TAMPA — On his first day as a cornerback for the Tampa Bay Bucs, all Aqib Talib did was shut down Devin Thomas, shut out Limas Sweed and shut up DeSean Jackson. Along the way, he also smothered James Hardy, snuffed Donnie Avery and blanketed Malcolm Kelly.
Aha. So that explains why the Bucs fell in love with Talib.
Not only can the guy silence a receiver, but as it turns out, he also can stop all of the talk about which one the Bucs should have taken.
Think of it as the draft pick Talib intercepted. Think of it as the choice Talib had covered.
After all, most of us went into Saturday's NFL draft convinced the Bucs were going to draft a wide receiver in the first round, and if anyone disagreed, all we had to do was whip out game films of the Bucs' plodding offense in the playoff loss to the Giants. Given the lack of impact players on offense, you might have figured Jon Gruden would signal the pick into Jeff Garcia, who would then wad it up on a piece of paper and throw it long to Roger Goodell at the podium.
It was going to be Thomas, who was too inexperienced, or Jackson, who was too small, or Kelly, who was too slow. It was going to be Jordy Nelson or Avery or Mario Manningham.
Instead, it was Talib. One by one, he bested them all. There in the Bucs' draft room, with every receiver in the draft available, his grades trumped all argument. He was faster. He was more explosive. He was more dependable.
And, as badly as the Bucs needed a receiver, he was a better choice.
Oh, you can debate the choice if you wish. You can suggest the Bucs should have traded into the early part of the second round if you want (for Avery or Thomas or Nelson). But really, you can't argue that the Bucs should have taken a receiver at No. 20. The rest of the league took that argument away when it went 32 picks before a receiver was taken.
In other words, there weren't great receivers to be had, no matter what the talking heads told you. It was the first time since 1990 a receiver didn't go in the first round.
Oh, be honest. If the Bucs had taken Thomas or Jackson or Nelson or any of the rest, you would have nodded your head and hoped for the best. Because that's what the draft does. It isn't the players that fans fall in love with; it's the concept of them. It's the highlights and the adjectives and the YouTube videos.
This time, however, the receivers failed. The NFL looked at the lot of them and shrugged. In a position defined by separation, not one of them pulled away from the pack. As a group, they were a sad sack of second-rounders, nothing to believe in and nothing to count on.
Perhaps the league has learned. No position busts quite as loudly or quite as often as receivers. It is the position of Alvin Harper and Desmond Howard and Peter Warrick, of Yatil Green and Reidel Anthony and David Terrell, of Charles Rogers and Mike Williams and Ashley Lelie. In the history of the draft, no position has quite as many players running quite so fast to nowhere.
Why, then, should a team gamble if it lacks conviction? The answer is easy: It shouldn't. Not even a team such as the Bucs, which has found plenty of cornerbacks in later rounds. You get the feeling the Bucs wanted to draft a receiver; the job applicants just wouldn't allow it.
That said, the Bucs still need explosion, and the offense still needs receivers. And that's the real disappointment here. If the best college receivers really were a sack of second-rounders, then shouldn't Tampa Bay have been more aggressive in free agency?
If you remember the Bucs offense when last we saw it — broken down by the side of the road — wouldn't you think it needed more help than Antonio Bryant and Dexter Jackson (no, not that one)? And if the Bucs had been a bit more aggressive in the second round, couldn't they have moved up a couple spots to get DeSean Jackson instead of back a few to get Dexter?
This draft tells you a couple of things. First of all, Gruden is going to have to coach his fanny off next season. Second, the defense should be better. Third: It had better be.
Again, Talib could be a nice addition to a secondary that improved as much as any unit on the team last year. His explosion and ball skills — the reason the Bucs had him graded slightly higher than USF's Mike Jenkins — will be a welcome asset. His swagger and his big-play ability should fit right in.
Yes, it is true that Talib has tested positive for marijuana three times in his career, and yes, that's a warning flag for a team as it invests in an athlete. And you have to say this just right, but no, in this day and age, that shouldn't be a stop sign. Let's not be naive here. A lot of college students have tried marijuana. Talib says he has matured, and the Bucs seem ready to believe him.
(For the record, Warren Sapp once answered the same questions. He is one of the best three players ever to play for the Bucs.)
So here's the question: Are the Bucs better now than they were? Yes. But are they better enough?
After all, Gruden said, Talib could end up spending some time at wideout.