Bucs scrutinize prospects

All things considered, Jon Gruden would rather not be available to coach the Senior Bowl as he has twice in the past three postseasons.

Published January 28, 2007

All things considered, Jon Gruden would rather not be available to coach the Senior Bowl as he has twice in the past three postseasons. But the Bucs coach and his staff take full advantage of the opportunity to get an even closer look at prospective draft picks.

It's one thing to watch players work out in Mobile, Ala., for a week. It's quite another to plug them into your offensive and defensive system and observe them in the meeting rooms.

But unlike two years ago, when the Bucs got a preview of running back Cadillac Williams, their first overall pick may have been absent Saturday.

If the Bucs win the coin toss over the Browns for the No. 3 pick, they may have to choose between Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson and Wisconsin left tackle Joe Thomas.

Johnson, 6 feet 5, 235 pounds, is a junior but rated by draft guru Mel Kiper and others as the top overall talent in the draft. Thomas, 6-3, 313, chose not to participate in the Senior Bowl because he said he wasn't in good playing shape.

And Gruden was disappointed Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn backed out because of a minor knee injury.

"We were eager to coach those guys, but we understand their situation and respect why they're not playing," he said. "Those are two dynamic prospects in this year's draft."

But there are others. The Bucs have spent plenty of time looking at defensive linemen to improve their pass rush, which was among the worst in the NFL with just 25 sacks.

One of the most impressive prospects is Louisville defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, 19, a 6-1, 317-pound senior.

"It's really unbelievable. He went out there and was knocking people around. He didn't look like he was 19," Gruden said. "I've just got a tremendous amount of respect for him and how he's been raised. He's obviously a very smart guy to accelerate his academics the way he has. He may be young, but he is not lacking any physical attributes at this point.

"When you look at the tape, the guy's an explosive football player. He really has a chance to play. You just worry about what he's going to do at night, 10 o'clock with no bed check. That's what I worry about with a 19-year-old kid. I worry about that more than anything else."

And the Bucs are fond of Nebraska defensive end Adam Carriker, who played for Gruden's North squad. At 6 feet 6, 292 pounds, Carriker has worked inside at under tackle, a position the Bucs are looking to fill after the trade of Anthony McFarland to the Colts for a second-round pick.

BOUNCING BACK: The Bucs are hopeful left guard Dan Buenning can recover from a torn knee ligament on Thanksgiving Day at Dallas. Buenning injured his ankle in the final preseason game and did not match the level of performance he demonstrated as a rookie.

"We had a long talk," Gruden said. "He got hurt in the final preseason game, wasn't ready to go physically for the first few weeks and came back and wasn't the same guy he was in the '05 season. We need the 300-pound man with some thump in the hole. He's got some versatility as a puller. He's a guy that we're counting on being a part of our future. He and Davin Joseph are going to be our guards, and I'll be upset if they're not."

The Bucs are considering moving left tackle Anthony Davis to left guard, particularly if Thomas is their first overall pick.

SAY WHAT? This is how desperate the Bucs are for defensive line help: They plan to work out former first-rounder Andre Wads-worth, who has not played since midway through the 2000 season. The former Florida State Seminole, now 32, had a series of knee injuries that forced his release from the Cardinals.

Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud@sptimes.com.