By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2001
TAMPA -- All the draftniks working for the alphabet cartel of dot.coms -- ESPN, CNN/SI, CBS and FOX -- are in agreement -- the Bucs will draft Michigan offensive tackle Jeff Backus with the 21st overall pick.
The 6-foot-6, 310-pound Backus is not a franchise-type tackle like Leonard Davis of Texas or Florida's Kenyatta Walker. But he might be the best available player at the neediest position for Tampa Bay.
Now all they have to do is convince Bucs coach Tony Dungy.
"If you're going in saying you're picking 21st and you've got to pick a left tackle and he's got to come in and play for us, that can be pretty difficult," Dungy said. "Green Bay found a left tackle (Mark Tauscher) in the seventh round last year. So you never know with those guys."
Dungy and the Bucs have had success trying to avoid being hostage to a specific position.
Last week's signing of right tackle Jerry Wunsch and cornerback Ronde Barber took some of the pressure off the Bucs in this weekend's draft.
But the plan is not necessarily to go into the season with journeymen backups Pete Pierson and George Hegamin at left tackle.
There are still some veteran starters on the free agent market, such as Miami's Richmond Webb, who can be had after the draft.
So the Bucs say they can go with the highest-rated available player on their board. Other than left tackle, some of the Bucs' biggest needs are an interior offensive lineman to replace guard 36-year-old Randall McDaniel eventually, a tight end to complement veteran Dave Moore or even a running back to succeed Warrick Dunn and/or Mike Alstott some day.
"Every year, if you can come out with five or six real good prospects, that's what you want," Dungy said. "As opposed to saying, "We've got to fill this position in this slot.' To me, that's when you can make mistakes. Anthony McFarland, when we drafted him, probably wasn't our biggest need area. But he's going to be a great player. That's what you can never lose sight of."
In some ways, it's harder to prepare when you are picking in the 20s. But it certainly beats the alternative, and means your team is coming off a good year.
The Bucs are a veteran team with very few starting jobs open. Ideally, the player they draft in the first round won't be pressed into immediate service.
"I think it's easier in some ways because the guy doesn't have to be the savior, everybody is not looking at them that way," Dungy said. "If Marcus Jones was Ryan Leaf and the second pick, he might not have gotten the four years to pan out and really come on. But at 22, that spotlight isn't on him. So sometimes that's better.
"Obviously, you're going to miss out on 12 to 14 players you would really like to have every year. But by the same token, you still get some pretty good players down the line and they can be very, very productive and a lot of times they come in with less pressure."
Other players linked to the Bucs, if Backus is unavailable, are Arizona tight end Todd Heap, Miami receiver Santana Moss and Wisconsin running back Michael Bennett.
"The coaches are always driven by, "We don't have this and we've got to get that.' That's not always the best way to enter a draft," Dungy said. "Obviously, you have to draft needs because you have to win. But the more you can look at the whole picture and say, "These are the good players, these are the guys who are going to make us better,' the better off you are."