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Defensive backs a secondary concern

The Bucs have confidence in their four starters, so any player chosen this weekend is likely to get time to develop.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001


TAMPA -- With Pro Bowlers John Lynch and Donnie Abraham in the fold and a system five years in the making, the Bucs should have entered this off-season with few worries about the secondary.

But that wasn't the case.

The departure of defensive backs coach Herman Edwards, who took the Jets head coaching job, and the possible loss of starting safety Damien Robinson and starting cornerback Ronde Barber moved the Bucs' back line of defense to the front line of concern.

"I don't know if it would have been an Achilles' heel, but I'm a guy that likes consistency and likes to do the same things the same way," coach Tony Dungy said about having to cope with change. "Some of it is inevitable, but the more you cut down on it and keep things the same, the better off you are. With some new personnel, a new coach, it's better to have your veteran guys back. No doubt."

So when Barber was re-signed to a six-year, $18-million deal last week, some of Dungy's concerns were assuaged. Barber, Lynch and Abraham are under contract for the next few seasons, and the outlook seems bright.

There also is insurance. Brian Kelly enters his fourth season with a firm hold on the nickel back position, and third-year safety Dexter Jackson appears ready to step in should Robinson leave.

This doesn't mean the Bucs plan on ignoring defensive backs in this weekend's draft.

In 1998, Tampa Bay selected Kelly in the second round when it had cornerbacks Abraham, Barber and Anthony Parker on the roster. The Bucs took Jackson and, two years later, David Gibson, when Robinson and Lynch were set to start at safety.

The Bucs won't hesitate to add another cornerback/safety if the right one is available at the right time.

"To a degree, we're a team that grabs the best football player, and we use that as the yardstick going into the draft," said Jerry Angelo, director of player personnel. "Are we need-conscious? Yes, we are. If you lose Floyd (Young, a reserve) and Damien, that's two guys, and we're aware of that. It's not like our head's in the sand. But then it'll have to be the appropriate round. If we feel that that player merits that round because of his ability and it's close between him and another guy not in the same position, then we lean that way."

One reason for optimism is that this year's class is overflowing with talent. Ohio State's Nate Clements, Mississippi State's Fred Smoot, Syracuse's Will Allen, Wisconsin's Jamar Fletcher and Mississippi's Ken Lucas are considered high-round picks at cornerback.

"There are a lot of good corners this year," Angelo said. "In fact, it's probably one of the deepest positions this year. We feel good about the opportunity if we opt to go in that direction."

Allen, a former track star with what some have described as rare closing speed, said playing man-to-man in college, as most cornerbacks do, would not hinder a rookie's transition into the Bucs' cover-two zone philosophy.

"We played a lot of man-to-man and bump-and-run at Syracuse, but we mixed zone in there some," Allen said. "You just have to recognize certain routes and seams in the zone. It's not that difficult."

Even if the Bucs look in other directions in the early rounds, a wealth of cornerbacks could be a temptation too hard to resist three or four rounds later.

Penn State's Bhawoh Jue, Minnesota's Willie Middlebrooks, Utah's Andre Dyson and Western Illinois' Will Peterson may be middle-round steals.

"Without question," Angelo said. "If the draft's rich in corners, then in the third and fourth round they should be the better players than the other guys. If the cream rises to the top, then they should be the ones left."

With Robinson unsigned, the Bucs also could look at safeties, especially considering how little David Gibson played in his rookie year.

Safeties, Angelo said, have to have as much instinct as talent.

"As a rule, their play is predicated on real football savvy since they are closer to the ball and things happen quicker for them," Angelo said. "They don't need the foot speed in the middle of the field. But they have to be tough and instinctive.

"That's why you always get safeties late in the draft and you see the top corners go ahead of them. I think you just have to study safeties and look for the best foootball players. Take John Lynch. You wouldn't have watched John on tape and said, 'Wow, look at that guy!' But he's just a good football player. Those guys who look pretty, run fast, take off their shirt and appear on magazines, they don't ever make it."

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