The Bucs hit a home run at a critical position when they drafted CB Aqib Talib in 2008
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of pre-draft articles analyzing the Buccaneers' roster position by position. Each position analysis will include a look at the team's current depth at that spot, its history in stocking the position and the potential additions available in the draft and free agency. Later this week: Wide receivers.
At the conclusion of the 2009 season, Associated Press voters selected Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson as the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. This was notable given that no player at Woodson's position had won that award since sure-fire Hall-of-Famers Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders took it back-to-back in 1993 and 1994, respectively.
Of course, there was plenty of dissenting opinion on the award, with many pundits feeling it should have gone to the man who finished second in the voting: the New York Jets' Darrelle Revis.
Revis, of course, is also a cornerback.
Perhaps Revis will get his crack at the award in 2010, if he can duplicate his ridiculous shut-down season of 2009. More likely some defensive end will rack up 18 sacks or a linebacker will score five touchdowns and the award will once again go to a player in the front seven. Still, the voting for the '09 honor underscored what many NFL analysts have believed for some time: Cornerback is high on the list of the most important positions on the football field.
Few would argue that quarterback ranks first, and the need to protect that quarterback usually puts left tackle into the conversation, as well. You might get some disagreement, however, whether the next most valuable football asset is a sack-happy defensive end or a shutdown cornerback in the Revis mode.
Of course, franchise quarterbacks are hard to find, and so are shutdown cornerbacks. In fact, long-term dependable starters, let alone Player of the Year candidates, aren't exactly falling out of trees, which is why a fairly accomplished player like Dunta Robinson became a hot commodity even after being released by the Texans this spring. Atlanta signed Robinson quickly, believing they had addressed one of their major weaknesses from 2009.
In Tampa, the Buccaneers have been blessed with significant talent on the corners since a run of fine draft-weekend decisions began in the mid-'90s. The Bucs have ranked in the top 10 in pass defense in 12 of the last 14 seasons (and in the top five in nine of those years), and there have certainly been many contributing factors to that run, including good coaching and a strong pass rush in certain years. But the play of Ronde Barber and company on the edges has also been critical to that success.
Barber is entering his 14th season in the NFL but the Bucs have a new star in the making in third-year player Aqib Talib. Even during a difficult 2009 season, those two starters performed quite well, and the team's number-10 spot in the pass defense rankings provides evidence of that. On the other hand, the team clearly struggled to find depth at the position, and with so many prolific passing offenses in the NFL these days, it's difficult to excel for long without at least three good cornerbacks.
Thus it would surprise no one if the Buccaneers picked some point during the upcoming draft to address the position, particularly since they are armed with 10 picks overall and four of the top 67. Free agency, affected this year by modified rules that decreased the pool of potential unrestricted free agents by some 200 players, might be a less effective tool in 2010 than in most years, and it's also true (see below) that the Bucs have had more success at cornerback over the past decade by focusing on the draft.
Before we take a look at what's still available in free agency or what might be added via draft, here is a list of the players currently under contract at the position:
| Cornerbacks Currently Under Contract |
|Player||Exp.||2008 Tackles-INTs-PDs)||Career (Tackles-INTs-PDs)|
|E.J. Biggers *||2||N/A||N/A|
* - Spent entire rookie season on injured reserve
The Bucs' number-10 spot in the NFL's pass defense chart is impressive, but it would be misleading to ignore the team's overall defensive ranking of 27th. Tampa Bay finished last in the league in rush defense, which suggests that, in some games, teams didn't have to do much through the air to succeed. Still, the Bucs' secondary was up to the test when tested, ranking seventh in the NFL in interceptions per pass play. Barber was shut out in that category for the first time since 1997 but Talib and safety Tanard Jackson had five each and nickel back Elbert Mack had three.
The Bucs once again struggled to put together a consistent pass rush, which forced the secondary into longer coverage situations and reduced the number of big-play opportunities. However, it's worth noting that the Bucs' pass defense was stronger down the stretch and had six interceptions over the final three weeks after the coaching staff returned to a more Cover Two-based scheme.
Here's a more in-depth look at some relevant numbers to the Bucs' cornerback position:
Cornerback Position Numbers:
|Starting spots/Returning starters:||2/2 (Returning: Barber, Talib)|
|Total players under contract (as of 3/22/10):||7 (Anderson, Barber, Biggers, Mack, Roberson, Talib, Woodson)|
|Unrestricted/Restricted free agents:||1/0 (UFA: Torrie Cox)|
|2009 Pro Bowlers:||0|
|Previous Pro Bowl Selections:||Barber (5)|
|2009 AP All-Pros:||0|
|Relevant 2009 NFL Rankings:||Tampa Bay ranked 27th in the NFL in total defense, 10th against the pass; With 19 interceptions, the Bucs ranked 7th; Talib tied for 12th in the NFL in interceptions, with five.|
|Cornerbacks Taken to Training Camp in 2009:||8 (Kyle Arrington, Barber, Biggers, Cox, Mack, Marshall McDuffie, Talib, DeAngelo Willingham)|
|Cornerbacks Carried During the 2009 Regular Season:||5* (Barber, Cox, Mack, Roberson, Talib)|
|Cornerbacks Drafted by Tampa Bay, 1976-2009, Rounds 1-3:||9...Jeremiah Castille (3, 1983), Fred Acorn (3, 1984), Rod Jones (1, 1986), Ricky Reynolds (2, 1987), Donnie Abraham (3, 1996), Barber (3, 1997), Brian Kelly (2, 1998), Dwight Smith (3, 2001), Talib (1, 2008)|
* - The number of cornerbacks on the Buccaneers' 53-man roster fluctuated between four and six players from week to week but the most common number was five. The five CBs who appeared in the most games are listed above.
Tampa Bay is slated to pick third in this year's first round, barring any trades. Since cornerbacks are rarely drafted with the highest picks - the last top-10 cornerback was Pacman Jones in 2005 and the last top-five corner was Terence Newman in 2003 - few mock drafts have paired the Bucs with that position in the opening round. However, the Bucs also have two picks high in the second round and the third pick in the third round, and the pool of defensive talent is considered quite deep this year.
Here's a look at some of the top cornerbacks available in the 2010 NFL Draft:
- Joe Haden, Florida... Haden's draft "stock" supposedly fell when he ran a sub-par 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, but he improved significantly at Florida's Pro Day... There are no concerns about Haden's speed and quickness on Florida's game tape; he is widely considered the draft's all-around best CB prospect.
- Kyle Wilson, Boise State... A very active defender for the Broncos, Wilson plays the ball well and shows great instincts in coverage... Size and speed considered relatively average for the position but he is quick and moves smoothly... Can also help in the return game.
- Patrick Robinson, Florida State... Has the size (5-11, 190) and straight-line speed that scouts look for in a cornerback, and plays the position very aggressively... Raw skills should translate into immediate special teams success.
- Devin McCourty, Rutgers... Scouts like McCourty's work ethic and his instincts for the position, which should help him improve under NFL coaching... He turns well and is smooth in coverage but doesn't possess top-end speed.
- Kareem Jackson, Alabama... Jackson ran well at the combine to support the game tape that shows him playing the position aggressively and instinctively... Is considered capable of shining in man or zone schemes... Shoulder surgeries raise one red flag.
- Donovan Warren, Michigan... Warren is tough and competitive but hasn't dazzled with his speed and could struggle in man-to-man schemes... Some consider his best NFL position to be safety.
- Javier Arenas, Alabama... Arenas is clearly a savvy and instinctive football player, and he was very productive on the collegiate level, but his relative lack of size (5-9, 197) and top-end speed generally keep him down the list of the top CB prospects...Is tough for his size and would likely be a strong contributor on special teams right away.
The Bucs hit a position of great need when they drafted Talib with the 20th overall pick in 2008, but that was only the second first-rounder the franchise had ever spent on that position. Fortunately, the second and third rounds have returned outstanding results in recent years for the Bucs at cornerback. Tampa Bay has also made a practice of trying to find a diamond-in-the-rough at the position with seventh-round selections, and thinks it might have found one in E.J. Biggers. Biggers, out of Western Michigan, was impressive in training camp last summer but eventually landed on injured reserve due to a shoulder injury that cost him his rookie campaign.
Overall, these are the cornerbacks the Bucs have taken at any spot in the draft over the last five years.
| Cornerbacks Drafted in the Last Five Years |
|Year||Round||Player||School||Still on Team?|
|2006||4th||Alan Zemaitis||Penn State||No|
|2009||7th||E.J. Biggers||Western Michigan||Yes|
As mentioned, the Bucs have had good success, particularly since the 1990s, in drafting cornerbacks, at least when doing so in the top half of the draft. The third round in particular, which produced Barber, Donnie Abraham and Dwight Smith, has been fertile ground for Tampa Bay. Second-day picks like Alan Zemaitis (fourth round in 2006), Jerry Wilson (fourth round in 1995) and Clifton Abraham (fifth round in 1995) have not fared as well.
The Bucs actually did not spend a single pick in the first three rounds on a cornerback until their eighth draft, when they picked Jeremiah Castille in the third round in 1983. The team did trade a third-round pick in 1976 to acquire CB Mike Washington, who became a long-time starter, but mostly ignored the position on draft day. Of course, the NFL was more run-intensive in those years and thus cornerbacks, while still important, weren't quite as central to success as they are now.
Here's the full list of cornerbacks drafted by the Buccaneers in the first three rounds:
Cornerbacks Drafted by Tampa Bay in Rounds 1-3, All-Time
- Jeremiah Castille (3rd), 1983...Never a star but played four seasons in Tampa and was a starter for the majority of three of them... Finished with 45 starts and 11 interceptions as a Buccaneer, and in 1985 was the team leader with seven picks, still tied for the fourth-highest single-season total in Buc annals.
- Fred Acorn (3rd), 1984...The Bucs have had good success with third-round cornerbacks, but not in this case... Acorn played in all 16 games and made one start as a rookie but was cut in the following season's training camp... Finished with just 10 tackles and one pick as a Buccaneer.
- Rod Jones (1st), 1986...The first cornerback ever taken in the first two rounds by the franchise, Jones never lived up to the promise of the 25th overall pick... Started 44 games over four seasons in Tampa before being traded to Cincinnati and was known for surrendering big plays.
- Ricky Reynolds (2nd), 1987...Before the selection of Donnie Abraham in 1996, the choice of Reynolds was the Bucs' best high-round effort at the position... Reynolds started 102 of the 105 games in which he played over seven Buccaneer seasons and is still considered one of the best DBs in team annals.
- Donnie Abraham (3rd), 1996...A third-round steal, Abraham was in the starting lineup before his rookie season was half over (at right cornerback) and he became a fixture on the left side over the next five years... Had at least five interceptions in six of his seven seasons as a Buccaneer and is second only to Barber in that category in franchise history with 31.
- Ronde Barber (3rd), 1997...The Bucs made it two third-round hits in a row with the selection of this Virginia playmaker... About to enter his 14th season, Barber is on the short list of the greatest players in team history and was recently named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2000s.
- Brian Kelly (2nd), 1998...Tampa Bay stayed on a roll at the position with this USC product, drafted high in the second round after the team traded out of the first round entirely... Kelly never quite matched the play of Abraham and Barber but he nailed down a starting role for 79 of his 130 games as a Buc and was the LCB starter for the 2002 championship team.
- Dwight Smith (3rd), 2001...Yet more third-round success for the Buccaneers at cornerback... Smith earned the nickel back position quickly and was a playmaker in that spot for the 2002 Super Bowl team... Memorably returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the Super Bowl victory over Oakland... Eventually switched to safety.
- Aqib Talib (1st), 2008...The Bucs fared much better in their second crack at a first-round cornerback, grabbing the athletic Kansas player who is rapidly developing into a star... Talib has nine interceptions through his first two seasons and has tied for the team lead in that category in each of those two years.
All but two of the Bucs' primary cornerback starters of the last decade (Barber, Talib, Kelly, Wansley, Abraham) have been acquired through the draft, with the exceptions being Juran Bolden and Phillip Buchanon. Bolden was signed to be a nickel back in 2005 but saw extensive starting time in 2006 due to injuries. Buchanon was picked up in midseason in 2006 and became the primary starter on the left side in 2007 and 2008, though Talib was clearly going to supplant him in that spot soon.
However, the Bucs did have some success adding cornerbacks through the free agent market earlier in the 1990s, primarily with the likes of Martin Mayhew and Charles Dimry early in the free agency era. Mayhew, in fact, still ranks as one of the team's best free agent finds, and he and Dimry ended up starting a combined 98 games for the Buccaneers. Other free agent cornerbacks who made decent to above-average contributions in the 1990s included Mike McGruder, Tony Stargell, Milton Mack, Tyrone Legette and Anthony Parker.
In the 2000s, with the likes of Barber and Kelly serving as the primary starters, the Bucs have occasionally looked to add depth by adding veteran corners in free agency, but the overall results have been relatively low-impact. Among the better-known cornerbacks the team has given another opportunity to this decade are Sammy Davis, Eugene Wilson, Mario Edwards, Tommy Knight, Hank Poteat and Terrell Buckley. A few, such as Buckley and Wilson, didn't make the roster, while the others had short stays in Tampa.
The Buccaneers found a strong nickel back candidate and special teams performer in the undrafted field in 2008 with Troy's Elbert Mack. Since, they have scoured the market of young, lesser-known cornerbacks looking for other such contributors or possible development projects. Just last year, the Bucs took a look at all of these young cornerbacks at some point or another: Kyle Arrington, Greg Fassitt, Marcus Hamilton (back for a second go-around), Brandon Anderson, Derrick Roberson, Mike Mickens, Marcus McCauley, William Middleton, Jamar Love and Stoney Woodson. Anderson and Roberson made the active roster before season's end and are back on the roster in 2010, while Woodson finished the year on Tampa Bay's practice squad and will now get a longer look.
The Bucs are not expected to be extraordinarily active in free agency this spring, though they have already traded for one player (WR Reggie Brown) and signed two others (LB Jon Alston and S Sean Jones). Obviously, none of those three are cornerbacks, and it seems more likely that the team will look for reinforcements in that area with some part of their 10 picks in the upcoming draft rather than a free agent field weakened by the altered rules of the final CBA season.
A few of the more interesting names on the list of free agent cornerbacks have already re-signed or changed teams. Most notably, the Chargers traded Antonio Cromartie to the New York Jets and former Texan Dunta Robinson signed in Atlanta after being released by Houston. Leigh Bodden has re-signed in New England, and Rod Hood did the same in Tennessee, while Marlin Jackson left Indianapolis to sign with Philadelphia.
Although there doesn't seem to be a very brisk market left at the position, here's a look at some recognizable cornerbacks who are still available:
- Will Allen (UFA, Miami) - The Bucs lost one Will Allen (the safety) to Pittsburgh but this one is still available... The former Dolphin and Giant missed all but six games with an ACL tear last year but has 124 career starts.
- Dre' Bly (UFA, San Francisco) - Bly has played on three teams in the last four years and might be nearing the end of his everyday-starter status, though he did open six games and pick off three passes last year.
- Phillip Buchanon (Released, Detroit) - A return to Tampa doesn't seem likely, but the eighth-year vet did start 11 games last year, and 40 over the last three.
- William Gay (RFA, Pittsburgh) - Restricted free agents rarely switch teams, but with the altered free agency landscape teams have to at least consider the option... Gay started 14 games in his third NFL season last fall.
- Nick Harper (UFA, Tennessee) - Harper finished last year on injured reserve like Allen but has been a starter for the past six seasons in Tennessee and Indianapolis.
- Tye Hill (Released, St. Louis) - A former first-round pick, Hill never lived up to the resulting expectations in St. Louis or Atlanta but might be young and talented enough to still put it together in another spot.
- Ken Lucas (UFA, Seattle) - In his second stint with the Seahawks, Lucas started only six game last year but had been a strong performer the previous four years in Carolina.
- Nathan Vashar (Released, Chicago) - A Pro Bowl performer in 2005, Vashar has since struggled with injuries and lost his starting job to Zack Bowman last year.
The Buccaneers certainly have an interesting pair of starters at cornerback, with Barber still going strong despite his 13 seasons in the league and Talib looking as if he's on the verge of stardom. Despite Barber's strong play in 2009, it would be no surprise to see the franchise search for his eventual replacement, even if it won't be needed for a few more years. Strong play at the cornerback position is practically a must if a team wishes to succeed in the NFL in the modern era, so it's safe to say that the position is always considered a priority on draft day.