Tampa Bay Buccaneers look at drafting defensive tackles

MOBILE, Ala. — Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji is about the size of a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer, a squatty 6 feet 1, 335 pounds. He also comes with wheels.

Lining up against an array of centers and guards during one-on-one drills at the Senior Bowl on Wednesday, Raji exploded off the ball and was rarely blocked. That rare combination of power and speed is why he is the 14th-best prospect, highest among defensive tackles, for April's draft, according to Scouts Inc.

Not bad for a guy who missed the 2007 season for academic reasons but returned last season to record 37 tackles, seven sacks, 13 tackles for loss and four pass breakups.

If you watched the Bucs' collapse in December, it's obvious fixing the interior defensive line is a priority. Starting undertackle Jovan Haye was hurt all season. Chris Hovan is 30 and wore down as the season wore on.

Many believe undertackle — or three technique, in which the lineman rushes the quarterback via the gap between a guard and tackle — is the engine of the Tampa 2 defense.

But the Bucs haven't used a first-round pick on a defensive tackle since Anthony McFarland at No. 15 overall in 1999.

"You just look at the teams that have been successful in the past — the Bucs with Warren Sapp … — I think you see how important that position is," said Gus Bradley, the former Bucs linebackers coach and new Seahawks defensive coordinator.

"You need a combination of strength and speed because you got to have enough bulk to be able to anchor in there with double teams. But you need a guy that can pass rush in a third-down situation. So it's kind of a hybrid situation."

Fortunately for the Bucs, there are a few interior defensive linemen who could be around when they select 19th, including Raji and Ole Miss' Peria Jerry.

"I think I can play the three technique. I played a lot in college," Raji said. "We set our fronts to the strength of the tight end, and a lot of times that's the three technique. I played some five technique (rushing the quarterback via the gap between a tackle and tight end) in passing situations. So I kind of feel that it prepared me well for this game.

"These guys are seasoned vets at our level. And you can't get away with things here that you did at school. That's something you have to learn from Day 1, and I felt I've worked on a lot of my techniques, and I've gotten better each day. (Wednesday) was my best day."

The Bucs still must hire a defensive coordinator. They have interviewed former Saints defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs — possibly about the defensive backs position — and could talk to Ron Meeks, who resigned Tuesday as Colts defensive coordinator. Both coached 4-3 defenses.

Coach Raheem Morris isn't prepared to list the Bucs' biggest needs. He doesn't have to. The four losses to end the season speak to his team's need to build depth on defense. And it would not hurt to be a little bigger inside, like Raji.

"The three technique is a guy who can cause so much disruption, so many problems for you," Morris said. "He just can take over a game. They're hard to find."

But watching Raji and others like him in Mobile is a good place to start.

Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud @sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers look at drafting defensive tackles 01/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 7:53am]

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