Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Oben-Minded

New York Giants T Roman Oben is the latest NFL free agent to take a tour of Tampa

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Unrestricted free agent tackle Roman Oben paid a visit to the Bucs on Friday

Though the Buccaneers made a big splash in the free agent market on Tuesday by signing Pro Bowl C Jeff Christy away from the Vikings, there's apparently still some water left in the pool.

The Bucs canceled several of their free agent appointments this week due to the Christy signing, but the team still welcomed a visit on Friday by New York Giants T Roman Oben. Oben's presence so soon on the heels of the team's first free agent upgrade indicates that the team is determined to address its offensive line this offseason.

That much was broadly hinted at by General Manager Rich McKay a week ago on the first day of the 2000 free agency period. "We've got a little bit of a plan," said McKay in an address to an assemblage of local media, "and I think that plan will become pretty apparent when you see all the people that come in here and the fact that they all play similar positions. We're pretty comfortable that this year, there's a little bit more depth in this market than there's been in a couple of years."

Tampa Bay would apparently like to translate that into depth on its own front line. Actually, it was no secret that the Buccaneers needed to address that unit in some fashion during the 2000 offseason, as longtime starters Paul Gruber and Tony Mayberry both are unrestricted free agents, and Gruber finished his 12th pro campaign with a broken leg in the regular-season finale.

"There are still a lot of uncertainties with Paul Gruber and whether he's going to retire or not," said Oben before catching a plane back to New York. "Things like that that have to be sorted out. Then the combine's coming up. I don't think anybody does too much around combine time in free agency, but we'll see what happens. I felt good about today's visit.

"We haven't really talked contract, but I know this team is interested. I like the chemistry here – the players believe in each other and believe in Coach Dungy and what he's done since he came here and what they still want to achieve. They were a couple minutes away from going to the Super Bowl this year."

As a free agent, Oben offers consistency at a crucial position to whatever team lands his services. The 6-4, 305-pound tackle has started 48 consecutive games for the Giants since stepping into the lineup in his second season, 1997. He has manned the left tackle position each of the past three years after appearing briefly on the right side during his rookie season. In 1999, Oben fought through a knee injury suffered in the first regular season game and a subsequent hamstring ailment to remain in the lineup. In fact, he did not miss a single offensive snap.

In turn, Oben likes the consistency that the Buccaneers have to offer. "(The Bucs are attractive) just for the simple reason that the teammates believe in each other," he said. "There are about five guys on this team that have the same agent as I do – Shaun King, (Jamie) Duncan, Hardy (Nickerson), Derrick Brooks, Chidi (Ahanotu). I always talk to them. We go to different camps for kids together, and I always get a certain feeling that the guys that play here believe in each other and believe in the coach. As long as you get good team chemistry…you're going to have some rough games and some good games and you want to just keep getting better. I think Tony Dungy is trying to build a good solid program here and that's what I like about this place."

Born in Cameroon in 1972, the 27-year-old Oben started for three seasons at Louisville and was a fixture on the athletic director's honor roll. He has a bachelor's degree in economics and is pursuing a master's in public administration.

Oben was drafted by the Giants in the third round in 1996, the same year the Bucs selected the similarly-surnamed Jason Odom in the fourth round. Odom has started 41 games in four Buccaneer seasons, all but two at right tackle, but missed the last 13 weeks of 1999 with a back ailment that eventually required surgery. Gruber has held down the Bucs' left tackle position almost without a break since 1988, starting there for all but nine of the team's 192 games in the past 12 years. Gruber has not yet made his plans for the 2000 season known.

Despite that uncertainty, Oben has not yet scheduled any other free agent visits. He also has not ruled out a return to the Giants, but he was pleased with what he saw in Tampa. "I'm just trying to be as objective as possible," he said. "Most guys want to stay with the team they're on, but because of free agency, there are other factors to consider. That's why you take these visits and see the other side. I enjoyed my stay here and I hope something can work out for the better.

"I know, deep down, Tampa's had some interest in me, even out of college. We've played each other every year. Just like they signed (center Jeff) Christy…they knew Christy pretty well and they know me pretty well as a player and what I've done against them. I think, because of free agency, there's always going to be some uncertainty, so I guess I have to wait. I don't really know what's going to happen tomorrow or on Monday."

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