TAMPA — There was a time when a prospect like Dontay Moch wouldn't get the time of day from the Bucs. And not long ago, Akeem Ayers would have no business being on Tampa Bay's draft board.
But when Raheem Morris is calling the defensive plays, there are never any absolutes.
The Bucs coach and defensive coordinator continues to mold his unit, employing unconventional methods and using players in unpredictable fashions. The result is that some of the prospects who once were impulsively dismissed at draft time are now embraced.
Moch, a defensive end at Nevada who projects as a pro linebacker, and Ayers, a pass-rushing linebacker at UCLA, were among the 30 pre-draft visits allotted to the Bucs, and there's reason to believe the team is quite intrigued.
And there are a number of other hybrid pass rusher/linebackers the Bucs have taken a keen interest in, including Georgia's Justin Houston and Central Arkansas' Markell Carter.
It remains to be seen whether the team will draft any of them, but the mere fact they're giving these players long looks speaks to how the Bucs' defensive and draft philosophies have changed. Morris has reiterated during visits that he'll find ways to take advantage of these players' unique talents.
"Raheem's flexibility of what he wants to do has really helped our draft board be more fluid then most clubs, I think," general manager Mark Dominik said recently. "It helps us now really open up the board more, and we love it.
"We've always had a hard time figuring out these 'tweener' guys, and we just take them off our board and don't get them. So it's disappointing. This keeps those guys alive, and I feel like a lot more teams keep going back to the 3-4, which is great because it also opens up some of those (4-3) guys as well."
The way the Bucs see it, there isn't really a downside. In fact, they're emboldened by the fact that the team saw much of its limited pass-rush success in 2010 while using alternate defensive fronts. The Bucs have shown everything from the standard 4-3 with blitzing linebackers (another departure from the past) to 3-4 fronts to 3-3-5 fronts.
The change in philosophy is not a minute too soon, either.
In college, the proliferation of spread offenses has caused defenses to adapt, and that has changed the way pass rushers play. Then, when NFL scouts come along, it makes the projections tougher.
"For the most part, NFL offenses aren't spread-type offenses, but that's our problem to do those types of evaluations," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said at the NFL combine. "The colleges have to do what they feel they have to do for their teams to win."
Because the spread offenses often force defenders to take on atypical roles, Morris and the Bucs get to see those players in roles that might be useful to Tampa Bay. Consider the package of rushes Morris cooked up for rookie linebacker Dekoda Watson last season. Though he played sparingly, Morris knew from watching Watson at Florida State he was skilled at rushing the quarterback.
Another evolution: The move toward more 3-4 defensive fronts in the NFL. As a result, more prospects are casting themselves as 3-4 outside linebackers. The Bucs could no longer ignore a talented subset just because it doesn't fit a particular mold.
"I think you can really see the trend this year," said Mike Lombardi, a former Raiders executive and current NFL Network analyst. "It's completely changed because of that athleticism. There used to be a time when I would scout defensive linemen, I was always thinking, can we convert them to offensive linemen? But now they're so (much) smaller and so linear that they don't even look like they could have been offensive linemen in high school. The college game and pro games have changed."
There are drawbacks. It can be hard to justify early-round picks on players that aren't likely to play every down because of their very specific skill sets. And such players could be liabilities in particular areas. An undersized defensive end, for instance, might struggle to hold up against NFL running games.
But the Bucs hope this is a philosophy that, used judiciously, pays off. If nothing else, it has given them a much bigger pool of players from which to pick.