|ROUND 1:||ROUNDS 2-3||ROUNDS 4-7|
|8 p.m. Thursday, ESPN, NFL Network. Bucs pick: No. 5 overall||7 p.m. Friday, ESPN, NFL Network Bucs: Round 2, 4/36th overall; Round 3, 5/68||Noon Saturday, ESPN, NFL Network Bucs: Round 5, 5/140; Round 6, 4/174; Round 7, 5/212|
TAMPA — When forecasting what the Bucs might do with their first pick in the NFL draft, many have debated a possible decision between two players Tampa Bay is known to covet: Alabama running back Trent Richardson and LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne.
Both play positions of need for Tampa Bay.
But something few have considered is the possibility of another elite prospect being among players the Bucs will seriously consider with the No. 5 overall pick: potential franchise left tackle Matt Kalil of USC.
There are strong suggestions in NFL circles suggesting that Kalil is not a lock with the Vikings' No. 3 pick, creating a scenario where he could wind up with the Bucs.
Insiders point to Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon and Claiborne as possibilities for the Vikings, and Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman on Thursday said that duo, along with Kalil, are ranked equally by the team.
It's not a ridiculous notion.
"Minnesota needs a left tackle, but they have a need at wide receiver, they have a big need at corner," ESPN analyst Mel Kiper said. "They have nobody at corner, and they're in a division with (quarterbacks Matt) Stafford, (Jay) Cutler and (Aaron) Rodgers, so you'd better have some corners."
"I would say Morris Claiborne could jump in there."
If the Vikings pass on Kalil, the Browns are likely to pass at No. 4 because they have elite left tackle Joe Thomas, the third overall pick in the 2007 draft.
Which leads to the Bucs at No. 5.
Yes, it's hypothetical. But don't think the Bucs haven't explored the possibility. It's possible they would take Kalil despite offensive line being a strength.
Why would Tampa Bay do this? There are multiple justifications.
For one, the franchise, from ownership on down, has consistently said that helping quarterback Josh Freeman succeed is the highest priority. There are few better ways to do that than to lock up what experts project to be a possible All-Pro left tackle in Kalil.
"Matt Kalil has a chance to be a top 5 tackle when it's all said and done," ESPN analyst Todd McShay said.
But what about the Bucs' current tackles, Donald Penn (left) and Jeremy Trueblood (right)? The team likes both players, but if the Bucs agree Kalil is elite, several factors would motivate them to select him.
Primarily, the issue is upside. Picking Kalil would not necessarily represent an indictment of Penn and Trueblood. It would, instead, be a forward-looking decision. Left tackle is one of the most difficult positions to fill because good ones rarely become available via free agency.
If the Bucs were able to solidify the position for years to come, that would have a positive long-term effect.
Penn, a 2010 Pro Bowl selection who turns 29 this week, has four years and more than $22 million remaining on his contract. But the guarantees in his deal have already been paid, meaning there are few financial consequences for his release. And Penn wasn't at his best in 2011, when he failed to keep his weight in check.
It's less likely Kalil would play right tackle because of his demonstrated ability at the more valuable left tackle position. But if the Bucs are open to that, Trueblood is in the final year of a two-year contract and the future of the position is uncertain.
There are positions of greater need for a team that finished 4-12 in 2011? But there might not be a pick of greater value than Kalil, depending on where the team has him ranked.
General manager Mark Dominik is keeping an open mind about all his picks.
"I don't want to pigeon-hole us," he said, "because that's not the way we're looking at our draft right now."