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Bucs face a cornerback conundrum

ST. PETERSBURG — As much as the Bucs need an infusion of talent at cornerback, the options in the upper reaches of the draft and in free agency will be limited.

That's why the cornerbacks being scouted ahead of Saturday's East-West Shrine Game college showcase shouldn't be ruled out as options for the Bucs, who had the NFL's worst pass defense in 2012.

While there aren't many first-round caliber players participating — the best seniors play in next week's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. — the list of cornerbacks has some notable names you'll want to watch.

Among them is Miami's Brandon McGee, a 6-foot, 197-pounder who earned some face time with Eric Stokes, the Bucs' director of college scouting. Also here is Illinois standout Terry Hawthorne, Kansas State's Nigel Malone, Georgia's Branden Smith, Georgia Tech's Rod Sweeting and Purdue's Josh Johnson (a graduate of Pasco High).

And the Bucs, based nearby in Tampa, have had an up-close look. Scouts, player personnel director Dennis Hickey and general manager Mark Dominik have attended practices.

Given their need, the Bucs could add multiple cornerbacks during this offseason, meaning mid- and late-round picks are in play. Thirty-seven players from the 2012 Shrine game were drafted. But what about this group of cornerbacks?

"I think we can come out and showcase the talent and show these NFL scouts that we're playmakers," Smith said. "It's not about how big or small we are. I think we can show them that we're athletes. Cornerbacks are some of the highest-paid players on the field for a reason. You have to really have a lot of talent and skill to be back there."

Malone had a combined 12 interceptions and 19 pass deflections in 2011 and 2012 for Kansas State. But at only 5-10, 180 pounds, his size is a disadvantage. His coaches say his attention to detail and football smarts help him compensate.

McGee didn't rack up interceptions — he had just two in 2012 — but he showed a willingness to be physical, registering 54 tackles. And if he tests well at the combine next month, it will only help his stock. (McGee was regarded as Miami's fastest player this past season.)

"I just want (scouts) to see that I'm a competitor," McGee said. "I might even do a little trash talking now and then.

"But it's just about competition. I want to show that I can be dynamic and be a dominant player and use my speed and ability and my knowledge of the game."

Hawthorne, 6 feet, 197 pounds, is a superb athlete and even has some history of playing on offense. He has only helped himself with a strong showing this week.

Smith stressed his history of playing man-to-man press coverage at Georgia, which would help prepare him for Bucs coach Greg Schiano's defense.

Whatever ultimately happens, the Bucs can't count on addressing their cornerback needs early in the draft. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper unveiled his first mock draft Wednesday, and it features just two cornerbacks in the first round, Alabama's Dee Milliner at No. 4 and Florida State's Xavier Rhodes at No. 28. (The Bucs draft 13th.)

That just increases the likelihood of the Bucs choosing from among the draft's second-tier prospects — such as those playing in St. Petersburg this week.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@tampabay.com.

Bucs face a cornerback conundrum 01/16/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 10:49pm]
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