S John Lynch helps make the secondary one of the Bucs' strongest positions
Though the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been unusually active in the NFL's free agency period this year, the team still considers the draft the most important part of the offseason. That means there is a lot of attention currently focused on the dates of April 15 and 16, when the NFL holds its annual selection procedure for the 64th time.
Obviously, the Buccaneers' player personnel department is directing most of its resources in that direction right now. Just as obviously, that crew does not wish to reveal its opinions on any specific players or draft strategies. However, we can take this crunch time before the draft to analyze what the Buccaneers do have at each position, to lay a framework for that eventual mid-April news.
This is the first of those analyses, and it will focus on the team's defensive backfield. First, some numbers that we will apply to each position (contract situations as of 3/11):
Starting spots/Returning starters currently under contract: 4/2
Total players under contract: 7
Unrestricted/Restricted free agents: 0/3
Relevant 1999 NFL rankings: Tampa Bay ranked 2nd in overall pass defense, 1st in opponent completion percentage and 12th in interception percentage
1999 Pro Bowlers/AP All Pros: 1/1
First-round draft picks spent on the position in team history: 1
Overall draft picks spent on the position in the last five years: 11
In the above numbers, the two 1999 starters not yet under contract are CB Ronde Barber and S Damien Robinson. Both are restricted free agents, along with CB Floyd Young. Restricted free agents may negotiate with other teams but their original teams retain a right of first refusal and will receive draft-pick compensation if they do not match a contract offer.
The two returning starters who are under contract, S John Lynch and CB Donnie Abraham, are two of the NFC's most outstanding defensive backs. Lynch made his second Pro Bowl trip in three years last February, starting for his conference at strong safety. Abraham did not gain selection to that all-star game but was still recognized as one of the league's best cover corners. Abraham tied for the NFC lead with seven interceptions and set an (unofficial) Buccaneer record with 31 passes defensed.
Barber has been a starter for the past two seasons and has played well. A third-round draft pick in 1997, he saw almost no action as a rookie but made a sudden emergence in '98 with 68 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and 17 passes defensed. Robinson has been considered a free safety starter-in-waiting since the Bucs nabbed him from Philly's practice squad in 1997, and he fulfilled that label in '99. He was solid throughout the season with 95 tackles and two interceptions.
As can be seen in the numbers above, the Buccaneers have rarely spent high draft picks on defensive backs. CB Rod Jones, one of two first-round picks for the Bucs in 1986, is the only defensive back ever taken in the opening round in 24 Tampa Bay drafts. CB Brian Kelly was a second-round pick two years ago and has proven to be a strong nickel back and occasional starter.
The team has managed to find exceptional value in the secondary after the high-profile opening two rounds, as both of their 1998-99 starters were third-round picks. Lynch, in fact, was also a third-rounder for Tampa Bay in 1993 and Robinson came to the Eagles in the fourth round in '97 and was a free-agent addition by the Bucs just a few months later.
In 1999, five of the 31 first-round picks were defensive backs, all of them cornerbacks. There were seven DBs chosen in the opening round in '98 and six the year before. The last defensive back to go number-one overall was Gary Glick, by Pittsburgh. Don't remember the name? Don't worry...that was 45 years ago. Glick started the draft off in 1955, and remains the only player at that position to go first in league history.
Again, Buccaneers.com offers no speculation on which players or positions the team is actually considering. Among the names often indicated as likely early-round picks are Tennessee's S Deon Grant and CB Dwayne Goodrich, California CB Deltha O'Neal, Ohio State CB Ahmed Plummer, Jackson State, CB Rashard Anderson, North Carolina State CB Lloyd Harrison, BYU CB/S Brian Gray, Virginia Tech CB Ike Charlton and Colorado CB Ben Kelly.
The Buccaneers, who have generally set a premium on re-signing their own productive players, may be expected to make an effort to retain the services of Barber and Robinson, who helped make Tampa Bay one of the toughest teams to pass against in 1999. The Bucs, in fact, have ranked in the top 10 in pass defense for four consecutive years and in the top four in three of those.
Should the Bucs enter 2000 with their starting secondary intact plus experienced and effective nickel backs Brian Kelly, Dexter Jackson and Floyd Young, it may be difficult for a rookie to find significant playing time. Tampa Bay, however, often employs the 'best-available-player' strategy in the draft, particularly in the early going, so strength at a position does not preclude additions through the draft. In other words, the defensive backfield may not be a secondary concern on draft day.