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Studying all their options

It seems the only thing firm about the Bucs’ plans is that they will remain flexible.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2001


TAMPA -- The one thing any receiver must be able to do is catch. How strange that the Bucs may find themselves looking for the receiver who drops the most today in the NFL draft.

NFL draft: Noon to 7 p.m. today, ESPN; 7-10 p.m., ESPN2
photo
[AP photo]
One possible pick: Santana Moss. Small size (5-9, 185), but big stats: The Hurricane averaged 18.2 yards as a senior punt returner.
Placing value of the player over the biggest need of their team, the Bucs are hopeful that one of college football's elite pass catchers -- Miami's Santana Moss, Clemson's Rod Gardner or perhaps Wisconsin's Chris Chambers -- slides to them at the 21st overall pick.

That's because Tampa Bay is not likely to follow conventional wisdom and select the best available left tackle with its first-round choice.

Friday, on the eve of the draft, the Bucs cleared more than $5-million of salary cap room by releasing defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, presumably to sign Miami free-agent left tackle Richmond Webb.

"I'm sure that's good news for us," said Webb's agent, Stephen Zucker. "If they want to do something after the draft, they'll have more room."

If Ahanotu's dismissal was made with an eye on moving up, possibly into the 49ers' pick at No. 9, it's to take Florida tackle Kenyatta Walker.

Bucs general manager Rich McKay, however, warned against matching today's first-round pick with their biggest need.

"The place where I differ philosophically from the mock drafters, they focus on 2001," McKay said. "I think that's the last thing you worry about. Because frankly, whatever you get from them (as a rookie) will probably be a bonus.

"It's so easy to line guys up and say, "They have a need, and they need him to beat the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 9 in 2001, so they're going to draft him.' I would just say from an organizational standpoint, that's the last thing we're thinking about. Do you have to discuss it? Yes. But the focus is evaluating the players, rating the players, looking at the value of the player, asking, "How does this player fit three years from now?' "

The Bucs sent two No. 1 picks to the Jets last season for receiver Keyshawn Johnson. But they would welcome another target for free-agent quarterback Brad Johnson.

The player most frequently linked to the Bucs is Michigan offensive tackle Jeff Backus. But Backus could be gone to the Lions at No. 18. And remember, Tampa Bay has not taken an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft since tackle Charles McRae in 1991.

In '98, the Bucs had a chance to use their first-round pick on Florida tackle Mo Collins. But they traded the pick to Oakland for an additional second-round pick. The Raiders' No. 2 then was sent to San Diego for the Chargers' first-rounder in 2000. That pick helped the Bucs land Keyshawn Johnson.

In '99, the Bucs watched tackle John Tait go to the Chiefs at 14th overall, one pick before they selected Anthony McFarland. Eastern Michigan tackle L.J. Shelton, who went 21st to the Cardinals, was still on the board.

Clearly, left tackle is a need position for the Bucs, who used journeyman backups Pete Pierson and George Hegamin a year ago.

Instead of trading up, the Bucs are more likely to trade down from No. 21. Three times in the past four years Tampa Bay has not made a pick at its original position in the first round.

"I do think there will be more trades up at the top," McKay said. "And whenever there are more trades, unusual things can occur."

Including some things the Bucs hope will occur -- such as Moss, Gardner or Chambers slipping to No. 21.

Moss is only 5 feet 9 and 185 pounds, but he had 18.2 yards per punt return as a senior and could provide instant field position. Most mock drafts have him going 19th to the Jets.

Gardner (6-2, 217) has decent speed and exceptional hands to go with his obvious size. Chambers is a burner, running the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds.

Taking a receiver in the first round can be risky. The Bucs drafted a receiver in the first round once, taking Florida's Reidel Anthony in '97.

"You can make an argument at any position that it hasn't done well (in the first round)," McKay said. "But (receivers) traditionally have measurables that are eye-popping. The guy ran real fast, the guy caught a lot of balls. The only thing I think about receivers today as opposed to 15 years ago (is) it's unquestionably easier to evaluate. If you were trying to evaluate a receiver at Ohio State in the '70s or '80s, it was very, very hard. They were catching 25 balls. They're a lot easier to evaluate."

If all the elite receivers are gone, the Bucs still could pick up a target for Johnson. Arizona State tight end Todd Heap, a great athlete likened to the Chiefs Tony Gonzalez, will get consideration.

"I wouldn't put him at the top of our list, but he's not at the bottom, either," McKay said.

As with any draft under coach Tony Dungy, the defense will not be overlooked.

Even though the Bucs recently re-signed Ronde Barber, it is a draft rich in cornerbacks.

The Bucs will begin with 10 selections -- one pick in each of the first five rounds, two picks in the sixth and three in the seventh.

"Anybody you pick in the draft, the one thing you have to realize is they can't stay the same," McKay said. "They have to get better. Guys are not going to come in and dominate Week 1."

Want more?

If you want more information before, during and after this weekend's NFL draft, check out these Web sites:

NFL.com: The draft's official site, run by ESPN.com, has a "Draft Tracker" to let you find players by NFL team, college, round or position. Look for a long lineup of chats throughout the draft as well. CNNSI.com: Loads of information here -- the site conducted a mock draft Friday based on fans voting on each pick, one by one. Sports Illustrated's Peter King will check in with his analysis five times during the draft.

CBSSportsline.com: Len Pasquarelli, who breaks as many NFL stories as anyone, says Arizona State tight end Todd Heap would be a "steal" for the Bucs at No. 21.

nfldraftlinks.freeservers.com: If there's a site with a draft page, you can find a link to it here, and what's more, the site lists them in order of their most recent update.

No. 21 picks

(Year, Player, Pos., NFL team, College team)

2000 Sylvester MorrisWR Chiefs Jackson St.

1999 L.J. SheltonT Cardinals E. Michigan

1998 Randy MossWR Vikings Marshall

1997 Renaldo WynnDT Jaguars Notre Dame

1996 Pete KendallT Seahawks Boston College

1995 Rashaan SalaamRB Bears Colorado

1994 Johnnie MortonWR Lions Southern Cal

1993 Robert SmithRB Vikings Ohio State

1992 Vaughn DunbarRB Saints Indiana

1991 Harvey WilliamsRB Chiefs LSU

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