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Unknown linemen help Tampa's defense

SAN DIEGO -- For the first four seasons of his NFL career, defensive end Greg Spires was the square peg in the round hole, a guy who never quite fit in during his stints with the New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns.

But now here is Spires, who started just seven games in four previous NFL campaigns, just days away from fulfilling a dream. In his first season with the Tampa Bay Bucs, he was the full-time starter on the left side, a very solid bookend to sackmaster Simeon Rice and a player who exemplifies the league's No. 1-rated unit.

"I know it sounds corny, but sometimes you really do need to be in the right place, and at the right time," said Spires, who began his professional career as a third-round choice of the Patriots in the 1998 draft. "Things just have to click sometimes, that's all, and for me they finally have."

Spires, 28, is hardly the only Tampa Bay defensive lineman for whom that is the case.

A year ago Tampa Bay started a quartet of former first-round choices -- Rice as the left end, left tackle Warren Sapp, Anthony McFarland at right tackle and right end Marcus Jones -- across the defensive front and still didn't go to the Super Bowl. It's ironic now that, with defensive linemen of a far lesser pedigree, the Bucs have finally advanced to a title game appearance that had previously eluded them.

Jones was placed on injured reserve in preseason with a knee injury, then was released on Oct. 8, having played not a single down. McFarland, who was on his way to a Pro Bowl season and certainly outplaying Sapp, first suffered a broken arm and then a knee injury. He finished the year on the injured reserve list, having started just 10 games.

The result: Spires started all 16 contests at left end, second-year veteran Chartric Darby got six starts at tackle, and another second-year pro, Ellis Wyms logged significant playing time at both end and tackle.

"Every one of those guys has played well," said defensive line assistant Rod Marinelli. "Then again, we expected them to step up big for us, or else we wouldn't have had them around."

The Raiders have also gotten tremendous production from lesser-known linemen -- particularly DeLawrence Grant, Rod Coleman and Chris Cooper -- but all of them were expected to contribute in 2002. Coleman is arguably the best unknown front four player in the league, and he quietly posted 11 sacks this season, the most among NFL defensive tackles.

While some Raiders players like Coleman are bargains, it is hard to beat the production the Bucs got for the price they paid.

For a modest investment of just $1.428 million in 2002 for the three players (salary cap total: $1.256 million), the Bucs got an excellent return. Sapp and Rice earned $12.35 million between them in '02, but the lesser-known guys certainly provided more bang for the buck.

Spires, signed last March as a free agent, finished with 47 tackles and 3½ sacks. An undrafted college free agent in 2000, Darby had 40 tackles and also posted 3 ½ sacks. Playing primarily on passing downs, Wyms, who was taken in the sixth round in the 2001 draft, chipped in 5 ½ sacks.

All three players are undersized, probably could not play in some defensive schemes, but are a snug fit in the Tampa Bay defense.

It isn't as if the three are misfits, just ill-fit for some fronts, but are superb in the "over" looks Marinelli typically employs.

"I'm the first guy to admit I couldn't play in a lot of other defenses," said Darby earlier this week. "And I wouldn't want to try. This is the place I fit the best, where I play the best, where it all comes together. The older guys are great to us but, you know, you don't want to be the weak link. I think us three younger guys have pretty much held up our end."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.