One of the Bucs' priorities during this week's scouting combine is getting a read on the offensive line talent available in April's draft.
If they're paying attention, they should walk away pleased. Offensive line, and the tackle position in particular, looks like an area of depth.
"The tackle depth is actually pretty good," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "You (would) think you can get a good tackle throughout the first day, maybe early the second day."
That's good news for the Bucs, who could be in the market for tackles with right tackle Kenyatta Walker about to become an unrestricted free agent and left tackle Anthony Davis, a skilled run-blocker, struggling in pass protection.
Among the tackles with first-round potential are Virginia's D'Brickashaw Ferguson - the consensus No. 1 in the group - USC's Winston Justice, Miami's Eric Winston, Cal's Ryan O'Callaghan and Auburn's Ryan McNeill.
With the Bucs picking 23rd overall, Ferguson will be long gone. But any of the others could slide to the lower half of the first round depending on the decisions of the teams picking ahead of Tampa Bay.
The Bucs interviewed left tackle Justice Thursday night, making him one of their 60 allotted interviews of the 300-plus players at the combine. Winston, who said he measured 6-6 and 310 pounds, is being questioned by teams about his torn knee ligament that caused him to miss most of the 2004 season. But he believes he allayed any concerns with his performance in 2005 when he started 12 games and was named second team AP All-America.
McNeill is an intriguing prospect who measured 6-7 and 336 pounds during his physical, and the prospect of landing in Tampa Bay is fine by him. One of his close friends is running back Cadillac Williams, a former teammate at Auburn. McNeill, who believes he can play left or right tackle, said he has not been beaten for a sack since his freshman season when he was "thrown in the fire as a young pup" at guard.
He joked that maybe Williams should urge the front office to bring McNeill to Tampa as payback for all McNeill's blocking efforts for him.
"He needs to be doing that or put some money in my pocket," McNeill said. "He ain't sent me nothing!"
With two months until the draft, it's hard to predict much, but having depth at tackle bodes well for teams in need.
"It's one of your impact positions, (especially) that left tackle spot," Cleveland GM Phil Savage said. "In our eyes it's almost a skill position."
WHO'S NO. 1?: Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, whose team picks first overall, indicated they are not close to determining who they will select.
Despite walking away impressed after a meeting with USC's Reggie Bush on Thursday, Kubiak isn't ready to make a decision.
"We have a lot of work to do before that decision is made," he said. "There's a ton of work that goes into that process. We have to evaluate these young men and make the best decision for our football team. Along the way, we have to keep our options open as an organization. We'll continue to do that until draft day and do what's best for our team."
Though the Texans have quarterback David Carr in the fold, Kubiak won't rule out the possibility of drafting a quarterback, such as USC's Matt Leinart.
"I think anything could happen," Kubiak said.
Both Bush and Leinart will skip this weekend's workouts, waiting until USC's pro day in April to be evaluated.
SABAN WANTS SILENCE: Dolphins coach Nick Saban expressed displeasure that the news of running back Ricky Williams' alleged positive drug test became public. All information regarding the league's substance-abuse program, save for suspensions, is supposed to remain confidential.
The release of the news has effectively handcuffed the Dolphins' ability deal Williams.
"I think the unfortunate thing is that we all have a professional responsibility as members of the NFL to live by the confidentiality rules we have to protect the players," Saban said. "I will be proactive (in) making any changes that are protective of the players so this doesn't happen again in the future."
- STEPHEN F. HOLDER
Times staff writer