Statistics suggest it, NFL draft analysts believe it, and even Bucs general manager Mark Dominik concedes it. Yes, a defensive end with the ability to put heat on quarterbacks is the most pressing need for a team that won 10 games and narrowly missed making the playoffs last season.
"I would say I don't disagree with that, but again, it doesn't mean that's what our first pick is going to be," Dominik said, careful to not provide the slightest hint of what the Bucs believe they could -- or should -- do with the 20th selection of the first round. "If our first pick isn't defensive end, it doesn't mean that we can't get to the quarterback ever again."
But playing in the NFC South, where the New Orleans Saints have Drew Brees, the Atlanta Falcons feature Matt Ryan and the Carolina Panthers might draft Auburn quarterback Cam Newton first overall, it seems imperative that Dominik and Bucs coach Raheem Morris address the weakness sooner rather than later.
Tampa Bay ranked 30th among 32 teams in sacks last season with 26, despite using their first two picks in the 2010 draft on two defensive tackles who arrived with strong pass-rushing resumes from college.
Gerald McCoy, the third overall pick behind Sam Bradford and Ndamukong Suh, got off to a slow start during an injury-shortened rookie season and finished with three sacks in 13 games. Second-round selection Brian Price played sparingly in five games before spending the second half of the season on injured reserve.
The Bucs haven't drafted a defensive end that has developed into a dominant player since taking Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon with the franchise's first-ever pick in 1976.
Tampa Bay's pass rush has been in decline since free-agent acquisition Simeon Rice had 14 sacks in 2005, ending a stretch of five consecutive seasons in which he had at least 11.
Morris serves as his own defensive coordinator, but he already has shown he understands the team has multiple needs on draft day.
"When we had pick No. 20 before, the whole town wanted a defensive player and we took Josh Freeman," Morris said, referring to Tampa Bay moving up to select the Kansas State quarterback 17th two years ago.
"It was an unpopular choice, and now people get it," Morris added. "It's hard to question what our guys have done the last couple of years in the draft, plus bringing in guys from practice squads off other teams. You follow your board. We have a belief in each other to get a successful player that can help you."
With the team's best defensive player, Aqib Talib, facing legal problems and a potential league suspension stemming from a shooting incident in Texas this offseason, cornerback could be a priority, too.
"I don't think you can ever have enough cornerbacks. ... That's a position I'm always going to put high on my priority list," Dominik said, adding that his stance hasn't been influenced by uncertainty surrounding Talib's situation.
"It doesn't really affect me other than it just reinforces my opinion that you can never have enough cornerbacks in the National Football League," Dominik said. "We have, right now, eight selections, and who knows where we're going to use them and at what positions."
Talib led the Bucs with six interceptions in 2010, despite missing one game while serving a suspension for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy and four others after suffering a season-ending hip injury. He was tied for second in the league in interceptions when he was injured and has 15 since joining as a first-round draft pick in 2008.
Although Dominik didn't specifically say the Bucs might consider selecting a cornerback early, he also didn't rule out that prospect.
"You have to take the draft as it comes to you, and take advantage of the player that you think can best help your football team short term and long term," the general manager said.
The Bucs went from winning three games in 2009 -- their first season under Morris -- to 10 wins last season, thanks in part to having solid drafts the past two springs.
Dominik, promoted to GM at the same time Morris replaced Jon Gruden as coach, said another productive class will be essential to continued growth.
"We're at the beginning of this process with this football team," Dominik said. "I like the success we had last year. But we didn't make the playoff, we didn't win a playoff game. We really haven't accomplished much. We're just getting out of the starting gates.
"Certainly you're not going to hit on every player ... but over the last couple of years, I think we're really hitting our stride. But we're continuing to push our scouting department and make them think in different ways to continue to keep them fresh and make sure we don't get complacent."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press