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More boom, less bust

The Bucs want to improve their track record in the draft when choosing offensive players.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2001


TAMPA -- Ever since the Bucs signed heavy-footed quarterback Brad Johnson while appearing to ignore their obvious hole at tackle, Tampa Bay fans have worried more about protection than the Secret Service.

So with the 21st overall pick in the NFL draft Saturday, the Bucs are projected to use their first-round selection on an offensive lineman for only the second time since '91.

Right?

Not necessarily. Figuring out the Bucs' draft strategy is harder than Mel Kiper's hair.

The truth is the Bucs don't have a stellar record of drafting and developing players on offense.

Only five of the 11 players likely to start on offense this season were drafted by the Bucs. Of those, only two -- Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott -- have made the Pro Bowl.

Compare that with nine of 11 starters on defense that have been selected by the Bucs, four of whom have made the Pro Bowl.

Perhaps that's why Tampa Bay has ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in overall defense four of five seasons under coach Tony Dungy. Meanwhile, its 21st overall ranking on offense last season was the highest since '94.

In the past two seasons, the Bucs have spent heavily in free agency on offensive players to try to make up the disparity.

Last season, they sent two No. 1 draft choices to the Jets for receiver Keyshawn Johnson and signed Vikings Pro Bowl center Jeff Christy and guard Randall McDaniel in free agency.

This off-season, the Bucs replaced starting quarterback Shaun King, a second-round pick in '99, with Brad Johnson.

To make King's future in Tampa Bay seem even more bleak, they signed quarterback Ryan Leaf, the No. 2 overall pick by San Diego in '98, to a three-year contract extension after acquiring him on waivers.

"I think if you take a snapshot, it can sometimes be deceiving," Dungy said. "If you'd asked two years ago if Marcus Jones had developed the way you thought, a lot of people would've said. "No.' And now they'd say, "Yes.' If you look at Dunn, Alstott, (Reidel) Anthony, (Frank) Middleton -- guys that have helped us in a couple playoff runs, I'd say yes. Shaun King, Jerry Wunsch, Jason Odom before he got hurt. I'm trying to think of a high draft pick on offense that really hasn't panned out."

Start with Anthony, the 16th overall selection in '97. He has seen his production and playing time reduced in each of the past three seasons. He went from a career-best 51 receptions in '98 to 30 in '99 and 15 in 2000. What's more, he started just eight games the past two seasons.

The quarterback quandary was the result of the failed development of Trent Dilfer, a No. 6 overall pick in '94 who made the Pro Bowl in '97 but otherwise wasn't consistent enough to prompt the Bucs to pick up his option after the '99 season.

Dilfer, of course, led Baltimore to a Super Bowl XXXV victory. But the Ravens thought so highly of his performance that they did not re-sign him.

"I think everyone goes in wanting to be balanced, wanting to be good on offense, defense and special teams," Dungy said. "But you have limited resources, a limited number of draft choices and a limited amount of money to spend and sometimes you're going to get good players who eat that up.

"I think it's just natural that one side or the other ascends and those are the guys who wind up getting paid."

Naturally, the biggest checks are distributed to the defense. It's where Dungy made a conscious effort to improve first when he took over in '96.

"That was my thought process, because you can get to where you can be a playoff-caliber team pretty easily if you can stop people," Dungy said. "We spent a lot of our choices in '96 and a lot of our money to re-sign Hardy (Nickerson). We drafted Marcus, Regan (Upshaw) and Donnie Abraham. So that was the thought. We had some cornerstones we thought we could build around to get the defense going, and '96 kind of went in that direction.

"The next year was Warrick and Reidel and Jerry and Frank. It probably started a little earlier with the defense. But we were fortunate both those years there were guys there we wanted to take."

If the Bucs do take an offensive lineman -- as speculated by most draft gurus -- with the 21st pick, it will represent a departure of sorts.

Since Dungy's arrival, the Bucs never have used a first-round pick on an offensive lineman. Starting right tackle Jerry Wunsch and right guard Cosey Coleman are second-round selections.

"Have any of the guys we've taken ascended past what we thought they would be? No," offensive line coach Chris Foerster said. "But they've played like they should play, for the most part.

"I've asked myself, "Am I doing something wrong?' But they are what they are. I don't think we've missed. What hasn't happened is that we draft a guy in the third round and he becomes the best player at his position in the league."

While the Bucs can point to Dunn and Alstott as highly productive players, they're still defining their roles.

It wasn't until Alstott was injured that Bucs coaches became convinced Dunn could be an every down running back after he averaged 173 total yards during a four-game stretch. No one seems prepared to say what Alstott's role will be this season, although it appears it will be reduced to a short-yardage back and lead blocker.

It can be argued that since Dungy's expertise was defense, that's where his original coaching staff was loaded. Defensive backs coach Herman Edwards ascended to becoming the coach of the Jets. Linebackers coach Lovie Smith was hired as Rams defensive coordinator. Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli is considered the best in the league and might have been a coordinator for Edwards had he not still been under contract with Tampa Bay.

Conversely, Clyde Christensen represents Dungy's third offensive coordinator in as many years. And is any team raiding the Bucs offensive staff?

Nonetheless, the Bucs are expected to go offense with their first-round pick. Their most glaring need is for a left tackle. So naturally, they'll probably do what feels more comfortable and take a defensive lineman.

"I wouldn't be shocked," Foerster said. "It's always more attractive to get the bang for the pick and hope the other player is there in the second round."

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