MOBILE, Ala. — With the NFL draft still more than three months away, projections are about as reliable as those straw polls conducted two years before presidential elections.
But there's no masking the Bucs' need to invigorate their pass rush.
One way to do so is to draft a pass rusher or two come April, maybe one of the prospects working out in Mobile at the Senior Bowl this week.
Coach Raheem Morris, also the team's defensive coordinator, continues to emphasize the principle of drafting the best player with each pick, rather than based on team needs. But Morris does not understate the value of pressuring quarterbacks.
"All the great defenses have great rushers, whether they're outside linebackers or defensive ends," Morris said. "Great defenses have great rushers — period."
Can the Bucs find one? They're certainly trying.
One prospect who has drawn their attention is athletically gifted Miami defensive end Allen Bailey. A Senior Bowl participant projected as a potential first-round choice, Bailey met with four members of the Bucs hierarchy on Monday night, including Morris and general manager Mark Dominik.
On Tuesday, they watched him go against some of the best offensive linemen in the country during practice, trying to establish himself as an edge rusher. He often flip-flopped between end and tackle at Miami, but at 278 pounds, he won't be seen as an NFL defensive tackle.
"I just want to work on my pass rush skills," Bailey said. "I've playing on the D line for three years, but I've been bouncing around a lot. I want to show (teams) my pass rush skills. I tried to keep it to one position (at Miami) but you have to help out where you have to help out.
"I know I have a bull (rush) but I'm trying to add a few other things. I'm switching things up a little bit."
Defensively, the Bucs in 2010 continued the improvement they showed late in 2009. Though they ranked seventh in the NFL in pass defense, much of that was the result of great secondary play. There wasn't nearly enough pressure on quarterbacks. The Bucs' 26 sacks tied with the Jaguars for 30th in the league.
After drafting defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price last season, the Bucs are looking for "that elite ability to rush the passer," Morris said. "That'll help us. That's probably the next step where we need to go (on defense)."
Another player in Mobile who believes he possesses that quality is Purdue All-American Ryan Kerrigan, whose 33.5 career sacks are second in school history.
Kerrigan lacks the freakish qualities of a player like Bailey but is more highly regarded because of his tenacity and strength. And as a team co-captain, he has a quality that the Bucs place a premium on: leadership.
Also in Mobile is Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan, an All-Pac-10 selection who has been opening eyes this week with his speed and power. In addition to his pass-rush ability, Jordan figures to be an asset against the run given his experience as an interior lineman.
What could make Jordan attractive to the Bucs is the flexibility to play different positions on the defensive line. That's something McCoy did this season.
"(Scouts) always ask me what do I think I can play?" Jordan said. "And the (answer) is I've played various positions, so I don't think I just play one position. I think I can play them all. I don't know if that's a little bit selfish or overconfident, but I've done it."
Jordan has just one request.
"If I put my hand on the ground, I'm happy," he said.
Some of the likely first-round defensive ends who aren't at the Senior Bowl include Da'Quan Bowers of Clemson, Robert Quinn of North Carolina and Adrian Clayborn of Iowa. The Bucs, who select 20th in the first round, will probably take an interest in all of them.
The draft is still months away, but the process of improving the Bucs' defense is in full swing.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.