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Bucs draw confidence from mid-round hits

Minus first two draft picks, club believes it can find more gems in third and beyond.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 16, 2002

TAMPA -- As risky as it seemed to give up a first- and second-round pick this year to acquire coach Jon Gruden from the Raiders, the Bucs will tell you they have a plan.

Pressed as to how they can replenish talent without those early selections, the Bucs scouting department likely will point to safety John Lynch and cornerback Ronde Barber and ask the doubters to find a common thread.

One answer is that both played in this season's Pro Bowl. The other is that both were third-round picks.

While the Bucs have rejuvenated the franchise's fortunes partly through solid first- and second-round selections, such as Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, they also have made a name for themselves in the middle rounds.

Starting free safety Dexter Jackson? Fourth round. Starting strongside linebacker Al Singleton? Fourth round. Backup guard/center Todd Washington? Fourth round. Fullback Jameel Cook? Sixth round.

The NFL landscape is decorated with overachievers who were middle- and late-round selections. The accomplishments of Terrell Davis, Mark Brunell and Kurt Warner, all late-round picks who became Pro Bowl players, prove that sometimes jewels can fall through the cracks.

The Bucs are hoping one such jewel lands in Tampa Bay Saturday as the NFL draft opens. At the 86th pick, the Bucs still feel confident in what they'll get.

So what do you get in the third round?

"(He) usually is a guy that might not have one of the ideal measurables, like size or speed," said Ruston Webster, Bucs director of college scouting. "Or maybe he's an average athlete, but a real good football player. Or, it could be a guy who has talent that's developmental. He has upside but hasn't done it yet.

"Those are the types of guys that fall (to the third round or lower) and you have to make a decision whether you want to take a chance on talent or you take the more solid guy. A lot of times, the small school guys fall because (teams) tend to gravitate toward the bigger schools."

Chargers general manager John Butler, who had a hand in the Bills' four straight Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990s, said there is plenty of talent in later rounds.

"You can put together a team with those guys," he said. "They're the ones who went to the small colleges, the guys who are supposed to be too small or too slow or too something. But if you draft well there, you can put together a good team."

Considering the need for impact players on offense, specifically at receiver, running back and tight end, 2002 isn't the ideal year for the Bucs to surrender their first two picks. But with the class of 2002 deep in tight ends and receivers, the Bucs are certain there will be a quality player available at No. 86. They just have to find one that fits their scheme.

"A lot of time, it's just finding guys that fit your scheme, guys who are hungry and guys who have some kind of positive trait that your coach is willing to work with and you can develop," Webster said. "For example, with our defensive linemen we have a certain style of player that we take ... but it may not be what the other teams like. We have the shorter guys who can really run and are tough, instinctive football players. And a lot of times, teams are looking for that big, strong, two-gap kind of guy, to where we can get some of those (other) guys late."

This assumes that when the 86th pick is on the clock, the Bucs make a selection based on positional need rather than overall player ranking. Across the NFL, management always has stressed that the best player available takes precedence over filling a specific void.

"I've been in this game long enough to know that you better draft the best player instead of trying to fill a need," Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. "Ideally, when you're drafting, you try to ignore need. The way the league is set up today, if you take the best player on your board and he doesn't fill a need, there's always free agency."

In 1999, the Bucs had similar needs on offense but stunned pundits by taking LSU defensive tackle Anthony McFarland in the first round. The Bucs already had a pretty solid combination at tackle in Sapp and Brad Culpepper but selected McFarland because he was the highest-ranked player on the board. McFarland moved into the starting lineup in 2000, and the Bucs waived Culpepper.

"You need to be able to take that guy," Webster said. "That's what free agency has allowed us to do. I think that's the way we would look at it. In our case, you want to get a good player and you want him to be a starter for you, so you don't want to drop a level. So you don't want to take a guy that may not have the potential to start for you at some point."

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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