1. THE TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS ARE IN PURSUIT OF A RETURNER
That became pretty obvious on Friday when I talked to half a dozen running backs and wide receivers, with return ability, who told me they had either spoken to the Buccaneers or were going to that evening. Now, it's hard to take anything from an official 15-minute conversation — each team is allowed 60 in Indianapolis. But when that many players tell you they've talked to the Bucs, something has to be up.
Jon Gruden has long craved a return man that could offer him explosiveness in the punt and kickoff games. Mark Jones was giving him consistent, Pro Bowl-level work, before his injury. Micheal Spurlock did all right as a kickoff returner. But the punt return game was a complete mess after Jones' injury. The Bucs can't go through another year without a bit-time returner.
They could sign Andre Davis in free agency. But expect players like Cal's DeSean Jackson, East Carolina's Chris Johnson, Troy's Leodis McKelvin, South Florida's Mike Jenkins and Appalachian State's Dexter Jackson to stay on Tampa Bay's radar. These are all players that can play a position on the field and also offer value in the return game. Everyone is looking for the next Devin Hester this season, but Hester can't play a position on the field. The Bucs need a player that can offer them both, and there are plenty of them in this draft. So they don't have to reach for a player like Jackson in the first round if they don't want to.
2. THE BUCS CAN WAIT FOR A GOOD CORNER
After Brian Kelly bought out his contract, the Bucs were left with two stable corners — Ronde Barber and Phillip Buchanon. After that, there isn't much. I'm not of the mind that Asante Samuel is riding to the rescue, and the Bucs need to get younger at the position anyway. Sure, they could move Tanard Jackson there from free safety, but the rookie played well last year and this is a draft deep in talented cornerbacks.
In Scout.com analyst Chris Steuber's latest mock, he has four cornerbacks going in the first round, including Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. But this draft has plenty of value at the position. One likely target in the second round would be Auburn's Patrick Lee, a player the NFL Network's top analysts, Mike Mayock and Charles Davis, both like in the Bucs' system. Lee is graded as a fourth-round pick by NFLdraftscout.com and is ranked No. 15 at the position.
What does that tell me? There's plenty of depth for the Bucs to wait until the second or third round to address the corner position. Remember — Barber was a second round pick, if memory serves.
3. THE BUCS AREN'T HAPPY AT DEFENSIVE TACKLE
I think everyone can agree that Jovan Haye had a solid, but not spectacular, season in 2007. Haye may not even be here in 2008, as the Bucs are pursuing former Falcons DT Rod Coleman and he hasn't been offered a restricted free agent tender as of Wednesday morning. If the Bucs sign Coleman and allow Haye to depart as a restricted free agent, the Bucs will almost have to draft a defensive tackle in April because they'll need to develop someone to eventually take Coleman's place.
Right now only three tackles have first-round value — LSU's Glenn Dorsey, USC's Sedrick Ellis and North Carolina's Kentwan Balmer. Expect at least Dorsey and Ellis to be gone by No. 20. Steuber's most recent mock has Balmer dropping out of the first round, but he probably won't sink to No. 52, where the Bucs select in the second round.
Among the players the Buccaneers talked to at the position were Notre Dame's Trevor Laws, Maryland's Dre Moore, Auburn's Pat Sims and North Carolina State's DeMario Pressley. They may also have spoken to Texas' 345-pound tackle Frank Okam (he couldn't remember). Only Laws tips the scale under 300 pounds, so it's pretty obvious that the Bucs are looking for a beefier defensive tackle for the position, which could help shore up Tampa Bay's No. 17 run defense from a year ago.
4. DON'T DISCOUNT AN OFFENSIVE LINEMAN IN THIS DRAFT
The Bucs look like they're set on the offensive line for the next several years. But they may draft an offensive lineman anyway, and I think it will most likely be a center.
Imagine if John Wade does leave in free agency, which appears likely. That would leave the Bucs with fourth-year pro Dan Buenning, who hasn't played a lick of center at the pro level. The Bucs are very interested in re-signing Matt Lehr, who can play both center and guard, and he can provide depth. But Buenning is in the last year of his original deal and Lehr is likely to only receive a one-year contract.
Enter a center drafted in the middle rounds. Buenning may work out, but his inexperience is disturbing at such an important position. I think there's a chance the Bucs could take a center on draft day for protection, and Notre Dame's John Sullivan wouldn't be a bad choice. The former high school wrestler, rugby player and water polo veteran can also play a pretty mean center and has plenty of experience. Plus, he told me that he got the impression the Bucs were "interested" in a center during his meeting with them on Wednesday.
The Bucs could also add a tackle, as the tackles in this draft are a deep lot. But they have so many linemen already that the position isn't an immediate need.
5. A MOCK DRAFT COMING INTO FOCUS
I probably won't publish my first mock draft until the first week of March, but I can tell you I'm leaning toward either a wide receiver or a cornerback in the first round. Whichever one I don't take will be my second-round pick. There are a few players I would consider drafting if they were to drop — Ellis, USC LB Keith Rivers and Boise State OT Ryan Clady among them — but that's unlikely. In the middle rounds (remember the draft starts with Round 3 on Sunday this year) I'll probably seek to address needs at defensive tackle, wide receiver (I'm not opposed to drafting two) and potentially running back, especially if the Bucs are unable to sign another free agent. I'll put an emphasis on finding a returner, too, but I won't overpay to get one. The Bucs are likely to have fewer than seven picks this year, so I think most of their work will be done by midday on draft Sunday.
I look forward to unveiling my mock draft next week.
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.