TAMPA — Two years ago, there wasn't enough smokescreen puffing from One Buc Place before the NFL draft to hide the team's fixation with quarterback Josh Freeman.
Coach Raheem Morris had spent a year as the defensive coordinator at Kansas State in 2006 when Freeman was a 19-year-old freshman. In fact, general manager Mark Dominik was so nervous about all the speculation that he traded up three spots to make sure the Bucs got their man.
Last year, Tampa Bay's selection of Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy with the third overall pick also raised no eyebrows.
Which player will be in the Bucs' crosshairs when they make the 20th overall pick tonight? Conventional wisdom (and most mock drafts) suggests it will be a pass-rushing defensive end, or perhaps an outside linebacker.
But the Bucs have to take a more open-minded approach to the draft this year.
"When we had pick No. 20 (in 2009), the whole town wanted a defensive player, and we took Josh Freeman," Morris said. "It was an unpopular choice and now people get it. It's hard to question what our guys have done the last couple of years in the draft. … You follow your board. We have a belief in each other to get a successful player that can help you."
Tampa Bay was tied for 30th in the league in sacks with 26 last season. The last Buc to reach double digits in sacks was Simeon Rice with 14 in 2005.
After doubling down in last year's draft at defensive tackle with McCoy and second-round pick Brian Price, the Bucs are in a prime position to have a sack master fall to them. Defensive ends such as Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, California's Cameron Jordan and Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers all are expected to go somewhere between the 12-20 range.
Bowers, who had 16 sacks last season, is a top-five talent whose stock appears to have fallen because of a torn meniscus in his knee. Dominik has said the injury did not force Bowers off their draft board, but the question is whether the knee injury would make him a one-contract player.
"Our mentality is to draft a two-contract player, a guy you're going to want to do an extension with," Dominik said. "That's certainly been our philosophy here."
If the elite defensive ends are gone when the Bucs pick, the team says it will consider a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end such as UCLA's Akeem Ayers, one of 30 players to visit the franchise in Tampa.
The arrest of cornerback Aqib Talib on charges of assault with a deadly weapon in Texas could also have an effect on the Bucs. Talib, who was suspended one game last season, is expected to be released by the team when transactions are permitted again.
Colorado defensive back Jimmy Smith could be available with the No. 20 pick, but his history of off-field problems may take him out of play for the Bucs.
"I stole it from the Jets, but I just don't think you can ever have enough cornerbacks," Dominik said.
According to Dominik, the Bucs also can't invest enough in protecting Freeman. The draft is deep at offensive tackle, and there is speculation Pittsburgh might want to trade up with Tampa Bay to select Florida guard/center Mike Pouncey, whose twin brother, Maurkice, is the Steelers' center.
With no free agency before the draft to fill holes, Dominik says the Bucs can take the best player regardless of position.
"For me, it makes it a little bit easier," Dominik said.
It's hard to argue with the Bucs' success in the draft since Dominik and Morris took over two years ago. Certainly, they're happy to be picking near the bottom, a result of greater success on the field.
According to information on file with the NFL Players Association, the Bucs have spent nearly $104 million in guarantees on eight first-round draft picks since 2001. None of them have been voted to a Pro Bowl, though guard Davin Joseph went once as an alternate.
"No matter who I take at No. 20, there's going to be hundreds or thousands of people say, 'I didn't like him, I liked the other guy,' " Dominik said. "So that's going to put that much more pressure on a first-round pick."