Senior Bowl recap: Defense

The Senior Bowl is over, but the player evaluation period for the NFL Draft is just getting started. In this article, Bucsblitz.com breaks down the rosters by position, assessing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' team needs and what Senior Bowl players could fill those needs. It's a premium service from Bucsblitz.com.

The Senior Bowl has become an important evaluation tool for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Players like Carnell Williams, Barrett Ruud, Arron Sears and Tanard Jackson all became Bucs after they played in this game.

So where does the current crop of Senior Bowl players fall into the Bucs' plans? Well, after three days of watching workouts and gleaning information from sources and other writers on the Scout.com network in attendance, a clear formation of what the Bucs were assessing this past week became clear.

In these last article I'm going to assess the different defensive position, rank that position's need for drafted players and give you an idea of which Senior Bowl players could be fits at those positions. It's something to keep in mind as the National Scouting Combine approaches. A link to the article focusing on the offense will appear at the end of the article.

DEFENSIVE LINE

NEED: Moderate to high.

The number I keep coming back to is 17. That was the Buccaneers' ranking against the run in 2007. If the Bucs defense is going to be more consistent in 2008, they'll need to improve inside.

The Bucs took plenty of meetings with interior linemen during the Senior Bowl and they fell into two categories. The first was the leaner, pass rushing tackles like Florida State's Andre Fluellen (6-foot-2, 279 pounds) and Alabama's Wallace Gilberry (6-foot-6, 264 pounds). The other was the more traditional run-stuffing tackle like Arkansas's Marcus Harrison (6-foot-3, 310 pounds).

The good news is there were plenty of both types in this game. But I have to believe the Bucs are leaning toward a beefier tackle like Harrison. Why? Well, Jovan Haye did a nice job at under tackle in 2007, but I'm not sure he'll ever be an above-average run defender at his size. This isn't about Jovan Haye being a bad player. No sir. This is about finding the right fit for the position. Perhaps the best fit is a tandem — a large tackle for running downs and Haye for passing downs, an area where he excelled in 2007 with six sacks.

If the Bucs are seeking to improve on the defensive line, USC's Sedrick Ellis (6-foot-1, 307) really sticks out. He had a dominant week at the Senior Bowl last week. He also registered 12 ½ tackles for loss and 8 ½ sacks his senior year at USC. He'll cost them a first-round pick, though, since many draft services rank him No. 1 among defensive tackles.

Harrison seems to be a more palatable option in the second round. He's the same body type, does the same things as Ellis and appeared to me to be almost as dominant.

The fact is the Bucs must improve their interior line play against the run. Unless they go after an Albert Haynesworth-type in free agency, they'll likely have to do it on draft day.

LINEBACKER

NEED: Low to moderate

Derrick Brooks, Barrett Ruud and Cato June each have two years left on their contracts. So there's no imminent danger at the position — unless they're injured.

The backups are Ryan Nece, Quincy Black and Adam Hayward.

You'd better hope the starters don't get hurt.

While everyone assumed that June would be Brooks' replacement when he retired, I'm not so sure about that now. The Bucs showed interest in two of the top linebackers at the Senior Bowl — USC's Keith Rivers and Virginia Tech's Xavier Adibi. Both are best at the weak side.

Adibi (6-foot-2, 219 pounds) was a bit underweight, but both he and his agent assured me he'll be back in the 230-pound range in no time. Speaking of range, Adibi has plenty of it. He hits extremely hard and covers well in the flat. Plus, his agent told me the Bucs look at him as a "Derrick Brooks" clone. Put him on the short list.

Rivers (6-foot-3, 237 pounds) has been the Bucs' selection in two of Scout.com's Chris Steuber's mock drafts. He's a sure-first first-round pick who proved last week he could play all three positions. But he's best at the weak side and played in the Cover 2 with the Trojans. He's above average at everything a linebacker needs to do, and put that all together and he's a certain first-round pick.

Rivers and Adibi aren't likely coming to Tampa Bay unless the Bucs are able to address their key needs in free agency. That would leave them free to select the best player available at No. 20, and at least one of these guys could be there.

If they aren't, there are plenty of other good linebackers that can be taken later, such as UNLV's Beau Bell (6-foot-2, 250 pounds), Penn State's Dan Connor (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) and local product Ben Moffitt (6-foot-2, 241 pounds) of South Florida.

SECONDARY

NEED: Moderate

In previous articles I've impressed upon readers the need to identity successors to Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly sooner rather than later. After watching three days of workouts, there's one player I keep coming back to.

Alabama's Simeon Castille (6-foot, 190 pounds) impressed me all week with his speed, cover ability and physical play. He broke up two passes in the first South team workout on Monday and maintained that level of play all week. He's big enough to chuck a receiver at the line of scrimmage and fast enough to keep up with them off the line of scrimmage. I could see him as a nickel corner in the mold of a Barber.

Castille, at the moment, is probably a second-round pick, which might fit into what the Bucs are planning. I see them taking a defensive player of some type in the second round after going offense in the first round.

I also felt Leodis McKelvin of Troy (5-foot-11, 186 pounds) had a good week and proved to scouts he's better than his college lineage would suggest. He was a lock-down corner at Troy. But I wonder what his transition will be like to a Cover 2.

The Bucs need to pick a young corner in this draft to groom for the future. Castille and McKelvin would be solid choices.

SPECIAL TEAMS

NEED: High (for returners only)

McKelvin had 1,009 all-purpose yards as a kickoff and punt returner in 2007 and didn't play any offense. He finished his career one touchdown shy of the NCAA record for most punt returns for a touchdown. He was easily the best-credentialed returner in the Senior Bowl. He has 4.4 speed and isn't brought down easily.

The other big name was East Carolina's Chris Johnson, who left ECU as its all-time kickoff return and all-purpose yardage leader. He also plays running back.

The good news is that both players are talented enough to return kicks and offer their teams something at another position. The bad news is the secret's out and both are likely going to be selected no lower than the second round. To me, Johnson is a slightly better fit because of the potential need for another running back if Carnell Williams' rehab doesn't progress.

Did you miss our review of the Senior Bowl offensive players and how they might fit into the Bucs' draft plans? Click here to check it out.

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. An award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers Association, he appears frequently on Scot Brantley Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.


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