If Richardson and Claiborne gone, Bucs could find a great fit in LB Luke Kuechly at No. 5
The Bucs must prepare for both Alabama running back Trent Richardson and LSU defensive back Morris Claiborne to be gone by the time they make the No. 5 overall selection in the NFL draft.
Both would look good in pewter and red, but recent reports suggest Claiborne could be picked third overall by the Minnesota Vikings while Richardson should go with the No. 4 selection to the Cleveland Browns.
The Bucs still have the option of trading up in the draft with the Vikings at No. 3, most likely for Richardson. They also will consider Southern Cal tackle Matt Kalil.
But if they do nothing and Claiborne and Richardson are gone, it would leave Boston College middle linebacker Luke Kuechly for the Bucs.
Sometimes the best way to determine what a team might do in the draft is to look at what they did in free agency.
The Bucs addressed their cornerback need by signing Lions free agent Eric Wright and inviting 37-year old Ronde Barber back for another season. Barber could move to safety, especially if cornerback Aqib Talib settles his legal troubles favorably in Texas June 25.
Tampa Bay also spent heavily providing help for quarterback Josh Freeman. They landed arguably two of the top three free agents in signing Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson and Saints guard Carl Nicks. They even added depth on the defensive line with Bears free agent Amobi Okoye.
What they didn't do is address the linebacker position.
Since the arrival of new head coach Greg Schiano, who has a defensive background, the Bucs have talked about middle linebacker Mason Foster moving to outside linebacker. New defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan suggested it in his introductory news conference. The recently completed minicamp did nothing to really change that perception.
Kuechly, the Bronko Nagurski Award winner as the best defensive player in college football, is a tackling machine. He had 191 tackles in 12 games last season and his average of 14 tackles per game for his career is an NCAA record and he's the only player to lead the ACC in that category three straight seasons.
The Bucs need to get tougher on defense and Kuechly is as hard-nosed as it gets. He also can do something Foster struggled with at middle linebacker -- flip his hips and cover receivers. Kuechly really opened eyes when he ran a 4.5 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock has Kuechly rated as the sixth best player in the draft, so it's not a reach for the Bucs at No. 5. In fact, ESPN's Todd McShay moved Kuechly into the No. 5 spot to the Bucs, forecasting Claiborne to go No. 3 to the Vikings and Richardson No. 4 to the Browns.
Moreover, Kuechly is exactly the type of character guy that Schiano wants to represent his team. At 6-foot-3, 242 pounds, he can hang with bigger backs in the hole and not go backward. It's hard to forget the image of Foster getting trucked last year by Falcons running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who is 5-foot-6, 196 pounds.
General manager Mark Dominik has wanted to find a thumper at middle linebacker for the Bucs in the mode of Hardy Nickerson. He thought maybe Foster could be that guy. But Foster is more of an instinctive run and hit player who doesn't need to be burdened by the responsibilities of calling the defense.
Here's how Kuechly describes himself as a player: "Instinctual player is something that pops up for a lot of people,'' Kuechly said at the NFL scouting combine. "That, coupled with, I think I'm a smart player. I think I do a pretty good job preparing myself. That's somthing I take pride in. Being prepared, and knowing what each individual guy is responsible for. I can point at diffrent guys, and let them know what they're doing if they have questions. I take pride in having the ability to do that. And doing that, and knowing what everyone is doing, you can play faster. It allows you to be more successful.''
The weeks leading up to the NFL draft is liar's poker. There's been a lot of speculation and chatter about Richardson and Claiborne, even Southern Cal tackle Matt Kalil, with the Bucs.
But if Schiano's first few months in power has taught us anything, it's that he isn't going to tip his hand. Until recently, Kuechly had not appeared in the No. 5 spot in many mock drafts.
If Claiborne and Richardson are gone as expected, the riddle in the middle of the Bucs defense could be solved by Kuechly.