Falcon RB Jamal Anderson, here in the clutches of rookie LB Nate Webster (52) had to deal with several waves of Buccaneer defenders on Sunday
Think fast…what do Buccaneer defenders John Lynch, Donnie Abraham, Ronde Barber, Jamie Duncan and Nate Webster have in common?
Well, there's probably several correct answers, but the one we're angling for is this: all of the above were drafted by Tampa Bay in the third round of their respective drafts. The Bucs' ferocious front line may include three former first-rounders (Warren Sapp, Marcus Jones and Anthony McFarland), but the team's outstanding defense has been built just as much by shrewd work in the middle hours of the draft as it has by the marquee picks.
Year after year since the mid-1990s, the Bucs have hit their targets on draft weekend, and one palpable result is a defense without any glaring weaknesses and with enough depth to weather the inevitable injuries. Barber or Abraham's hurting? Plug in Brian Kelly, a second-rounder in 1998 who could start for many teams. The secondary gets further banged up in the middle of a game? Just move safety Dexter Jackson, a 1999 fourth-rounder over to corner and don't miss a beat. Strongside LB Shelton Quarles needs a breather? There's Alshermond Singleton, class of '97, fourth round.
"The depth on our defense is something that's really been helpful to us, especially at the line position," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "You keep bringing fresh guys in and we're able to rush and keep pressure on the passer. We talked about the linebacker corps, having different guys that can play. (Against Atlanta) we got Dexter Jackson in a little bit at corner and he made a couple nice plays for us. Damien Robinson is playing well. We've got every position where you're rolling guys in and keeping people fresh and keeping it competitive and that's been good for us."
The NFL's free agency system has made it much more difficult for teams to maintain the kind of depth that the best teams of the '70s and '80s enjoyed. Starting-caliber players generally don't have to stay stuck behind another starter at their position beyond a few years. That places increased importance on the draft, particularly the middle rounds that can flesh out a roster.
But don't get the impression that it's easy. Do you recognize many of these names: Shannon Brown, J.C. Price, Clay Shiver, Ryan Stewart, Scott Slutzker, Dorian Brew, Steven Conley, Brian Roche, Robert Barr, Ken Blackman?
Those are all third-rounders from 1996, the year Tampa Bay plucked potential Pro Bowl cornerback Donnie Abraham from East Tennessee State. None of those players are currently in the league. And that is not a distortion of the facts or a convenient pick-and-choose to find the least successful names. While there are a few bona fide stars from that round – mainly Abraham, San Francisco WR Terrell Owens and Cleveland T Roman Oben – most of the list is comprised of players not making much of an impact in 2000.
That is not intended to be an indictment of a particular team or player, simply an indication of how difficult it can be to successfully use the draft to build depth. The Bucs aren't immune to misses – fourth-round S Eric Austin of that same '96 draft never made it – but they've avoided them pretty well over the last five or six years.
And that's why you see the Bucs' calmly handle one-game absences by Duncan and Quarles by plugging in Webster and Singleton. "They've been very good," said Dungy of his intriguing array of linebackers. "Al Singleton has played a lot of football for us. The last two years, he's alternated in there and played probably 30% of the time anyway. He's just had to play full time (in recent weeks). Nate Webster…since Jamie was injured, Nate's played in there. He was really very good (at Atlanta) in limited action. Jamie's gotten better and better every week. That linebacking corps is pretty good right now."
That's also why DE Steve White – actually drafted by the Eagles in the sixth round in 1996 but signed by the Bucs as a rookie as soon as Philly let him go - can rotate in for Jones or DE Chidi Ahanotu and provide a key sack, as he did in Atlanta. And why an injury to starting free safety Robinson during the first practice of training camp did nothing but uncover another first-rate playmaker in Jackson.
On Sunday in Atlanta, 1998 sixth-round pick James Cannida tallied one of the Bucs' four sacks, subbing in for McFarland. Later in the game, Jackson moved over to cornerback when Abraham suffered a minor injury and immediately broke up a pass, nearly intercepting it. Webster, the infectious rookie, rotated in with Duncan for a brief spell and proved to be a presence around the line of scrimmage with five tackles. Kelly, playing nickel back, tipped away a deep pass just before it fell into WR Tim Dwight's hands in the second quarter. DE John McLaughlin, a fifth-rounder last year, got just a few pass rushes in late in the game, but whiled away the interim by making four special teams tackles and blocking a punt. Singleton stepped in for the injured Quarles and made a career-high 10 tackles.
Tampa Bay gets contributions such as these from its defensive non-starters on almost a weekly basis. It's called depth, and the Bucs have it.