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Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft preview: Cornerbacks

TAMPA — Cornerback Ronde Barber and his identical brother Tiki are probably the most famous twins to ever play in the NFL.

Still, the Bucs spent years trying to find a player who most closely resembles their five-time Pro Bowl cornerback — a sure tackler with instincts who turns interceptions into touchdowns.

But the Barber boys turned 35 this month. (Tiki, the former Giants running back, works for NBC).

Time marches on. Under new defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who favors bump-and-run coverage to the zone of the Tampa 2, the Bucs have given up the search for the next Ronde Barber.

What they seek now in the NFL draft is another Aqib Talib.

In part-time duty, the first-round pick from Kansas tied with Barber for the team lead with four interceptions as a rookie. He is big enough to re-route physical receivers and fast enough to be a ball hawk.

Defensive line may be the Bucs' biggest need, but nothing improves the pass rush like good cover corners.

"There's not a lot of teams in college that play a lot of press coverage," general manager Mark Dominik said. "So it's being able to accurately project guys you think are physical enough at the line of scrimmage that can re-route receivers, they can turn and run and stay in their hip pocket and if they need to support, they support. They don't look that different, it's just a little different skill set."

How did they get here?

Until investing a first-round pick in Aqib Talib last year, the Bucs had largely ignored cornerbacks in the draft since 1998. That year they took Brian Kelly in Round 2 to serve as a bookend corner to Ronde Barber.

It was a dynamic duo, but Kelly always seemed to play Robin to Barber's Batman. A series of foot injuries limited Kelly's effectiveness. He spent most of '06 on injured reserve and left via free agency following the 2007 season to join the Lions.

The Bucs have mostly spackled together some free agent cornerbacks to play opposite Barber. Phillip Buchanon, signed after being released from the Raiders and Houston, did a respectable job, starting 33 games at left cornerback the past three seasons and recording seven interceptions. But Talib was always the heir apparent so Buchanon, who would've been limited to playing nickel, also signed with Detroit.

Who's manning the fort?

Ronde Barber is embracing a new challenge: proving to everyone that he can adapt to defensive coordinator Jim Bates' bump-and-run coverage scheme. In some ways, it could be refreshing to the five-time Pro Bowl cornerback.

Barber has probably forgotten more about the Tampa 2 defense than most cornerbacks ever learned. His real value is playing in the slot during nickel passing situations where he equally dangerous as a pass rusher or in coverage.

At 5 feet 10, 184 pounds, Barber is probably better playing off a few yards off the line of scrimmage. Re-routing big, physical receivers is a challenge. When Barber moves inside, second-year pro Elbert Mack will slide to right cornerback.

Of course, Aqib Talib steps into the starter's role at right cornerback . Give Talib a whole season and he might lead the NFL in picks.

Who are they looking for?

Ideally, the Bucs would like to find another player precisely like Aqib Talib. That's easier said than done.

Jim Bates wants to play more press coverage in hopes of making quarterbacks pull the ball down and helping the Bucs' pass rush, which has averaged just more than 30 sacks per year since 2004.

So the Bucs are looking for a cornerback big and physical enough to re-route receivers, but with enough ball skills to produce turnovers.

"For us, cornerback is watching the movement skills. It's not so much height-related or weight-related," GM Mark Dominik said. "There is, obviously, an element of tackling involved in it. It's watching his athletic movement because we are going to play a lot more press."

Who fits the bill?

Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins is the premier cornerback in the draft because of his size (6-1, 205) and physical toughness. But he lacks ideal speed to become a real shutdown corner and might even move to safety at the next level.

That leaves Illinois' Vontae Davis, who could be a nice option if the Bucs decide to invest in later rounds for defensive line help.

There are some warning flags about Davis' attitude. But he is chiseled like his brother, 49ers TE Vernon Davis. That physical style will allow him to handle bigger receivers and his potential is unlimited. Davis could be on the board at No. 19 . The Bucs could have another set of bookend corners like Barber and Kelly for years to come.

In later rounds, a player like Oregon State's Keenan Lewis — who did not make our top 10 — is a possibility. He was a teammate of safety Sabby Piscitelli and spent four years playing bump coverage for the Beavers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft preview: Cornerbacks 04/20/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 21, 2009 7:18am]
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