By ROGER MILLS
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 24, 2001
TAMPA -- Did you know that the Bucs' decision to release defensive end Chidi Ahanotu on Friday nearly cost them the chance to draft Kenyatta Walker, the left tackle they coveted?
Here's what nearly happened.
Strapped for salary cap money after signing Brad Johnson, Ryan Leaf and Simeon Rice and re-signing tackle Jerry Wunsch and cornerback Ronde Barber, the Bucs released Ahanotu and his $5-million salary on the eve of the draft.
The Cincinnati Bengals, who had gaping needs at left tackle and defensive end, immediately contacted Ahanotu's agent, Eugene Parker, intent on signing Ahanotu before the draft. Negotiations went late into Friday and continued until about 90 minutes before the start of the draft Saturday, the team's Web site reported.
Unable to come to terms, the Bengals opted to take Missouri defensive end Justin Smith instead of Walker.
With few other teams needing a left tackle, Walker went undrafted through the first 13 picks, allowing the Bucs to trade with Buffalo and get him 14th overall.
"I did hear that story," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said, smiling wryly. "Yeah, you have to have a little bit of luck in this draft. When we traded down from No. 7 to No. 12 the year we drafted Warren Sapp (1995), we had to get a little bit lucky that he made it to 12.
"We thought the place (Sapp) would go was No. 11 to Minnesota. Minnesota had some off-field issues that year, and our hope was that those off-field issues would discourage them from taking Warren, given what was being said on the television that day."
NEW BUCS, FOR NOW: Tampa Bay filled out its training camp roster Monday by signing 17 college free agents. As expected, the Bucs made receivers a priority, signing six: Florida A&M's Jacquay Nunnally, BYU's Margin Hooks, West Virginia's Khori Ivy, Arkansas State's Robert Kilow, Florida's Alex Willis and Colorado State's Frank Rice.
"We did focus (on receivers)," coach Tony Dungy said. "We had to get wide receivers since we plan on going to camp with 11 or 12. There were a couple of guys we really liked, and it'll be an interesting off-season."
The other college free agents are Miami (Ohio) defensive tackle Andy Aracri, Clemson defensive back Alexander Ardley, South Florida long snapper Ryan Benjamin, Carson-Newman linebacker Marq Cerqua, Mississippi center Shane Grice, Vanderbilt tackle Brian Gruber, Florida guard Leon Hires, Colorado State defensive tackle Mike Mackenzie, Louisiana Tech tight end David Newman, Virginia linebacker Byron Thweatt and East Carolina running back Jamie Wilson.
"It's hard to predict who will ascend because their opportunities are limited," McKay said.
"We just don't have enough time to say, "Take a year and we'll see how you're doing.' ... So, they've got to do something to catch your eye."
HOPING TO STRIKE: Nunnally broke Jerry Rice's career Division I record for receptions with 318. He was not drafted partly because he is 5 feet 9. But Dungy said it's hard to ignore the number of catches he made.
"He's a smaller guy but caught a ton of balls," Dungy said. "That's what you want to get in college free agents, something they can hang their hat on, and for him it's production. You can never overlook that."
IT'S ALL IN A NAME: That tackle from Vanderbilt is not Gruber, as in retired Buc Paul Gruber. It's "GRUBBAH."
"It's GRUBBAH, and it's going to be hard for him (to get people to avoid calling him) Gruber," Dungy said. "It's going to take a long time."