NFL Nation: Arrelius Benn

Todd McShay has his latest mock draft out and it includes some major changes from what he’s had in the past for the NFC South.

This draft goes seven rounds deep and McShay has help from Steve Meunch and Kevin Weidl. But we’ll just focus on the first round here and that means we’re talking about the Bucs and Panthers, the only two division teams with first-round picks.

It long has been thought that Tampa Bay’s choice at No. 5 would come down to LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and Alabama running back Trent Richardson. But McShay is buying into growing speculation that Minnesota is going to throw off the direction many saw this draft going. McShay now has the Vikings taking Claiborne at No. 3. He follows that up by giving Richardson to Cleveland at No. 4.

Then he goes in a direction that many suddenly seem to be headed. He has Tampa Bay taking Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly at No. 5. I don’t have a big problem with that scenario, assuming new coach Greg Schiano’s defense is ready to put increased emphasis on the middle linebacker position. Back in the Cover 2 days, middle linebacker wasn’t all that important and the Bucs relied on outside linebacker Derrick Brooks to make the big plays.

If the Bucs want a strong presence and are willing to make a significant investment on middle linebacker, then go with Kuechly. He’s viewed as a can’t-miss prospect with no real questions on or off the field. (That in itself would be a departure from the approach Tampa Bay took with some picks in the past.)

But, I also see some other scenarios for the Bucs if Claiborne and Richardson are gone. They probably could trade down a few picks and still get Kuechly and they also would add a pick or two.

Even if the Bucs stay put, I’m not certain Kuechly really is the guy they would take. They at least would have to consider Southern California offensive tackle Matt Kalil or Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon. Neither plays a position where the Bucs have a huge need, but they might be hard to pass up. Kalil is viewed as the kind of guy who can be an elite left tackle for a decade.

The Bucs are pretty well set on the offensive line. The interior is very strong and left tackle Donald Penn is above average. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood is a bit of a question mark. The Bucs could take Kalil and start him off on the right side and eventually have him switch spots with Penn. Or the Bucs could take Kalil and switch Penn, who has a history of getting off to fast starts and then not playing as well down the stretch, to the right side. That could give them one of the league’s best offensive lines and it’s become clear one of Schiano’s priorities is to structure this team to help quarterback Josh Freeman.

Speaking of helping Freeman, Blackmon also could do that. I know the Bucs just signed Vincent Jackson and they have a bunch of young guys with potential. But Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn haven’t really shown they are big-time players. The Bucs already have given Freeman one big playmaker in Jackson. They could give him two if they take Blackmon.

McShay also departs from previous conventional wisdom by selecting South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore for Carolina at No. 9. There are rumblings that Gilmore is a player on the rise. He’s also a local kid. He grew up just over the South Carolina border in what qualifies as a suburb of Charlotte. Cornerback is certainly a need and owner Jerry Richardson likes to bring in players from the Carolinas. I can see this one happening. But there’s another local guy who could be in the mix. That’s North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples. General manager Marty Hurney and coach Ron Rivera drove up to Chapel Hill for a meeting with Coples on Monday and I don’t think they would have made that trip if they weren’t seriously considering him.
One of the bigger stories of Tampa Bay’s training camp so far has been rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster. Now that the preseason is here, the story just keeps getting bigger.

[+] EnlargeMason Foster
AP Photo/Reed HoffmannBucs rookie linebacker Mason Foster recovered a fumble on Friday against Kansas City.
After letting Barrett Ruud leave as a free agent, the Bucs seemed poise to put their defense in the hands of their third-round draft pick. Although Tyrone McKenzie got some first-team work early in camp, Foster has been getting most of the reps lately.

He got the start in Friday night’s preseason opener, a 25-0 victory against Kansas City. Here’s what coach Raheem Morris had to say about Foster after the game.

“We talked about wanting to see him in pads, and he was able to go out there and really put his pads on people,’’ Morris said. “Obviously, I’ve got to go grade the tape to see all the plays and see what he was able to do. But, I did see him recover a fumble, I did see him get a big third-down stop, and those are the things we want to see him do. I was so excited about what he did in that first quarter; in that first half, I took all his nickel reps away. I didn’t even want to play him in the second half. Hopefully, next game we’re going to get him out there in nickel and see some other things out of him. (We) put him on special teams a little bit, let him play a little bit. If he is going to be a two-down backer, he’ll have to give us a little bit on special teams.

One of the other big stories of Tampa Bay’s preseason has been Dezmon Briscoe. The Bucs stashed him on the practice squad for much of last season. But Briscoe’s had a great training camp and, with Arrelious Benn still recovering from a major knee injury, has a chance to start opposite Mike Williams.

Briscoe had four catches for 60 yards against the Chiefs.

“I was fired up about Dez,’’ Morris said. “I remember talking about him a while ago, saying how he might be one of our better receivers. He’s done nothing but show me and prove to us that he can play this game, and we’re fired up to have him. We were fired up when we got him last year at the time we did. And to incorporate him in our offense like he’s been able to do, I think it’s been special for him.”

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