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Pick Three

Posted Feb 24, 2010

Barring a trade, the Buccaneers will exercise the third overall pick in the NFL draft for the first time in franchise history...Since Tampa Bay entered the league in 1976, the #3 pick has produced a long string of stars, but also some notable busts

QB Akili Smith (left) and RB Barry Sanders occupy opposite ends of the spectrum on the list of #3 overall picks, while Simeon Rice really emerged as a star in the group after arriving in Tampa

During recent offseasons, Buccaneers.com has repeated a standard pre-draft exercise that looked at the history of picks made in a certain slot in the first or second round. That is, if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were scheduled to pick 20th overall that year, we would scour the #20 picks of the previous two decades to determine what results that slot had returned.

It wasn't necessarily predictive of what the Bucs would do, but wherever that pick was - 20th, 36th or even 64th overall - it was at least a chance to repeat a common lesson. That is, successes big and small and busts minor and major can occur at any spot in the draft.

But our exercise has never before taken us to the rarified air of the third overall pick, the avenue to the big leagues for such all-time NFL figures as Bobby Layne, Y.A. Tittle, Merlin Olsen, Dick Butkus, Anthony Munoz, Barry Sanders and Cortez Kennedy. Wouldn't the busts mostly be banished that high in the proceedings, where scouting departments almost universally agree on the top talents available?

Well, of course not.

Even the first overall pick is far from immune to bustitis - ahem, Tim Couch, Ki-Jana Carter, Aundray Bruce - so the third spot is no guarantee. That said, there have been 34 picks made with the third overall spot since the Buccaneers joined the league in 1976, and the good has definitely outweighed the bad, as you'll see below.

The Bucs themselves have not contributed to either side of the ledger, never picking in the three-spot exactly. Tampa Bay has made eight previous selections in the top five, ranging from the high of Lee Roy Selmon (1st in 1976) to the low of Keith McCants (4th in 1990). Coincidentally, three of those 34 players picked at number three since 1976 have eventually become Buccaneers (Jack Thompson, Alonzo Highsmith and Simeon Rice) and two others signed with Tampa Bay at some point but never played for the team (Anthony Munoz and Akili Smith).

When we broke down the history of the 36th overall pick a month before the 2005 draft - that's where the Bucs eventually took LB Barrett Ruud in 2005 - we ended up titling it "The Nitschke Pick." Some very strong players had entered the league at that spot, including Chad Johnson, Lawyer Milloy, Tiki Barber, Kevin Mawae, Jumbo Elliott, Earnest Gray and Jimmy Smith, but if that spot is going to be "belong" to anyone, it has to be Nitschke, taken 36th overall in 1958.

Obviously, the third overall pick is likely to produce more all-timers, and indeed it is much more difficult to select one name from the crowd. Well, with enormous apologies to such Hall of Famers as Merlin Olsen, Anthony Munoz, Y.A. Tittle, Doak Walker, Bobby Layne and Barry Sanders, we're going to go with The Butkus pick. Chicago drafted Illinois linebacker Dick Butkus third overall in 1965 and reaped the benefits for the next decade.

So, how has The Butkus Pick panned out since the Bucs entered the league. Here are the 34 picks, with some selected notes:

Draft

Player

Team

Notes

2009

DE Tyson Jackson

Chiefs

Started all year but no sacks

2008

QB Matt Ryan

Falcons

Stands out among top 10 in 2008, instant starter

2007

T Joe Thomas

Browns

Huge hit - Pro Bowl every year so far

2006

QB Vince Young

Titans/Oilers

Ready to overcome early bust label?

2005

WR Braylon Edwards

Browns

1 Pro Bowl in CLE, but traded

2004

WR Larry Fitzgerald

Cardinals

One of NFL's best receivers

2003

WR Andre Johnson

Texans

One of NFL's best receivers

2002

QB Joey Harrington

Lions

Never made it as a starter

2001

DT Gerard Warren

Browns

Mild bust, three teams, 30 sacks in 9 seasons

2000

T Chris Samuels

Redskins

Franchise left tackle, 6 Pro Bowls

1999

QB Akili Smith

Bengals

One of biggest busts in NFL history

1998

DE Andre Wadsworth

Cardinals

Injuries contributed to big bust - 8 career sacks

1997

CB Shawn Springs

Seahawks

Solid 13-year career, 1 Pro Bowl, 33 INTs

1996

DE Simeon Rice

Cardinals

122 career sacks, 3 Pro Bowls, excelled in Tampa

1995

QB Steve McNair

Titans/Oilers

Franchise quarterback, 3 Pro Bowls, one MVP

1994

QB Heath Shuler

Redskins

Never made it as a starter

1993

RB Garrison Hearst

Cardinals

Struggled in Phoenix but eventually broke out in SF

1992

DT Sean Gilbert

Rams

Traded twice for total of 3 1st-round picks

1991

CB Bruce Pickens

Falcons

Workout stud, terrible player, 9 career starts and 2 picks

1990

DT Cortez Kennedy

Seahawks

8 Pro Bowls, NFL Def. Player of Year, Hall of Fame candidate

1989

RB Barry Sanders

Lions

All-time great, one pick after bust T.Mandarich

1988

S Bennie Blades

Lions

Solid 10-year career

1987

RB Alonzo Highsmith

Titans/Oilers

Bust, never more than 531 yards in a season

1986

QB Jim Everett

Oilers

Traded to Rams, long-time starter

1985

DE Ray Childress

Oilers

Pro Bowls at DE, DT, 76.5 sacks, great vs. run

1984

LB Carl Banks

Giants

On 1980s All-Decade Team, 39.5 career sacks

1983

RB Curt Warner

Seahawks

3 Pro Bowls, nearly 7,000 rushing yards

1982

LB Chip Banks

Browns

4 Pro Bowls, 5 All-Pros, 46 sacks and 9 interceptions

1981

RB Freeman McNeil

Jets

3 Pro Bowls, 8,000 yards, 4.5 yards per carry

1980

T Anthony Munoz

Bengals

Hall of Famer, one of best tackles ever

1979

QB Jack Thompson

Bengals

Bust in Cincy, traded to Bucs, couldn't hold job

1978

WR Wes Chandler

Saints

Starred in both NO and SD, 129 yards per game in 1982

1977

DE Eddie Edwards

Bengals

Nice 12-year career with Bengals, 83.5 sacks, one All-Pro

1976

RB Chuck Muncie

Saints

3 Pro Bowls, three All-Pros, career hurt by drug issues

As usual, we can essentially dismiss last year's pick, as one season isn't enough time for Tyson Jackson to prove himself in Kansas City. In some sense, we can do the same with Matt Ryan, who had a stellar rookie season in Atlanta but a somewhat less satisfying (though still impressive) sophomore follow-up. Even two years as a starter is not sufficient proof that Ryan will be a long-term standout in the NFL, but there's no way the Falcons would give that pick back.

Is three years enough time for a player to have proved himself one way or the other? In Joe Thomas' case, it appears so. Thomas has made the Pro Bowl in each of his three NFL seasons and is easily the best first-round pick Cleveland has made in the last five years. Any team picking a tackle with the third overall pick is clearly trying to find a franchise player on the left side of the line, and Thomas appears to be just that. That's not necessarily easy to find, even at the third spot. Recent top-five picks Robert Gallery and Mike Williams failed to pan out and Leonard Davis had to switch teams and positions to find his niche.

Going back a bit further, however, we can safely identify the players who busted in the three-spot since 1976. Not surprisingly, four of them are quarterbacks: Thompson (1979), Heath Shuler (1994), Akili Smith (1999) and Joey Harrington (2002). We can also safely include DE Andre Wadsworth (1998), CB Bruce Pickens (1991) and Highsmith (1987).

Harrington got four solid years to try to make it as the starter in Detroit but never had a passer rating better than 77.5 or a season touchdown total higher than 20. He has bounced around since, even getting two more chances to start in Miami and Atlanta, but hasn't stuck. The Bengals drafted Smith after just one good season at Oregon (in the process, turning down the huge trade offer from the Ricky Williams-obsessed Saints that eventually went to Washington) and got a player who would make only 17 starts in four seasons. Smith wowed scouts with his athleticism but was an absolute bust in the NFL, one of the worst in draft history. Shuler famously lost a battle for the starting job in Washington with Gus Frerotte, who was drafted in the seventh round in the same year. Thompson struggled in two seasons with Cincinnati before going to the Buccaneers in an ill-conceived 1983 trade for a first-round pick. One campaign with Thompson at the helm was enough for the Bucs, who brought in Steve DeBerg in 1984 and made the switch to DeBerg after just three games that season.

Wadsworth had injury issues and a holdout that didn't help, but eight sacks in three years was not what the Cardinals had envisioned when they made him the third pick in the draft, following Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf and one pick before Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson. Pickens is another player commonly seen on all-time draft bust lists; he was a workout warrior whose rising stock masked a player not able to star in the NFL. He made just nine career starts and finished with all of two interceptions. Highsmith never had a 1,000-yard season and bounced around after a short stay in Houston.

The Butkus Pick has produced some nice runs along the way. From 1980 to 1986, it produced seven straight standout players in T Anthony Munoz, RB Freeman McNeil, LB Chip Banks, RB Curt Warner, LB Carl Banks, DE Ray Childress and QB Jim Everett. All seven became cornerstone players for the teams that drafted them, all seven went to at least one Pro Bowl and the first one of that group, Munoz, is in the Hall of Fame.

It's possible that the 2003-2007 stretch will end up looking pretty good for the #3 pick, too. That group started with the back-to-back receiver picks of Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, both of whom could make an argument as the best wideout in the NFL at this moment. Braylon Edwards made the Pro Bowl in Cleveland, and though his stock dropped along with too many passes that did the same, he was eagerly acquired in a trade by the Jets and could still fashion a very strong career. The same is true for Vince Young, the player Tennessee took in 2006 to succeed Steve McNair (himself a #3 overall in 1995) as the franchise quarterback. That was starting to look like an unrealized dream after struggles on and off the field put him on the bench by his third season, but Young reassumed the Titans' reins last year and looked quite promising again, making his second Pro Bowl. The '03-07 run is capped by the aforementioned Thomas.

If Young does end up fulfilling his promise, it will certainly help the overall standing of the quarterbacks on this list. If one puts each player on the list into the category of Boom, Bust or In-Between, it's the QBs who suffer the most. There are eight quarterbacks on the list, and so far only McNair and Everett could be considered Booms. Young (and, as many expect, Ryan) could swing the balance away from the four obvious busts on the list. The safest position on the list appears to be tackle, where Thomas, Samuels and Munoz have all panned out and none have flamed out (as mentioned, other tackles taken elsewhere in the top five have struggled, though). The two Bankses are the only linebackers on the list, so that position has also panned out well.

Other famous number threes from before the Bucs' entry into the NFL include QB Dan Pastorini (1971), DE Claude Humphrey (1968), QB John Brodie (1957) and RB Alan Ameche (1955). Barring a trade, the Buccaneers have a chance to add to that list this coming April. Will they hit a home run with the likes of Fitzgerald or Sanders, or will they miss in the vein of Smith or Pickens? One thing we know from draft history: Both of those results are very much a possibility, no matter where a team is picking.

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