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As Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik embarked on one of the more important three-day stretches of his career 11 days ago, he wasn't looking for the "cornerstones" that draftniks obsess over this time of year. He was thinking much bigger.
"We're looking for mountains," an exhausted but giddy Dominik told PFW after the completion of the draft April 24.
After a 3-13 finish in his first year on the job, and plenty of speculation about whether he and head coach Raheem Morris would be welcomed back by an ownership that is under pressure to deliver a better product in 2010, Dominik landed the defensive gem he had coveted with the third overall pick in DT Gerald McCoy, who joins last year's first-rounder, QB Josh Freeman, as the faces of the rebuilding franchise.
"The 6-5 quarterback and the 6-4 defensive tackle are the mountains of Tampa," Dominik said. "It was an easy first choice. We were so excited about Gerald.
"I talked to our scouts after the selection (of McCoy) and I said, 'Guys, I think we're just going to sit here and watch the draft unfold. The draft for us starts tomorrow.'
"The draft started Friday for the Bucs."
It's quite possible that Tampa Bay would have selected McCoy even if it had held the first overall pick. He has been deemed the perfect fit for the three-technique in the Tampa-2 defense, and comparisons to former Buccaneer Warren Sapp, who made seven Pro Bowls as the three-technique in Tampa, have already begun.
"Gerald's such a great kid," Dominik said. "He has that Reggie White type of personality, or really that John Lynch type of personality. You think, 'Gosh, the guy is so nice. How can he be physical or tough on the football field?'
"We went to his private workout, and it was like he honed in and became a different kid. You have to fall in love with that. That was really good to see just how he took to the workout and turned the switch. His face even changed."
McCoy will not, however, have the talented supporting cast that Sapp did during his prime. The Bucs are still in rebuilding mode and are slowly accumulating pieces that they hope will spark a resurgence. Re-establishing the Bucs as a defensive-minded team is a task that drives Dominik. While many expected the team to use its first second-round pick on a receiver to help Freeman, Dominik doubled-down at defensive tackle instead, selecting DT Brian Price before taking WR Arrelious Benn later in the round.
"(Josh Freeman is) a great kid, but anytime he walks in my office, I'm like, 'What do you want? What are you doing in here? Don't you know we play defense in Tampa?' " Dominik said. "... I'm a fundamentalist defensively, and so is Coach Morris, clearly. Whenever (I see Freeman), I say, 'Hey, we're a defensive town. You know that. Get out of here.' That is who Tampa is. That's what we wanted to be today."
And that's what they want to be for many years. Dominik and Morris felt like the defense began moving in the right direction when Morris took over defensive coordinator duties in late November. Their optimism was buoyed when the Bucs won two of their final three games last season and held their opponents to 14.7 points per game during the stretch.
McCoy and Price, who have a chance to start side-by-side from Day One, are expected to strengthen the middle of the defense, which was a major weakness last season when the Bucs ranked last in the league vs. the run, and jolt the pass rush as well.
It's a risky strategy for Dominik, who didn't spend big money on free agents, to rely on the development of Freeman, McCoy, Price and several other young players to deliver the results necessary to allow him and Morris to continue in their jobs beyond 2010. But he thinks this path is the right one.
"On Thursday night, I maybe slept four hours with the anxiety effect," Dominik said. "(Friday night) I slept maybe five, if that. Your heart in your chest just bumps and races, but you love it. (The draft's) a great thing.
"You get a chance to really affect your team, and I think we did. I really believe that."
For the most authoritative NFL draft news and free-agency analysis, visit ProFootballWeekly.com.