CB Brian Kelly may be in the middle of the action on Sunday
In 1997, cornerback Ronde Barber played in just one regular-season game and spent most of his rookie season watching as the Bucs made their exciting playoff run. However, Barber was the team's biggest surprise on the NFL's second-ranked defense in 1998, emerging as a starter and big-play producer. Though he was already earning extended playing time on his own merit, Barber got a firm hold on a starter's spot thanks in part to injuries to Donnie Abraham and Anthony Parker.
So it is an interesting coincidence that an injury to Barber is now creating a very similar situation for second-year CB Brian Kelly. Kelly, a second-round draft pick in 1998, saw more action on the field as a rookie than Barber had but did not latch onto a starting spot as some observers had thought he would. Of course, that became less of an urgent situation with Barber's emergence, and the Buccaneer coaches were happy to see Kelly handle the nickel back role with aplomb.
In 1999, Kelly has nailed down that nickelback role, but he may be asked to do more in the coming weeks. Barber injured his right shoulder and right ankle last Sunday making another big play, landing roughly in the end zone after a drive-killing interception against the New Orleans Saints in the first quarter. Though Barber went on to play roughly half of the defensive snaps in the game, Kelly basically assumed the Bucs' RCB duties for the rest of the afternoon. With Barber listed as questionable on the Bucs' injury report as of Friday, he is likely to be asked to do so again versus the Kansas City Chiefs this Sunday.
Barber did practice with the team on Friday for the first time during the week, but Head Coach Tony Dungy remains unconvinced. "Ronde looked good today," said Dungy, "but we'll wait to make a determination on Sunday. We'll see how he feels before the game and decide then. If he can't go, we're very confident in Brian. He has played a lot this season and has played well."
The 45th overall selection in 1998, Kelly was the highest-drafted cornerback by the Buccaneers since the team took Ricky Reynolds at the top of the second round in 1987. Kelly played in all three games as a rookie and made three starts during the aforementioned midseason injury rash to Abraham and Parker. He had 26 tackles, one interception, on fumble recovery and seven passes defensed in 1998 and has followed up with 12 tackles and six passes defensed this year.
Besides a pair of injuries to defensive lineman Warren Sapp and Steve White, the Buccaneers' fifth-ranked defense has remained fairly intact through the first half of the season. White missed two starts and Sapp one, but none of the team's linebackers or defensive backs has been forced to sit out an entire game.