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Tampa Bay Buccaneers warming up to 'tweeners' on defensive line

Sam Acho of Texas, getting a sack and forcing a fumble against Rice, might not have been on the Bucs’ radar in recent years.

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Sam Acho of Texas, getting a sack and forcing a fumble against Rice, might not have been on the Bucs’ radar in recent years.

INDIANAPOLIS — Buffalo Bills defensive end Arthur Moats will always be known as the guy who ended the consecutive-games streak of legendary quarterback Brett Favre at 297.

An unheralded sixth-round pick last year out of James Madison, Moats injured Favre's right throwing shoulder with a crushing hit in a game in December, rendering him inactive the next week against the New York Giants.

But Moats' performance also left a big imprint on the kind of players the Bucs will begin to consider in the NFL draft.

At 6 feet, 252 pounds, Moats was considered too small to be a defensive end in a traditional 4-3 scheme. But he excelled as a 3-4 linebacker who could also rush the passer, finishing with 2½ sacks.

In the past, Bucs scouts were told not to evaluate those kinds of "tweeners."

But with coach Raheem Morris incorporating so many multiple fronts as defensive coordinator, including more 3-4 looks, those hybrid players are in play this year for Tampa Bay in the NFL draft.

"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.

"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."

It's no secret the Bucs' biggest need is for a passer rusher after their 26 sacks last season, tied with Jacksonville for 30th in the 32-team league.

A year ago in the draft, the Bucs loaded up at defensive tackle, using the No. 3 overall choice on Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy and their first of two second-rounders on UCLA's Brian Price.

Fate has smiled on the Bucs again because this year's draft is rich at defensive end with half a dozen or so that could go in the first round.

But after going 10-6, Tampa Bay isn't slotted to make a selection in April's draft until the 20th pick.

The player linked to the Bucs the most in various mock drafts is Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan.

Considering his production and pedigree, Tampa Bay might be lucky if he were still around. Kerrigan played all four years and was incredibly consistent, finishing with 33 sacks, the second-most in school history. What's more, Kerrigan was a team captain, not unlike two other Bucs defensive linemen, Roy Miller from Texas and Southern Cal's Kyle Moore.

"I've been able to put together some solid seasons back to back, and I think my production overall, and I was a captain … will speak volumes for some of the scouts," Kerrigan said Saturday from the NFL scouting combine.

"I've heard all the speculation (with Tampa Bay) and stuff, but that's just speculation until draft day."

Morris doesn't care how the Bucs pressure the quarterback, so long as they do a better job of putting him on the ground.

McCoy demonstrated great versatility as a rookie, playing outside when the Bucs went to a 3-4 alignment. Linebacker Quincy Black, at 240 pounds, was effective as a stand-up pass rusher in those situations.

In the past, the Bucs might not have looked twice at a player like Texas defensive end Sam Acho, who at 6-3, 260 is being considered by teams wanting to convert him to a 3-4 outside linebacker.

"I'm so used to seeing the game as a defensive end, it will be totally different seeing it as a linebacker and probably playing it a little slower with my hand off the ground," Acho said. "I think it'll be a little different, but I think I can make the transition smoothly."

In fact, versatility is in full display among pass rushers projected to go in the first round, whether it's Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers, who could also play linebacker in a 3-4, or Ohio State's Cameron Heyward, who can play defensive end or defensive tackle in a 4-3.

Whether it's in the first round or the seventh, the Bucs will keep an open mind this year when evaluating pass rushers.

"We would never spend the necessary amount of time on (tweeners)," Dominik said. "But now they're all in play again."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers warming up to 'tweeners' on defensive line 02/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 26, 2011 10:21pm]
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