TAMPA — The Chiefs figured Jimmy Wilkerson was expendable given last season's top-flight combination of defensive ends — former first-round pick Tamba Hali and All-Pro Jared Allen.
That's when the Bucs helped themselves to free agent Wilkerson and the Chiefs soon realized their blunder.
"We knew he had a chance to be a very good end for us," Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "They had two really good ends in Kansas City. Of course, then they lost Jared Allen. I don't think at the time they thought they were going to lose him, so we snatched (Wilkerson) up and we got us a pretty good football player."
These days, the Bucs are starting to get an accurate read on how good a player they landed. Allen forced a trade to the Vikings in April after Wilkerson was already settling in with the Bucs.
And Wilkerson has looked particularly comfortable in his new digs, registering a pair of sacks, a fumble recovery and a pass defensed during parts of three preseason games.
But, really, the Bucs are still learning the full extent of his game.
Wilkerson is effortlessly showing he can play either defensive end or defensive tackle, but one constant is his ability to apply pressure from just about anywhere. It's looking like a prerequisite in these parts with Wilkerson, Kevin Carter and Greg White capable of playing inside or out.
"You don't see that everywhere, to have (multiple) guys on the team who can play inside and outside," Wilkerson said. "If (defensive tackles) Chris Hovan or Jovan Haye or Ryan Sims go down, then they know myself or Kevin Carter can step in and play (defensive tackle) and we can always play outside if needed, too."
Wilkerson wasn't the prize catch of the offseason, but he has opened eyes and is giving coaches something to ponder as they sort out the defensive line rotation.
"He's positioned himself good," coach Jon Gruden said. "He plays inside and out, he's rushing right and left end and over the guard. And on special teams, he's a guy who can play on the punt team. He's really done it all."
If Wilkerson continues his push and his role is expanded, he will steal someone else's snaps. That someone could be White, though Kiffin hesitates to go there just yet. If Marques Douglas makes the final roster he, too, might have to cede some playing time to Wilkerson.
"You don't ever have enough rushers in weather like this," Kiffin said. "As hot as it is, when you get to third down, believe me, we'll even take another good rusher. You have to keep those guys fresh, especially in the second half when it's real hot."
And when there are injuries, it's paramount to have a deep rotation. That's why Wilkerson's ability to play tackle during Haye's lengthy absence due to a groin injury has been critical. Kiffin pointed out that most players who switch between end and tackle typically play inside only in passing situations because they primarily are pass rushers. But, he said, Wilkerson can take the job to the next level.
"He can play (defensive tackle), if need be, on a run down, because he plays the run pretty good," Kiffin said of Wilkerson, who has sufficient bulk at 6 feet 2 and 290 pounds.
The 27-year-old Oklahoma University product looks like a good bet to make the Bucs' final roster, with the league mandating the team reach 53 players by Saturday afternoon. But Wilkerson wouldn't hear of it and quickly dismisses shoo-in status.
The efforts of other linemen continue to bring out the best in him. Likewise, it's clear his efforts certainly are putting pressure on others, too.
"You have to have competition to make your defensive line better," Wilkerson said. "If you don't have that, guys start thinking, 'I've got this job wrapped up.' Here, guys are competing and that's going to be really good for this defense."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]