: Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree, Missouri's Jeremy Maclin, Florida's Percy Harvin, Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey, Rutgers' Kenny Britt, or North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks. All of those players are expected to be drafted in the top 40 to 50 picks in the draft.

Now that we have proven that drafting according to the draft's talent strengths yields better results, it is worth pointing out the deepest talent positions in this year's draft. Other than wide receivers the strong positions in this draft are offensive tackle and outside linebacker. The defensive line is average, and the quarterbacks are below average.

When the Buccaneers missed the opportunity to re-sign cornerback Philip Buchanon, it had a real ripple effect on the rest of the roster. Second-year player Aqib Talib is secure as the starting left cornerback, if Buchanon had re-signed Talib could have been at right corner. Veteran cornerback Ronde Barber remains in the starting lineup at his familiar spot on the right side, and second-year corner Elbert Mack is now penciled in as the nickel cornerback. For Mack, that elevation on the roster is not a big deal.

"It really does nothing to me. [Buchanon] was a friend, and I don't like losing a friend," said Mack. "At the same time I really have done nothing in the NFL according to my standards. I feel that I want to be the next Ronde Barber, or Deon Sanders. I'm going to step into camp the same way I did last year. I'm going to be just as hungry, and do anything the coaches ask me to do. I don't feel comfortable about it. I understand I'm the third corner on the roster, but that doesn't assure me of the nickel spot. I'm still hungry, and I still want it. I don't want to be the nickel my whole life I want to be the starter."

Mack beat long odds last season when he made the Bucs' 53-man roster out of training camp. Mack impressed the team with his physical play, and his natural cover skills. Over 2008, Mack was key contributor on special teams, kept improving on defense, and advanced his football knowledge in the meeting room. That growth got the Buccaneers coaching staff and front office excited about his long-term potential as a cornerback.

During his rookie season the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Mack saw action in 15 games (he was suspended against Chicago for a hit on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in Week 2) and made eight tackles, one tackle for a loss, and one pass breakup on defense. On special teams Mack tied for fourth on the team with 12 tackles.

Mack has met with new defensive coordinator Jim Bates and defensive backs coach Joe Baker already this offseason. The new defense that they are installing will feature cornerbacks playing in man coverage, and lining up on the line of scrimmage to play bump-and-run. After meeting with the coaches Mack is a fan of the new defensive scheme, and said he is onboard with the switch away from a zone-based pass defense.

"I feel like it is going to give us a different look," said Mack. "Every Sunday different teams are used to us running the Tampa 2 and the same variations. Some teams felt that they had our number. With us going up and playing bump-and-run and man-to-man we will have different looks. It brings a new spark and enthusiasm for next season.

"Definitely I feel comfortable going to man-to-man coverage. That is originally what corners were supposed to do. They would put them on an island and told them to lock up a receiver and that was what they did. Playing a lot of man-to-man will be a positive for us, because out of nowhere we could flip to zone because we have the experience to do that. It will confuse teams with what to attack us with."

Even though Mack beat the odds by making the team as undrafted free agent, complacency is the last word that comes to mind when speaking with him. There are a number of long-term goals that Mack is working hard on achieving. The Bucs organization is high on Mack, and thinks he does have starting potential long-term. To get there, Mack has a focus on how to continue to improve, and solidify himself as a future starter in the NFL.

"I'm going to be in the classroom," Mack said. "Understanding the game is the biggest thing that can help you. You have more longevity in the league when you have a good understanding of the game. Understanding how to work each week, and understanding my opponents, and learning from Ronde. He has been doing it so long that he shows us the ropes. I'm going to attack the classroom, and I can always improve."

With undrafted free agent Clifton Smith already making the Pro Bowl, the Buccaneers could end up with two dynamic undrafted free agents making their presence felt across the league. If Mack develops as well as he intends and the Bucs organization thinks he is a capable of, it could go down as one of the best crops of undrafted free agents Tampa Bay has ever seen.


The Bucs roster is not filled with many positions of strength, but the one position that does have excellent depth is guard. That is because in the last three drafts the Buccaneers have used a first-round pick, a second-round pick, and a third-round pick on guards. All three of those players have already proven to be good draft picks. Davin Joseph and Arron Sears are starting, and Jeremy Zuttah had a very good rookie season filling in when the starters were injured.

Tampa Bay traded away its second-round pick for tight end Kellen Winslow II, and has only one high draft pick with numerous position needs like quarterback, defensive end, defensive tackle, wide receiver, and cornerback. The only position that the Buccaneers could trade from to get high draft picks is guard.

Here is the disclaimer: the Buccaneers are not shopping a guard, looking to trade one of their guards, and this is purely fantasy. With that being said, maybe the team should consider dealing one of their guards for a late first-round pick.

The player that would fetch that compensation is Joseph, and for a few reasons. One, he is established in the league and made his first Pro Bowl last season. Two, he is easily better than any guard in this year's draft. Three, he is the closest of the three to a new contract so the Bucs would save money by dealing him. And fourth, Zuttah and Sears are more athletic and better fits for the Bucs new zone-blocking scheme.

Joseph can be a bit stiff at times getting downfield, and that is the reason why the Bucs have had the pulling guard be Sears much more often in the past two seasons. Zuttah is extremely athletic for a big man and is a natural for a zone-blocking team. While Joseph has had more dominant play at times, Sears has been the more consistent player on a weekly basis.

Tampa Bay also has some other guard depth in Sean Mahan and James Lee. The new zone-blocking scheme is a better fit for Mahan and will disguise his weaknesses. Lee is a player the Bucs are very high on, and has ability to play both guard and tackle.

Maybe the Bucs get a first-round pick from the Arizona Cardinals or Pittsburgh Steelers, both could use a player like Joseph. With two first-round picks the Bucs could come away with a couple of players from a group of: Larry English, Josh Freeman, Percy Harvin, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Vontae Davis, or Sean Smith.

Again, there is no inside information that made me ponder this, purely fantasy general manager at work.

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