NFL draft preview: Defensive backs

South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore is one of five SEC players in the top 10 DBs (not even including ex-Gator Janoris Jenkins).
South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore is one of five SEC players in the top 10 DBs (not even including ex-Gator Janoris Jenkins).
Published Apr. 25, 2012

The situation

There has been continued transition in the Tampa Bay secondary lately, and more changes are likely.

For now, the Bucs have a need at cornerback and safety. The cornerback position was beefed up with Lions free agent Eric Wright, top. He'll either start at right cornerback or compete there with Ronde Barber, middle, who is probably in his final season.

Further complicating matters is the status of Aqib Talib, bottom. He faces a trial during the summer for a felony charge in Texas that could result in prison time and an NFL suspension. Even if Talib walks and is not disciplined by the league, he's in the final year of his rookie contract and it's practically inconceivable that the Bucs would re-sign him.

Cornerback depth is a concern, too. When the Bucs last season went to nickel and dime packages with three or four cornerbacks, quarterbacks successfully picked on backups E.J. Biggers or Myron Lewis. The slow growth of Lewis, in particular, has been an issue. He was a third-round choice in 2010.

The release of Tanard Jackson leaves an already-thin safety corps even thinner. Cody Grimm is the only returning safety with extensive experience, and he has finished the past two seasons on injured reserve. Larry Asante and Ahmad Black are considered key reserves, though neither has much experience.

What they're looking for

In coach Greg Schiano's style of defense, cornerbacks, in particular, need to play aggressively. They will be asked to challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage, and to be physical tacklers against the run.

The safeties are probably going to need to be willing to play near the line of scrimmage and punish receivers who catch the ball in the open field.

Fitting the bill

LSU's Morris Claiborne is the preeminent cornerback in the draft, and he would fit into any Bucs scheme. Beyond him, South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore is a nice-sized, physical cornerback who would fit Schiano's style. Gilmore, a likely middle-first-round pick, would be an option for the Bucs if they trade down.

To address safety, the Bucs could have their eye on LSU's Brandon Taylor. He could be drafted in the second round, but if he slips to the third, the Bucs have a high enough pick to grab him. Taylor's strength is playing in the box in run support. He is a violent hitter coached in college by current Bucs secondary coach Ron Cooper.

The top 10

1. Morris Claiborne, CB, 5-11, 188, LSUThe class of this group of defensive backs, Claiborne has elite coverage skills. He's the most likely pick for the Bucs at No. 5.
2. Stephon Gilmore, CB, 6-0, 190, South CarolinaHis size is a great attribute, and he has demonstrated he can use it effectively. His ability to be physical with receivers at the line will serve him well.
3. Mark Barron, S, 6-1, 213, AlabamaThe top safety in this class, Barron will be a first-round pick who is immediately ready to play. Has good speed and coverage ability.
4. Harrison Smith, S, 6-2, 213, Notre Dame A four-year starter at a major program. Considered extremely athletic and unafraid to make contact, which he does with force.
5. Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, 6-1, 186, Alabama An elite athlete with atypical length for his position. A three-year starter who should contribute right away.
6. Janoris Jenkins, CB, 5-10, 193, North AlabamaHas elite coverage skills proven in the SEC, while at Florida. His character concerns are proving a major factor in his fall.
7. Alfonzo Dennard, CB, 5-10, 204, NebraskaUses smarts and good technique to win battles with receivers. Is a very tested prospect who will be able to play at least in nickel situations as a rookie.
8. Brandon Taylor, S, 5-11, 209, LSUPlayed in one of the nation's top secondaries for the Tigers. Will be tested in coverage as a pro, but his ability against the run is proven.
9. Jayron Hosley, CB, 5-10, 178, Virginia Tech Could be a good fit for a team heavy on zone coverages. Is a bit undersized, but plays with aggressiveness and finds the ball.
10. George Iloka, S, 6-4, 225, Boise StateHis truly elite size gives him opportunities on the ball. Has shown good hands, which makes him appealing to the pros.

Best guess

The Bucs have to come away from this draft feeling like they've addressed the secondary in a substantial way. Claiborne is the likely Bucs top pick, and keep an eye out for a safety from the second to fourth round.

Stephen F. Holder, Times staff writer

8 p.m. Thursday, ESPN, NFL Network. Bucs pick: No. 5 overall7 p.m. Friday, ESPN, NFL Network Bucs: Round 2, 4/36th overall; Round 3, 5/68Noon Saturday, ESPN, NFL Network Bucs: Round 5, 5/140; Round 6, 4/174; Round 7, 5/212