Head Coach Jon Gruden was pleased with the way the day unfolded in the Buccaneers' draft room
A study of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers depth chart led many to believe that the team would target one of the highly-touted linebackers from the University of Miami in the first round of this weekend's draft. Instead, the Bucs eagerly snapped up LSU WR Michael Clayton with the 15th overall pick, taking the highest-rated player left on their board.
That did not mean the Bucs disagreed with those pre-draft assessments. Tampa Bay's personnel experts believed they could find an impact linebacker in the third round and, indeed, Washington's Marquise Cooper was waiting for them when the 79th pick rolled around. The Bucs had clearly shown their interest in Cooper in the week before the draft, making him one of a handful of players that they brought by the team's facility for an up-close meeting.
After Cooper became the second rookie to join the Bucs' roster on Saturday, Head Coach Jon Gruden admitted that his team had targeted the linebacker position.
"With Nate Webster not being here, it was very important," said Gruden. "We tried to address the linebacker need in free agency with Jeff Gooch and Keith Burns. We made another step in the right direction with the addition of Marquis Cooper, but it is far from over. I wouldn't say that we are done. I think that our eyes are wide open."
There may be other linebacker prospects still on the board that interest the Buccaneers, though Gruden said there are intriguing players left at several positions. Tampa Bay will make six more picks on Sunday, one each in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds and three in the seventh. Still, even if Cooper is the only Buc linebacker to come out of the draft, the team will be pleased with what it has added to that position.
"He is a 6-3 man at 220 pounds who can really run," said Gruden. "He was a productive player on special teams and as a defender for the Huskies. We like his sideline-to-sideline ability, and we think that he fits our scheme.
"He has unique speed for a big man. He had 100 tackles two years ago and close to 100 tackles this past year. He is a big guy who can cover backs and tight ends and can play the game physically which is something that we wanted to add to our team. We don't have a lot of young guys or first or second year guys at that position, so to get a young guy that has style and talent to go along with Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles is something that we are looking forward to."
Cooper was originally recruited to Washington as a safety, but he grew into a starting role at inside linebacker for the Huskies, leading the team in tackles each of his last two years. Some teams reportedly thought of drafting Cooper with the intention of switching him to safety, but the Bucs likely envision him at outside linebacker. Even on the inside, Tampa Bay's scheme has never called for linebackers who fit the traditional NFL size requirements. Though it's a distant memory now, seven-time Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks was considered too small in 1995 and thus a somewhat risky prospect. And Pro Bowler Shelton Quarles is one of the league's smaller middle linebackers.
Gruden wasn't ready to say for certain on Saturday where Cooper would end up on that suddenly thicker depth chart, although it is clear he will play linebacker and not safety.
"We will see where the next few days go," said the coach. "Obviously, there is the second part of the draft tomorrow and as we accumulate a couple more players throughout the draft, we will make a final determination on that. With Ryan Nece, the acquisition of Jeff Gooch, and Keith Burns, we have added some guys along with Marquis Cooper who have some versatility not only as linebackers but also as guys who can play on every phase of special teams. We have said all along that special teams is a primary area that we can make some drastic improvement."
Saturday's portion of the draft finished up a bit before 10:30 p.m. ET, with a total of 96 picks made. The first round alone took nearly five-and-a-half hours. Because 15 minutes are allotted for each first-round selections and second-round picks carry a 10-minute time limit, the 2004 NFL Draft is more than halfway done, in terms of hours and minutes. However, there are 159 selections still to be made on Sunday, beginning at 11:00 a.m. ET.
The Bucs' first pick of the second day will be number 111 overall, the 15th choice of the first round. Since the majority of fourth and fifth-round selections make the opening-day roster, Tampa Bay's next few selections may eventually be as important as the first two. The Bucs' starting strong safety in 2004, for instance, was a fifth-round pick in 2002, Georgia S Jermaine Phillips.
The Bucs believe there are plenty of strong prospects left on their draft board for day two.
"There are still some good players in this draft, not only at linebacker but other positions," said Gruden. "We are excited about coming back to work tomorrow morning."