TAMPA — No position has dominated conversation of the Bucs offseason more than cornerback, a unit sorely lacking in elite talent.
Speculation about a trade with the Jets for one of the NFL's best, Darrelle Revis, continues to be rampant. Barring that, the Bucs are weighing selecting one with their first-round draft choice (No. 13) next week.
But for just a moment, ponder this question: Why do the Bucs have such a dearth of talent at cornerback to begin with?
The answer provides a lesson in the inexact science of the draft and why miscalculations can have an impact for years to come. Misses on draft day leave major holes on rosters that can be remedied only by future picks or free agent investments.
"With a first-round pick, you anticipate you're going to get an immediate starter and, hopefully, a Pro Bowl player," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "When that guy doesn't pan out, not only do you have money (allocated) to him at his position, at some point you have to backfill. So you're paying double for one position, and you get out of whack.
"When you make mistakes with rookies, it kills you."
As an example, the Bucs problems at cornerback, to some extent, can be traced to the 2008 draft. That's when they selected Kansas' Aqib Talib at No. 20 overall — even then, a player with character flaws.
That was reinforced during a tumultuous tenure in Tampa Bay marked by arrests and controversies. The Bucs traded him to the Patriots last season after deciding he would not be re-signed after the season.
The selection of Myron Lewis in 2010 was another opportunity lost. Drafted in the third round, Lewis was seen as a future starter and possible successor to Ronde Barber, then the starting right cornerback.
However, all the Bucs have gotten from Lewis is one start and no interceptions. Last season, he saw no action in four of the 13 games he spent on the active roster.
In a perfect world, the Bucs' starting cornerbacks in the fall would be Talib and Lewis. The reality is the team isn't certain who will start.
Tampa Bay is not unique in having such problems. Every team has draft disappointments. But blown picks usually have to be addressed with subsequent moves.
Take the second-round selection of receiver Arrelious Benn in 2010. Drafted to be part of a 1-2 punch with Mike Williams, the Bucs cut their losses with Benn last month when he was traded to the Eagles. In his three seasons with Tampa Bay, he had 59 catches — while Williams has never had fewer than 63 in a season.
The lack of an explosive, downfield threat, which the Bucs believed Benn might be, likely contributed to their decision to sign Vincent Jackson to a $55 million contract before last season. General manager Mark Dominik quibbles with that but does admit Benn's lack of production factored into the signing of at least one free agent, Kevin Ogletree, last month.
"I would say with Benn, the difference is Ogletree," said Dominik, who defended the signing of some other big-money free agents. "Carl Nicks? Why wouldn't you do that? Same with (Dashon) Goldson."
There are some later-round picks worth mentioning, too. Fourth-round pick Kyle Moore (2009) might have provided depth on the defensive line. But he was cut after two years without so much as a sack. The Bucs aren't much closer to knowing if 2011 fourth-rounder Luke Stocker is their tight end of the future and now must decide on addressing the position again in this year's draft.
The stakes are high with most draft picks, but the Bucs are hopeful their first-round choice of quarterback Josh Freeman in 2009 pays off this season, the final year of his rookie contract.
"The bottom line with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is Josh Freeman," ESPN analyst Mel Kiper said. "He has to be the quarterback that they drafted him to be and he's shown flashes of being. They helped him with the supporting cast. He's got to take the next step forward. If he does, then they have something."
A mistake at quarterback is the toughest to correct. But if Freeman hits his stride, "You can overcome some of the mistakes you made or some players not developing like you thought," Kiper said.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]