The Bucs' 2003 role for Dwight Smith, one of their many draft-day successes in the secondary, could affect what other players the Bucs add at defensive back
In the weeks prior to the 2003 NFL Draft, Buccaneers.com will analyze each position on the team in regards to the draft, looking at depth, selection history and available players. Much of the focus will be on the Bucs' second and third-round history, as the team does not currently own a first-round pick. As usual, this look at the draft is not intended to reflect the intentions or strategies of the Buccaneers' player personnel decision-makers. The first position we'll look at is defensive backs.
If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have proven anything over the last 10 Aprils, it's that they have an excellent eye for defensive backs.
Whether plucking mid-round cornerbacks from small schools (East Tennessee State's Donnie Abraham, Akron's Dwight Smith), finding promising safeties on the second day of the draft (Dexter Jackson, John Howell, Jermaine Phillips) or using late-round picks on good developmental projects (Al Harris, Tim Wansley), the Bucs have consistently made the right choices.
That eye for talent might be particularly useful in the next few drafts, perhaps as soon as this April as change is on the horizon. Jackson, the starting free safety and Super Bowl MVP, has left for Arizona through free agency; five-time Pro Bowl S John Lynch, while showing no signs of slowing down, is entering his 11th season; Smith, an emerging playmaker at nickel back, might be switched to free safety to cover Jackson's loss. Eleven of the Bucs' last 12 draft classes have included at least one defensive back…might this year's group include a corner or safety among the early picks?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers do not own a first-round pick in this year's draft, and their top choice is the last one of the second round, number 64 overall. However, that falls squarely into the range where the Bucs have made their best defensive-back choices of the past decade. Ronde Barber came courtesy of the 66th pick in 1997, a year after Abraham cost the 71st overall selection. Lynch was picked up even later, 82nd overall in 1993, as was Smith, the 84th pick in 2001. If the Bucs choose to trade up about half a round, they could get in the range that produced Brian Kelly, the 45th pick in 1998.
The lack of a first-round pick, in fact, doesn't figure to hamper the Bucs if they choose to shore up the secondary on draft weekend. Only once in team history has Tampa Bay used a first-rounder on a defensive back, and that selection failed to pay big dividends. The Bucs picked twice in the first round in 1986 and used their two selections on Auburn RB Bo Jackson and SMU CB Rod Jones. Unlike Jackson, Jones did play four seasons for the Buccaneers, but they were less than spectacular campaigns.
If first-round picks are often expected to step right into the starting lineup for their new teams, second and third-rounders generally take a year or two to earn such jobs. Still, players targeted by the Bucs in those rounds are expected to be starters at some point. Neither Barber nor Kelly started in their respective first seasons with the Buccaneers, but now they form perhaps the best starting cornerback tandem in the NFL, and neither has hit his 29th birthday yet.
With both Barber and Kelly comfortably under contract and young players like Smith, Wansley and Phillips showing intriguing potential, the Bucs appear to have enough depth in the secondary to be flexible heading into this year's draft. Here's a look at how Tampa Bay's defensive backfield currently stacks up:
Defensive Back Position Numbers: