PRIORITY TWO: IDENTIFY THE LONG-TERM REPLACEMENTS FOR CB RONDE BARBER AND CB BRIAN KELLY.
WHAT I SAID THEN?
Kelly is in the final year of his contract, and given his injury problems the past few years it's unlikely his contract will be extended or renewed beyond 2008. Barber, meanwhile, has three years left under his current extension and there appears to be no slowing him down.
But the Buccaneers do have to concern themselves with who will replace both beyond the 2008 season. Phillip Buchanon, given his play during the 2007 season, will likely receive the first opportunity to take over Kelly's spot. In fact, it may not even be a contract issue. Buchanon did not relinquish the job when Kelly returned from injury in 2007 and he may not in 2008, relegating Kelly to the third cornerback role he accepted last season.
Barber is another matter. Many NFL experts consider him the best nickel cornerback ever, and his replacement may be playing at safety in Tanard Jackson. He possesses similar coverage, hitting and playmaking skills to Barber. But his play was so tremendous at free safety that the Bucs may not want to move him.
So then what? There really aren't any other suitable young cornerbacks on the roster to take over for Barber. So the Buccaneers will have to identify at least one during free agency or in the draft. Barber isn't getting any younger, and even though he's been extremely durable, he's bound to get hurt sometime. The Buccaneers must think ahead to 2009 or 2010 to make sure their level of play in the secondary doesn't take a sharp dip once Barber calls it quits, presumably after his current contract expires.
WHAT I SAY NOW?
First, Kelly triggering his buyout may have been the best thing to happen to the situation. Kelly, while talented, may be heading into a declining period of play. We'll see when he straps a Lions helmet on this fall.
But Kelly's departure allowed the Bucs to address their cornerback needs in both free agency and the draft and begin the process of turning over the position.
First, the Bucs signed Eugene Wilson away from New England. It's only a one-year deal, partly because Wilson reportedly had some trepidation about where the Bucs wanted to play him. Right now, the Bucs are experimenting with the former safety at cornerback and secondary coach Raheem Morris said Wilson was performing like "a stud" in April. Of course, that's in shorts and a helmet.
The Bucs could use Wilson opposite Barber or as a third cornerback with Barber and Buchanon. Wilson is still young (27) and comes with two Super Bowl rings. And, while considered a solid hitter, he led the Pats in interceptions with nine from 2003-05. I could see this trio being an above-average outfit. Plus, if the Bucs like Wilson, they could extend his deal during the season or re-sign him next offseason.
If Wilson can help the Bucs now, then first-round pick Aqib Talib's job becomes much easier. Honestly, I felt USF's Mike Jenkins was a better fit and will end up having a fine pro career in Dallas. But the presence of Barber, Buchanon and Wilson on the roster allows the Bucs to break Talib in slowly.
How fast Talib comes along is entirely up to him. He was one of the largest corners (6-foot-1) in the draft, was considered a solid hitter and had 14 interceptions in his final two years of college. Some teams were scared off by his admission of marijuana use in college. The Bucs weren't. They've long considered character a high priority in free-agent and draft selections, and for the most part the past few years they've guessed right. By spending that pick on Talib, the Bucs send a signal that they're comfortable with the investment and Talib's character.
To me, Talib will eventually be the standard-bearer at cornerback for the Bucs, securing the position for the future. This year, he'll have to fight Buchanon and Wilson for playing time, and that could be a good thing for the entire unit. Considering that both Buchanon and Wilson are not signed for 2009, you could easily see the Bucs trusting Talib to start opposite Barber next season if he progresses. Tampa Bay's best asset in this effort is Morris, who guided safety Tanard Jackson to a fine rookie campaign in 2007.
Overall, I think the Bucs are stronger at this position than they were last offseason, when their top four corners were Barber, Kelly, Buchanon and Torrie Cox. Wilson and Talib could end up being the long-term replacements the Bucs sought at the start of the offseason.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald.