Ronde Barber, left, celebrated his 35th birthday April 7, and next season will be his 14th (and possibly final one). He played well in 2009, but for the first time since he was a rookie, he failed to record an interception. But Barber still is most effective in the slot during nickel passing downs.
Aqib Talib is a shutdown cornerback who should make multiple Pro Bowls. But the new Batman needs a Robin. Elbert Mack is a complementary player who provides depth when teams go to three and four wide receivers, but he probably won't develop into a starter. The Bucs hope E.J. Biggers, left, a seventh-round pick in 2009, will make an impact after spending his rookie year on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.
Tanard Jackson is solid at free safety. But the Bucs are disappointed in the play of Sabby Piscitelli, left, who lacks instincts and had just three passes defensed in 16 games last season. The Bucs have depth at safety in Corey Lynch and Sean Jones, a free agent from Philadelphia. Piscitelli will have his hands full trying to keep his job.
What they're looking for
The Bucs don't necessarily need to take a cornerback in the first round now that they have settled on the Tampa 2 instead of the more bump coverage favored by fired defensive coordinator Jim Bates. Good tacklers are more important than someone who runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. In the past, the Bucs have filled their needs at defensive back in the middle rounds. Talib was an exception. Barber was a third-round pick in 1997. Jackson, who plays safety, went in the fourth round.
Fitting the bill
Perhaps no player would be a better fit than Tennessee safety Eric Berry. He excelled in the Tampa 2 defense under former Bucs-current Vols defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and had 14 interceptions in three seasons. But No. 3 overall might be too high to select Berry, especially if either tackles Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy are available. Another possibility might be Southern Cal safety Taylor Mays. The top cornerback is Florida's Joe Haden, who is expected to go in the middle of the first round.
Top 10 prospects
|Player, vital STATS||Comment|
|Eric Berry S, 6-0, 211 Tennessee||Big recommendation from Raheem Morris' mentor.|
|Joe Haden CB, 5-11, 193 Florida||Cover corner in the Talib mode.|
|Taylor Mays S, 6-3, 230 USC||Improved his stock with great combine workout.|
|Earl Thomas S, 5-10, 208 Texas||10 career INTs, two TDs.|
|Kyle Wilson CB, 5-10, 194 Boise State||No. 2 CB behind Haden.|
|Devin McCourty CB, 5-11, 193 Rutgers||Twin brother of Ravens' Jason McCourty.|
|Patrick Robinson CB, 5-11, 190 Florida State||Great physical ability and huge upside.|
|Kareem Jackson CB, 5-11, 196 Alabama||Started all but one game in three seasons with Tide.|
|Dominique Franks CB, 5-11, 194 Oklahoma||Underclassman; good in zone or man.|
|Chris Cook CB, 6-2, 212 Virginia||Limited production in college; could move to safety.|
BEST GUESS: Berry is the only defensive back worthy of the No. 3 overall pick, but it's unlikely the Bucs will take him there. They could address cornerback or safety by jumping into the late first round by packaging some later picks. But most likely they'll wait until the middle rounds to find defensive back help.
Rick Stroud, Times staff writer